Song of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
Adventure; Coming-Of-Age; Magical Realism; Folklore, Legend, and Mythology; Mystery; Quest; Tragedy; African-American Literature
Oh yes, we went there. Never fear, friends, Shmoop never makes a mistake. Song of Solomon can indeed be classified under (at least) seven different genres. And if you are in the mood to play that age-old classic, Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Genre, Song of Solomon will seem like the gift that keeps on giving.
We watch Milkman go on many adventures through woods and into caves, encountering witches and bobcats along the way. We see him come-of-age, transforming from a sheltered, selfish young man into a mature, grounded adult who has an interest in things other than himself. Magic happens all the time in Milkman’s world, and yet, to the characters who inhabit Song, this magic is part of their reality. Things like bellybuttonlessness, ghosts, and people who fly violate no laws or rules in the world of this novel. At the heart of Milkman’s quest is folklore – the myth of his great-grandfather who was part of a band of slaves who flew back to Africa, leaving wife and children behind. This act is remembered only in songs sung by children and in the names of the town, Shalimar, and it is remembered in different ways, depending on who you talk to. We follow Milkman around as he tries to figure out the mystery of the missing gold, only to have his interest switch to the mystery of his family tree. Milkman initially goes on a quest for gold, but this quest quickly turns into a search for identity. And finally, a tiny, insignificant event – helping a man push a crate onto a dolly – leads to the undoing, the cornering of Milkman. He knows he’ll never be able to convince his best friend that the crate was not full of pilfered gold, and he resigns to his fate.
So what’s with the schizophrenic novel? Toni Morrison wasn’t interested in pinning down anything or in making her book fit nicely into any one category in the perfectly organized Borders bookstore. She wanted (and still wants) her readers to take part in the making, the creation, and the understanding of her novel. Let’s read the author’s own words:
"you have to think what do you want it to be: you want him to live, you want him to die…, you want him to kill Guitar, you want Guitar to kill him… You’re there, you really are, and I just cannot pass out these little pieces of paper with these messages on them telling people who I respect ‘this is the way it is’… we’re taught to read [books] like you open a medicine cabinet and get out an aspirin and your headache is gone. Or people are looking for the ‘how-to-book – you know, thirty days and you’ll have a flat stomach… they are looking for easy, passive, uninvolved and disengaged experiences – television experiences, and I won’t, I won’t do that."
Ladies and gentlemen, through these words, we see how Toni (we’re on a first name basis now) wants us to push our notions of what a book should be out the window. Arrivederci. She doesn’t want us to rely on her, the creator, to tell us what to think and how to feel. We actually have to make choices for our own self as to just what kind of story this is. An adventure? A coming-of-age tale? A quest? A tragedy? A mystery? A myth? A work of magical realism? Pin that tail.