on Toni Morrison's Paradise




This side of `Paradise': Toni Morrison defends herself from criticism of her new novel Paradise


Even after the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and the news that Oprah Winfrey was starring in
this fall's film version of her book Beloved, Toni Morrison didn't simply kick back to
collect prizes and royalties and read her favorite P. D. James mysteries. First, she faced
the big crises: Shortly after she deposited her $818,000 Nobel check in a rather
inaccessible retirement account, her house in Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y., burned
down. Then there were the petty annoyances, like students in her Princeton
University seminar grousing about having to rewrite their stories. To top it off, her
publisher wouldn't even let her name her new novel.

Paradise (Knopf, $25) just hit bookstores, but Morrison wanted to call it War. It begins
with a six-shot staccato sentence: "They kill the white girl first." Explains Morrison, "I
wanted to open with somebody's finger on the trigger, to close when it was pulled, and
to have the whole novel exist in that moment of the decision to kill or not." Knopf
feared the title War might turn off Morrison fans. "I'm still not convinced they were
right," she says.

Seeking Eden. The new book finishes a trilogy begun with her 1987 masterpiece,
Beloved, the tale of a runaway slave who would rather kill her children than see
them captured. It was followed by 1992's Jazz, which imitates the musical form's lean
dissonance. Paradise completes the trilogy's arc of inquiry into the dangers of
excessive love--for children, mates, or God. It also addresses a question that has always
intrigued Morrison: "Why paradise necessitates exclusion."

The book is set in all-black Ruby, Okla., founded by settlers who had been turned away
by a town of lighter-skinned blacks. It is a community, they hope, insulated from "Out
There where every cluster of whitemen looked like a posse."

But by 1968, the outside is seeping in, with graffiti of black-power fists and
murmurings of illicit abortions. Soon, town residents pinpoint scapegoats for all their
ills: five magic-practicing women living in a former convent. These women are not
"color coded," as Morrison puts it, and the reader has no way of knowing their race. It
is a bold literary device: In struggling to figure out which of the women is white, the
reader is forced to ask why that detail even matters.

Initial reviews for Paradise have been less than stellar. While praising the book's lush
lyricism, critics have noted heavy-handed foreshadowing and contrived plot devices.
In retrospect, Morrison wishes she had had more time to "take a step back" between
the time she finished the manuscript and the publication date, which was moved up
from the spring to cash in on the heavy post-holiday bookstore traffic.

But casual readers may struggle with Morrison's writing, which often combines the
magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez with the convoluted plotting of William
Faulkner. Even Song of Solomon, arguably her most straightforward novel, was
deemed too hard by many when Oprah Winfrey tapped it for her book club. Morrison
is sympathetic, to a point. "People's anticipation now more than ever for linear,
chronological stories is intense because that's the way narrative is revealed in TV and
movies," she says. "But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of
the future, and a lot of slices of the past."

Though Morrison worries about the accessibility of her prose, she has been pleasantly
surprised while scanning Internet chat rooms devoted to her work. "The sort of lively,
intelligent conversations going on there are something," she says. "They are articulate
about what they loathe."

But in her 66 years, the sharecropper's granddaughter from Lorain, Ohio, has acquired
the stature to absorb most criticism. "I've stopped dreaming about kneecapping," she
jokes. In fact, she would rather have people grapple with her work than merely revere
it. "I have people tell me, `Your novel is on my bed stand.' I don't want books to be
what people dip into before they go to sleep."

Morrison's reading list: favorite works by unsung writers

Bloodshed and Three Novellas. By Cynthia Ozick (Syracuse University Press, $15).
Provocative parables of the Jewish faith.

The Good Negress. By A. J. Verdelle (HarperCollins, $12). A 12-year-old girl goes to
Detroit to care for her pregnant mother.

Modern Baptists. By James Wilcox (Buccaneer Books, $22). Hilarious tale of a salesman
who takes in his paroled brother.