(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller BELOVED (1988) was a hard act to follow, but her new novel, JAZZ, is an adventurous, richly imagined work that extends her range into Afro-American city life.

JAZZ begins with a terse, anecdotal story that seems closely akin to such blues ballads as "Frankie and Johnny." Joe Trace, a door-to-door salesman in his fifties, has a "deepdown, spooky love" for eighteen-year-old Dorcas, but he shoots her when their three-month-old affair goes awry. Joe’s wife Alice then takes a strange revenge by bursting in on Dorcas’ funeral and trying to slash the dead girl’s face.

Playing off this sensational opening story, Morrison’s quirky narrative voice ranges in many directions, much as a jazz musician might improvise on the opening statement of a melody. In a vividly sensuous style, the author brings to life both the excitement of Jazz Age Harlem, where many Afro-Americans migrated after World War I, and the racism, violence, and unresolved mysteries of the places they left behindeither of society or of fate. Rather, she compels the reader to care for Joe, Alice, Corcas, and many other characters by vividly dramatizing both their individual passions and their discoveries of their own unique identities. Ultimately, it is the power of Morrison’s narrator and characters to renew and reinvent themselves—much as a jazz musician plays upon an old melody.


Gates, David. “American Means Black, Too.” Newsweek 119 (April 27, 1992): 66. A review of Jazz that maintains that the novel is not just about the story and characters but also about “the process of its own creation.”

Hulbert, Ann. “Romance and Race.” Review of Jazz, by Toni Morrison. The New Republic 206 (May 18, 1992): 43-48. Hulbert criticizes Jazz as a failed experiment in self-conscious improvisation. She argues that Morrison’s characters are flat and her descriptions clichéd. According to Hulbert, although Morrison intends...

(The entire section is 842 words.)