Toni Morrison’s new novel starts with the conviction “It’s not my fault” and ends with the blessing “Good luck and God help the child.” These words are spoken by Sweetness, the mother whose narration opens and closes the novel. Guilt, chance, desire, family, love, our names. Names for Morrison have always been more than themselves.
Another narrator is Bride, a shortened version of the character’s given name, Lula Ann Bridewell. Bride has dark skin and her mother rejects her because of it, rarely touching her. But Sweetness understands this to be preparation for the world. Even the request that Bride call her Sweetness, instead of Mama, is meant to keep both of them safer. “Being that black and having what I think are too-thick lips calling me ‘Mama’ would confuse people,” Sweetness tells us. But Bride finds it hard to appreciate where her mother’s coming from.
Bride works at a cosmetic company and she has developed her own line of products called YOU GIRL. During the interview stage for this job, a designer-friend gives her fashion advice, and Bride starts wearing all white all the time. “Makes people think of whipped cream and chocolate soufflé every time they see you,” her friend tells her. On the one hand, the contrast between her skin and her white wardrobe is meant to be stunning. “Everywhere I went,” Bride says, “I got double takes but not the faintly disgusted ones I used to get as a kid.” But this is difficult to sit with, like Sweetness’s sense that she’s only doing what’s best by refusing the name Mama. While Bride can be built up in white as “all sable and ice. A panther in snow,” it becomes hard to avoid the constraint of being a bride everyday. The highlight of the white does similar work as the name Bride does. Meant for a woman who is usually married in a white dress, the name Bride tells us that expectations for performing femininity surface and adhere all too well. These demands appear as analogous to, but not identical with, living in a racialized body. Brides, we are reminded by the contrast, are white. While Bride might be able to be a bride, this raced and gendered ideal requires the excess of uniform, the flashy success of being a bride before you’re a bride. Although she invents YOU GIRL make-up, Bride barely seems to be working on behalf of herself.
Other ways Bride functions as a name: She gets hurt and is grossed out by the flesh that’s been under a cast for a while. This makes me think of “debride” (“the removal of dead, damaged, or infected tissue to improve the healing potential of the remaining healthy tissue”). Bride is shown to us as someone working out her relationship to a body that feels other than her own, a body that has been too feminized and racialized by the dominant culture and violence, so that a cruel solution to the so-called problem of her skin is to become extremely good marriage material.
But Bride is a character who fights, too. Her fighting doesn’t always look very fierce though. Morrison is a writer who’s committed to the past lives of her characters. For any of them to have a chance at a different life, they must go back first, and this going back seems both voluntary and impossible to avoid, and often unproductive. Yet it is still surprising when, early in the novel, Bride discovers, “Every bit of my pubic hair was gone. Not gone as in shaved or waxed, but gone as in erased, as in never having been there in the first place.” A quiet part of the plot, these losses, which also include Bride’s period and her breasts, feel like a dream of a childhood body that is difficult to understand. Instead of it being hard to understand becoming a woman, it is hard for Bride to understand not having always been one.
One of the intriguing yet frustrating things about Bride is that it’s hard to tell if she’s doing something to lose herself or if something is being taken from her. So I also think of “bridle” and the way Bride longs to control her own life but feels controlled by her personal history and an expanding sense of a loveless world. As a child, we learn Bride does something almost unforgiveable just so that her mother will hold her hand. Bride also feels compelled by, driven by, her lover Booker. After he dumps her without much explanation, she drives to a city called Whiskey to find him. It turns out that Booker rejects everyone (he “books”) because he thinks he knows more than everyone, that he is more bookish than anyone. But he also books it because his brother, Adam, died under horrible circumstances and he keeps a museum for Adam in his heart. “Adam was more than brother to Booker, more than the ‘A’ of parents who’d named their children alphabetically. He was the one who knew what Booker was thinking, feeling, whose humor was both raucous and instructive but never cruel, the smartest one who loved each of his siblings but especially Booker,” Morrison writes. Adam is Booker’s chosen one and so more like Jesus than Adam.
When Queen, the relative Booker is staying with in Whiskey, has had it with his old habits, we sense a change might be in the cards for Booker and Bride, adults who are still children. “You lash Adam to your shoulders so he can work day and night to fill your brain. Don’t you think he’s tired? He must be worn out having to die and get no rest because he has to run somebody’s life,” Queen says.
In the Bible, Adam is famous for being asked to name all the animals, but there is one being in Morrison’s latest novel that goes unnamed. The book’s dedication reads: “For You.” Who is “you”? Is it the lost brother, Adam, to whom Booker, a writer, has dedicated his life? Chosen by God to do impossible work, Adam is then blamed for the failure to accomplish the impossible. Or perhaps the dedication points us not further into the novel but outside of it. Perhaps the novel is for the audience.
Or perhaps the dedication is to “you,” the unnamed child of the book’s namesake. This is a child who belongs to Bride and Booker who has not been born yet. I hear “God help you, child” and also “God help the child that stays a child.” I also hear Billie Holiday singing, “God bless the child who’s got his own.” And, “God help the black child that can never be a child.” “Got help the child who must name her future self to hope for the dream of love and to announce a possible freedom from the bridle.”
Names can point to the habits of our history but also to the futures of our desire: Bride, Booker, Adam, a mother’s desire to be Sweetness. Names are given and they are stolen before we’re born. We metabolize, embody, reshape, spit out, swallow, and recast ourselves to find the names that best suit us. Names can come to say more than we can say for ourselves. They exceed any single life but also bend back to speak about particular lived-histories of suffering and becoming.
Anna Vitale is a writer and performer interested in poetry, dreams, psychoanalysis, music, and improvisation. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Gauss PDF, Harriet: a poery blog, P-Queue, and elsewhere. Her chapbooks include Anna Vitale’s Pop Poems (OMG!), Breaststa (Mondo Bummer), and Unknown Pleasures (Perfect Lovers). Different Worlds is forthcoming from TROLL THREAD. Her dissertation is about the proper name and the desire to appear and disappear. She grew up in Detroit and lives in Madison, WI.