Gayl Jones Jones, Gayl (Vol. 9) - Essay

Jones, Gayl (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jones, Gayl 1949–

Jones is an American novelist, poet, and short story writer. Both the form and subject matter of her work are drawn from the black oral tradition. Her writing is powerful, the rhythms of black jazz and blues giving cadence to her poetry and prose. (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)

This ["Eva's Man"] is the blues that lost control. This is the rhythmic, monotone lamentation of one woman, Eva Medina, who is nobody I have ever known.

You gather from the name that she, this woman, embodies bad news for men. (Cf. the Garden of Eden and also the stone consequences, so to speak, of Medusa.) You further surmise that this alleged Double Trouble, this demented black woman invented by a black woman writer, is supposed to renew or revise some pretty traditional ideas about the female. And, in case you miss the first two heavies, there's another signifying figure in the story, name of "Queen Bee": so much for the apparent aims of this experimental, gruesome narrative.

In addition, there is the very real, upsetting accomplishment of Gayl Jones in this, her second novel: sinister misinformation about women—about women, in general, about black women in particular, and especially about young black girls forced to deal with the sexual, molesting violations of their minds and bodies by their fathers, their mothers' boyfriends, their cousins and uncles. (p. 36)

Did Eva skip school, altogether? How was it when her mother bought new winter clothes for her, or didn't? Did her family never attend a wedding celebration or a christening? What happened about birthdays, in her house? In this short work of bedeviled compulsion, there is sex or there isn't. There is absolute loneliness by one's self or there is the elliptical loneliness of brutal, mute coupling; accidents of exploitation that bespeak no history, no promise.

Miss Jones delivers her story in a strictly controlled, circular form that is wrapped, around and around, with ambivalence. Unerringly, her writing creates the tension of a problem unresolved….

As for the Eva/Medusa/Queen Bee facets of the tale, they arise and disappear. But, at the last, they do not mesh into illumination. Rather than renew or revise ideas about the female, these chapters perpetuate "crazy whore"/"castrating bitch" images that long have defamed black women in our literature.

And I fear for the meaning of this novel. What does it mean when a young black woman sits down to compose a universe of black people limited to animal dynamics? And what will such testimony, such perverse ambivalence, contribute to the understanding of black girls in need of rescue and protection?

What will it mean to that great crowd of the everlastingly curious who wonder about black women, our consciousness, capacities and want? Is Eva Medina the new Bigger Thomas minus the enemy white world? Is this a second "Fear of Flying," the crawl and the scream of a fantasy that will sell well?

At the end of this novel, Gayl Jones says to the reader, "See what they are doing with this woman."

I must ask Miss Jones, "Who is she?" (p. 37)

June Jordan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 16, 1976.

Gayl Jones' first novel, Corregidora, was a small, fiercely concentrated story, harsh and perfectly told. It was about the arrangements between black men and black women, and also about heritage. Original, superbly imagined, nothing about the book was simple or easily digested. Out of the worn themes of miscegenation and diminishment, Gayl Jones excavated the disturbingly buried damage of racism. Eva's Man is a deepened exploration of the woman's inner life: of the pressures, the cruelties, the imposed expectations. Like the first work, part of the interest of Eva's Man lies in its having no relation to the polemical tradition of "Black Literature."

It hardly matters, in this novel, that Eva Canada is black. Structurally unsettled, more scattered than Corregidora, Eva's Man is extremely remote, more troubling in its hallucinations. This story is spoken—screeched or moaned would be closer to the tone—by Eva who is incarcerated in a ward for the criminally insane…. The personal exploitation that causes Eva's desperation is hard to appreciate. Her rage seems never to find its proper object, an adequate form of expression, except, possibly, in her last extreme act. The first novel concerned itself with a violently incestuous chronicle, a legacy of rape and abuse dating from Brazilian plantations; and these things make the pathological frigidity and inherited psychological damage of its heroine understandable. But Eva's terror is too deep, strangely recessed. Memory, here, assumes a shattering tyranny….

[What] is offered the reader is somewhat insufficient: the torment [Eva] suffers as a woman is not unusual, unfortunately, due to its frequency. No, this is not meant to depreciate the daily nature of a woman's pain; but not all women become schizophrenic, destructive. Both novels are relentlessly about fornication and sex, as an act, as a burden, central to the plot of existence, a dialogue between the deprived. The most private and reduced relations between the characters is all that is needed to indicate their social oppression. There is a continual sense of suffocation in these novels, as if their lives took place in a closet. The stasis and isolation are haunting…. Gayl Jones' novels are, finally, indictments against black men. The women are denied by convention what Angela Davis has called "the deformed equality of equal oppression." (p. 27)

The paranoia of [Eva's] soliloquy is reminiscent of some novels concerning homosexuals. Both Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Vidal's The City and the Pillar end in murder, as if mutilated or troubled sexual identities had only the grisly as their fate. The lesbian overtones of Eva's Man are intriguing. Only the women seem capable of reflection, affection without completely impure motives….

