Having finished Corregidora, I know what it's about. The ending doesn't make it explicit, but there's a hopeful note. Great Gram is somehow reminiscent of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations- bitter, hateful, forever trapped in the past and in her hatred of all men. The mission, the "legacy", the responsibility of making generations and becoming the living evidence of Corregidora's abuse, is a curse on herself and her daughter and her granddaughter and Ursa, her great-granddaughter. To live and be herself, Ursa has to get out of the past, leave behind the haunting stories and nightmares, rid herself of the "legacy", affirm her own identity and have her own voice. The whole book is a struggle to do just that.
I also know what Gayl Jones wants, tries, to do. Talking about the brutality, perverseness, immorality and inhumanity of Corregidora and the awfulness of these stories, she wants to show how difficult it is for Ursa to leave them behind (though Ursa doesn't experience them) by making Ursa witness and experience other forms of brutality, perverseness, immorality and inhumanity in her own life, making her get trapped in abusive relationships and come into contact with various kinds of brutes herself. It's like a destiny, a curse. All the selfish, contemptible, savage, animalistic men around Ursa make her think of Corregidora, remind her of Great Gram's voice and all those haunting stories, imprint on her mind the idea that she too is Corregidora's daughter (though she isn't). It's a tortured world. She has to fight against it all.
The problem is that Gayl Jones pushes it too far, and brings too much negativity into it. All of her male characters are, as I wrote in an earlier post, arseholes. Abusive, controlling, jealous, selfish, depraved, violent, brutish, basically vile, contemptible, detestable. Of course some female characters are bad as well, especially Great Gram, who is so hateful that she destroys her own life and the lives of several others (though mixed with that hatred is some kind of distorted love for Corregidora). But it still appears that the female characters, mostly, are victims, and when they act horribly, are easier to sympathise with. The male characters, even when showing their more vulnerable side, their insecure side, are beasts. This makes them lack a kind of humanity that makes them plausible (some characters' changes from being gentle and kind to being arseholes, instead of making them complex and real, only create unconvincing inconsistencies). I understand that there's a point in this and one might argue that Ursa's perception of men is partly coloured by her misandry, but reading such a book is frustrating, and more importantly, it's hard to see how Ursa gets out of it all in the end, seeing nothing positive around her. There is no balance, all the men are beasts, bastards, brutes.
Another thing I find problematic, if not faulty, is the voice and tone of the narrator. The language is plain, sparse, unpolished and not written language- more like a voice speaking, though sometimes the narrative is disrupted by stream of consciousness and the voice in the memories and nightmares. The narrator, from the beginning to the end, lacks emotions. At 1st, that voice is perfect- her depression and despair makes her numb, passive, slow, somehow robotic. But the novel has a great span, and ends with some hope, so when there is no change in the tone, it is inauthentic. I cannot perceive any change in her change of attitude and mindset. It's possible to tell that there's some hope at last only because Ursa says no to Great Gram's wishes and denounces them all, finds relief in music (and achieves catharsis?), leaves all the men who hurt her, supports herself, has independence and recovers from her pain. Her narrating, and her way of talking to, or reacting to, other characters, have the same numbness, emotionlessness, passivity.
The cover of the book has a quote by James Baldwin, who uses the phrase "brutally honest" for Corregidora. That applies. But, next to the disturbing images, the language can be quite distasteful. This is apparently a personal comment more than a reasonable critique, but among all the possible words, why 4 characters, at least- Ursa, May Alice, Mutt and Tadpole, use the same obnoxious word "hole" for "vagina" is something I don't understand.
The book is not bad, it's mostly the experience of reading it that is frustrating. But great? Enough to be nominated as the great American novel, as it once was? Compare Corregidora to Invisible Man. The character in Ralph Ellison also goes through many troubles, gets kicked out, betrayed, abandoned, taken advantage of, made fun of, insulted, humiliated, misunderstood, attached verbally, attached physically..., transforms from a naive, hopeful youth to a cynical, bitter person and yet learns, loves, comes to accept himself and chooses to live. We can see the development, feel the changes, and see why in the end, in spite of everything, he knows that he can love and will leave his hibernation and return to the world. That novel is a masterpiece. Gayl Jones's book is so much inferior.
I'm afraid that Corregidora is acclaimed less because it's well-written than because it deals with important topics and social issues and the painful history. Or maybe I feel the way I do not because of the book, but because of my sensibilities.