By Mark York
I ask you this, dear reader: Have you ever read a book that didn’t do much for you the first time, but after year after year of letting it sit, the ideas become ever the more relevant, the characters all the livelier, and what initially felt like mundane reading becomes one of your favorite books of all time?
I’m sure you have. Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” was not that kind of book for me.
When I read this novel in high school I felt the story hitting me like a semi-truck, and now in college I still feel the sting. It is incredible that, no matter how many times I revisit this novel, I always find something new that blows me away … though considering all these different characters, themes and plot lines Morrison somehow managed to weave in, that incredibility becomes an inevitability. Even in the most minor of detours, the text feels just as essential as during its most pivotal story beats. Yet, the book still flows without a bump, smooth as butter. How did she do it?!
Everything in this story comes back to our main character, Milkman. One might even say that the universe of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” revolves around him. This novel is a bildungsroman, or in less eccentric terms, “Song of Solomon” is a coming-of-age story that depicts Milkman finding an identity in a world full of expectations. This seems rather straightforward, and yet this simple arc is the common thread that ties all sorts of different elements together. Here, Morrison perfectly exemplifies a little thing I call shish-kebab storytelling. I ought to explain myself.
First, imagine a barbecue: It’s a nice sunny day! There are steaks sizzling atop the grill, people bustling about and ice-cold drinks sweating under the summer heat. You are then told to make a shish-kebab. There are a few items you would like to have; you feel like some beef, of course (or tofu, I guess, for the vegetarians), you’d love some bell peppers too, onions might spice things up, and maybe even a Brussels sprout or two (you monster). Now you find yourself with a conundrum: How do you bring in all of these separate, seemingly unrelated items and put them together? That’s where the skewer comes in. You put that skewer through the meat, through the bell peppers, through the onions, and yes, through even the Brussels sprouts, and you have a nice, juicy whole.
When you put it that way, this issue seems easy to solve, doesn’t it? Now imagine yourself as a writer: You want to write a story, and you have all these fleshed-out characters and all these plot beats that you want to get to, but you don’t know how to make these into a cohesive whole. Shouldn’t you then find a skewer to bring these pieces together, just like you would at that barbecue?
An efficient way to bring character, world building, theme and storyline together is to find a common element that unites them. This is shish-kebab storytelling – and it’s all over the place.
Just think back to the Three Little Pigs and their little houses. Even this simple little fable has three different stories to juggle – three pigs, each of varying intelligence. Yet they’re all tied together by the Big Bad Wolf trying to capture them; the fable always comes back to him. The pigs are the meats (in this case, maybe literally), and the wolf is the skewer.
We can see the same exact thing in “Song of Solomon.” Milkman’s journey is the skewer; Guitar’s wrath, Hagar’s obsession, Ruth’s past, the history of the town of Shalimar and even the occasional ghost story are the meat and veggies. No wonder Milkman starts off as such a narcissist! Regardless of what happens in this book, it all finds a way to come back to him.
Through this method, for instance, Morrison is able to flesh out Macon and Pilate; telling a story of their childhood that not only represents two opposing ideologies, but by coming back to Milkman, it also progresses the main plot. Both accounts start the same, with the two siblings camped out in a cave, and when a sinister man approaches Pilate, Macon kills him, revealing some gold that the figure owned. Macon wants to take the gold for himself, while Pilate finds stealing a dead man’s belongings to be immoral. Decades later, Macon tells Milkman that Pilate went back to the cave and took the gold for herself, prompting our protagonist to steal the gold back; he discovers, however, that the bundle Macon thought to be gold was instead the bones of the man they killed. Bearing the man’s remains is Pilate’s way of taking responsibility for his death.
This backstory could easily be just that in any other plot, a backstory that may flesh out the world but does not serve the present moment. Instead, Morrison uses what initially seems like a diversion as a pivotal beat in Milkman’s coming of age, mirroring how Milkman changes throughout the novel. Macon later sends Milkman to Virginia in order to find that cave and claim the gold; our protagonist is influenced by Macon’s philosophy and desire. Towards the end of the trip, however, Milkman changes and finds new meaning to his life beyond Macon’s wealth-oriented lifestyle. Morrison then utilizes this backstory in order to firmly establish such essential development to the reader. When Milkman comes home he discovers his old girlfriend, Hagar, has died because of him, so, paralleling Pilate, he takes a bundle of her hair. This is a stark contrast to who he was before this journey, and this change would not be as clear if Morrison did not use this separate story in such a way. Macon and Pilate’s characterization and storylines are used to further Milkman’s growth as a character.
This example explores the inner workings of two pivotal characters and does so to great efficiency, but Morrison uses even minor sub-plots to further Milkman’s journey. Towards the end of the first act, it seems as though the novel goes in a strange direction. Instead of developing any of the other strains that have been set up, we focus on the life of Milkman’s older sister, Corinthians, and how she builds a secret life of her own. It’s an interesting story – with Morrison that’s a given – but the reader is left questioning the meaning of such a diversion, until even this storyline comes back to Milkman. Our protagonist discovers that Porter, the man Corinthians is dating, is a criminal and tells Macon of his sister’s relationship, forcefully severing her independence. Corinthians’ development from passive daughter to active woman is tragically cut short, emphasizing the extent to which Milkman still subscribes to his father’s ideology and creating an urgency for him to change. This minor addition paints a picture of what Milkman must ultimately overcome, and this need would not be as clearly established if the reader doesn’t feel the impact of his actions.
I am not simply hungry when I say that Toni Morrison has mastered shish-kebab storytelling. What I hope to express throughout this article is that this pattern of storytelling is everywhere throughout this novel – even during the first page of the book, in which an insurance agent commits suicide and is revealed to have jumped off the hospital in which Milkman was born.
There is hardly a single plotline or character that does not influence Milkman in some way, be they hurdle or guide. This novel operates like clockwork, and I think there is something beautiful in seeing such a finely tuned machine at work.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.