Gayl Jones places her heroines between victory and defeat where deprivation is a narcotic. Though they are women of intense and complicated feelings, their severity suggests an impasse. How does one sustain or add to the pitch of these books? There are hints of fragmentation and strain in the conception of Eva's Man. And there are risks in offering the novel as a form for poetic and violent tirades of the solitary self: the limitations of tradition are exchanged for the narrowness of inaccessibility. Opaque, flat, peculiar, in her fiction Gayl Jones has presented problems that are living, historical and important additions to the current American—not just black—scene. These novels are genuinely imaginative creations. (p. 28)

Darryl Pinckney, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 19, 1976.

Femaleness as experienced by American blacks was Gayl Jones' subject in her first novel, "Corregidora," and "Eva's Man," her second, continues the exploration with a sharpened starkness, a power of ellipsis that leaves ever darker gaps between its flashes of rhythmic, sensuously exact dialogue and visible symbol. Ursa Corregidora's meandering voice has become the softly mad voice of Eva Canada. (p. 74)

Miss Jones, at twenty-six, is an American writer with a powerful sense of vital inheritance, of history in the blood. Evil is no idle concept to her…. [Evil] permeates the erotic education of Eva Canada…. Though everything in Miss Jones' fictional world becomes a symbol …, and though in this novel her repetitious, dreaming dialogue and fragmentary, often italicized scenes verge on mannerism, we never doubt the honorable motive behind her methods—the wish, that is, to represent the inner reality of individuals who belong to a disenfranchised and brutalized race. Real fish swim in her murky waters, though she does not always land them. Her heroines are unable to respond, and, as T. S. Eliot pointed out in connection with "Hamlet," an inability is hard to objectify. "An owl sucks my blood. I am bleeding underneath my nails. An old owl sucks my blood. He gives me fruit in my palms." We have not been persuaded Eva could think this; the author is pushing images through her. It is expressionistic, but expressive mainly of literary strain. And in her troubling nullity Eva is surrounded not so much by other characters as by amateur psychotherapists, all nagging at her silence. Miss Jones apparently wishes to show us a female heart frozen into rage by deprivation, but the worry arises, as it did not in "Corregidora," that the characters are dehumanized as much by her artistic vision as by their circumstances. (pp. 74-5)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 9, 1976.

Eva's Man is a heavily repetitious, possessed female fantasy that works as a vindictive counterpart to the male-controlled vagina dentata. Eva, the "savage woman," murders her lover by dental castration and becomes enough of a celebrity to essay a proletarian remembrance of things past. This short novel should have been shorter or clearer about its interests and grounds. There is a hollow heartiness about its lantern slide—say rather litany—of Southern ghetto misadventures, female variety. But the litany, if not false in any of its terms, is false in its effect of monotony and monochromaticism. As Coleridge observes, "images, however … faithfully copied from nature, and accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterize" the artist. The images, the imagination here lacks fundamental play and proportion and relation and conviction.

Eva is a character with the mentality of a child ("I tell them I'm not getting things straight") in the body and the social complex of an abused adult woman. The real interest of her story is not in its details, but in her nature, in the question whether the numbing squalor of her experience has left her a nature. Jones is perhaps essaying a metaphysics of squalor, but Eva's Man too much resembles a tour of squalor with its beatings, shootings, sodomy, cockroaches, deformity, child molestation, and people "biting [their] own umbilical cord." Eva's is a world with no motive, no value, no consequence even—her imprisonment for murder is incidental to her opportunity for another off-beat encounter. The question arises whether her deed is spontaneous combustion from all the numb repressions and oppressions heaped in the privacy of Eva's soul, or a freak of sensual abandonment, or an act of dumb retaliation for her whole life or only for the lover's leaving her moved while he just moves on, or a radical repudiation of being touched and humanly culpable, i.e., vulnerable again. Only the last possibility gives the novel any real depth or resonance, and it is not substantiated. Jones combines Eva with Medusa in the novel, as if the pristine mother and the primordial horror were one. But this seems gratuitous, uncorroborated in the story. Jones's homicidal neutering … may criticize and deny what appears a gratuitous male power, but it does so by the grossest form of flattery, imitation. (pp. 150-51)

Michael G. Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.