Thursday, October 28, 2010

CANE by Jean Toomer

Cane is an amazing book that deserves a place alongside the works of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe on the top shelf of American Modernism. In terms of African American literature, it should be as widely read as the novels of Wright and Ellison, and it should certainly be as well-known to the general audience as the books of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, which tend to look stodgily traditional when compared to Toomer's stunning formal originality. For Cane is so experimental in form (even in comparison to The Sound and the Fury or the USA trilogy) that one hesitates to even call it a novel. Cane is a fiction in fragments, a miniature Ulysses of African American life. It mixes prose and poetry, fable and melodrama, high lyricism and low speech, to create in its novella-length space a James Michener-size portrait of urban and rural black Americans in the early years of the twentieth century. That Toomer achieves this in under 200 pages is not the least impressive aspect of the work. Cane is like Go Down, Moses as composed by Hart Crane. The poetic lyricism of Toomer's prose, the music of his poetry, and his magisterial deployment of leitmotifs--the sugar cane of the title, black music, moonlight, etc.--all combine to unite a collection of disparate elements that even yet seems to waver on the border of fragmentation, a collapse into anthological hodgepodgery (to coin a word or two). Part of the interest of Cane is exactly this tension between the centrifugal and centripetal, fragmentation and overall form, a tension that comes uneasily to rest in the third section, "Kabnis," the book's longest sustained narrative. This section, as one might expect, synthesizes the previous two parts (urban and rural, traditional and modern), but it's an anxious synthesis, achieved in a narrative as riven by angst and absurdity as any Dostoyevskyan nightmare. Readers in search of easy answers or uplifting morals will not find them here. Cane is a book as cruel and complex as life.

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