Admittedly, the contemporary still scares her, Morrison told me, with a slight shudder. It is a pace that she doesn’t quite understand. That said, the criticism that she only writes about the distant past no longer flies. “Love” and “God Help the Child” are each set in the 20th century. The new book is a fable-like novel about a well-to-do beauty executive, Bride, who lives in a modern-day California. In it, Morrison asks the reader to consider what happens to children who can’t forget the torment of an excruciatingly painful childhood. Bride has to connect to others and see past the ways she has busied herself pointlessly with other people’s baggage in lieu of becoming something of her own making. Even though Bride has capitalized off her blackness and her beauty, to become complete, she has to go much deeper and lose all of the symbols and the trappings.
The novel is an expression of all the ways that Morrison remains skeptical of quick fixes and easy answers. “Having been eliminated from the lists of urgent national priorities, from TV documentaries and the platitudes of editorials, black people have chosen, or been forced to seek, safety from the white man’s promise,” she wrote in the 1976 Times essay. “In the shambles of closing admissions, falling quotas, widening salary gaps and merging black-studies departments, builders and healers are quietly working among us.” That piece was written long ago, but Morrison still seems to be fighting for higher stakes, whether she admits it or not. She sees that my generation is ready to push back again, but she knows well that slogans don’t create change; she has written often about the emptiness of superficial reform and has said that “the killing of young black men has never changed all that much, with or without hoodies.”
In 1993, when Morrison received the Nobel, she told a folk tale that she has since told often. It is the story of an old female writer who is accosted by an angry mob of young people. Doubting her wisdom, they demand that she tell them something relevant. They ask her to tell them how to cope with being marginalized, while “having no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew, to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”