Review of “Recitatif” (1983)


Toni Morrison (writer).

Read in 2021.

Two women meet as children, then four more times as they grow older.

This is high-concept literary fiction, described by the author as “a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial”, but from which “all racial codes” have been removed. This does not include skin colour or the term “black” for race in general, but it does include the skin colour and racial self-identification of the protagonist, Twyla, and her counterpart, Roberta.

For example, when they’re in their late teens or early twenties and Roberta laughs at Twyla for working the night shift at a Howard Johnson’s in Newburgh, it’s not clear whether Roberta is mocking Twyla because her low-status job and residence are so typical of a person of colour, thus reinforcing a stereotype, or the opposite: She might be mocking Twyla for a low-status job and residence that are atypical of a pinkish-beige person, and therefore conspicuous. It is also possible that Roberta is laughing because she herself is on her way to see Jimi Hendrix and is simply more hip, without reference to race.

Every scene is similarly ambiguous in the absence of racial codes. When Twyla thinks to herself that life is “so easy for them”, apropos of Roberta having graduated from Jimi Hendrix to “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives”, there is obviously a racial preconception in play, but which one? It could be an inflated version of real white privilege, or the idea that people of colour had gained an unfair advantage in the civil-rights era where this particular encounter takes place. This is added to the story’s more general ambiguity about what really occurs in the plot; past events are questioned and there is not much of an ending.

It’s not the ambiguity of James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) or Akutagawa’s In a Grove (1922). It’s more like a piece of detective fiction where the investigation is concluded and the culprit is identified to everybody but the reader. Morrison’s literary device leaves the narrative uninformed by its own subject, and therefore blurs even the characters. This is clever and well executed, but not otherwise fun. It’s a fertile middle ground between a more technical, language-level lipogram and a plot-level conceit for the purpose of a thought experiment, as commonly encountered in science fiction. The story actually reminds me more of “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” (1973) than of the modernist experiments of James and Akutagawa, but by avoiding plot-level causes and effects like Tiptree’s, Morrison does play a more open game of metafiction with the reader.

A lot of anti-illusionistic experiments like this pointedly place a cognitive burden on the reader. In this case it’s the burden of unresolvable ambiguity as a means to an end. I think the point is to show how readily racial codes are used to explain more than they actually code for. When present, they short-circuit the process of interpretation, suggesting answers on the individual level that can be meaningless in their triteness, however deeply meaningful they are on a systemic level. It’s an excellent experiment in this vein, but like a lot of similar experiments, it reads more like a puzzle than a story.

text fiction