While reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz, I was reminded of John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire: the similarity of elusive (and intrusive) narrators, the musical language, time shifts, ambiguous narratives, and the authors’ vivid analysis of city life amidst social turbulence—the inspiration, the alienation, the necessity of sanctuary. The heart wrenching effects of familial loss/yearning and disassociation are thoroughly explored in both works.
In Jazz Golden Gray laments his need to know his father’s identity, to discover himself through his true lineage: “Only now…now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everyone was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery…It’s a phantom I have to behold and be held by, in whatever crevices it lies, under whatever branch” (158).
Gray’s feeling of loss mimics Wideman’s authorial intrusion in Philadelphia Fire, as the latter copes with the loss of his son, who remains in prison to this day for mysteriously murdering his friend (both teenagers) in 1984: “The photos of generations set my head spinning because in the face of time they are a record of its incomprehensibility but also its finitude, its peculiar, visceral, sensuous availability. We all swim in the sea of time…We can believe for an instant in this ocular proof, the photo we possess…The photo, though mysterious, offers proof and promise. The lost child, the parent who grieves for the lost child owns an emptiness as tangible as a photo. Think of a leg that’s been amputated. Then think of the emptiness where it once was…No word for a space where the absence of a leg is real, the pain is real” (119-20).
Because we lack adequate words to define the crippling pain of familial loss, Wideman and Morrison have provided shifting narratives held together by none other than the reader, who, like the narrators of Philadelphia Fire and Jazz, are subjectively voyeuristic, experiencing the troubles of the characters vicariously. To tell the characters’ story chronologically would be, in a way, deceiving the reader, who should experience firsthand the drifting/shifting consciousness of the various characters in order to better identify with the psychological turmoil (and elation) that occur when the past and present merge and memory becomes the ultimate sanctuary
Memory holds the secret to suffering and salvation in Jazz. Like the photo of Wideman’s son offering “proof and promise,” the photo of Dorcas that Violet showcases keeps the young girl’s spirit very much alive: “For Violet, who never knew the girl, only her picture and the personality she invented for her based on careful investigations, the girl’s presence is a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere” (28). Yet the presence of the photo, or more specifically, the living memory of Dorcas, eventually unite Joe and Violet, who face their past mistakes head on (as well as their warring disparate selves, that Violet with this Violet), and with the help of Felice, are able to act reconcile and live in the present, whatever that means!
Jazz teaches us that the horrors of the past can be so palpable for some that they seem impossible to rectify. Morrison breaks the fourth wall to tell the reader, “So I missed it altogether I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle” (220). Even Morrison seems not to know her own characters, who are eerily aware of her meddling presence: I thought I knew them and wasn’t really worried that they didn’t really know about me. Now it’s clear why they contradicted me at every turn: they knew me all along…they were whispering about me to each other” (220). Joe and Violet’s renewed love escaped even their creator. Morrison seems to be pointing out that we all tend to be quick to label people (including literary characters). Joe and Violet have done horrible things but they aren’t villains, “badguys,” or the like—they are all-too-human.
In a way, Morrison’s characters have helped shape her (i.e., if we believe that she is the narrator). She envies [Joe and Violet’s] public love” and their amusing makeshift memories. She reminds us “where [our] hands are. Now” (229)—on the book we are reading, free to make and remake the stories in our own interpretive manner, forever breathing new life into the text. In Philadelphia Fire, Wideman prompts the reader to “pretend we can imagine events in and out of existence. Pretend we have the power to live our lives as we choose. Imagine our fictions imagining us” (97-98). With memories, we can either dwell or embrace the redemption that lies sometimes just beyond reach of our disparate selves.