Colson Whitehead, “The Underground Railroad” (2016) (narrated by Bahni Turpin) – My campaign to read (or listen to, more often) the “great American novel” contenders of the last few years continues apace with this, voted best novel of the 2010s by at least one critical outlet (which seemed to only consider English language works, eliminating competition from Elena Ferrante, among others). This is a lightly magical realist fictional slave escape narrative. Cora flees her Georgia plantation and is dogged both by pursuing slave-catchers and by prevailing conditions in the places to which she tries to escape.
Wikipedia calls this “alternate history” and I suppose it is, in a sense, though not in the “Man In The High Castle”/Harry Turtledove sense that term usually denotes. Different racial regimes prevail in the different states Cora goes to, each distinct and discrete from the others. In South Carolina, white-managed “racial uplift” prevails, complete with medicalized terror against the quasi-free blacks. Fleeing that state ahead of the slave-catchers, Cora finds herself in North Carolina, which decided to go in for the elimination of slavery… and the genocidal destruction of its black population. Tennessee is, for some reason, burnt to a crisp. Indiana is peaceable at first but the free black population there is eventually terrorized into dispersal, too.
If there’s a logic between which state gets what fate, it’s an inner logic. I was expecting something like Orson Scott Card’s exaggeration of old regional traits and tropes that he used in the Alvin Maker books, a stupid notion on my part, I now see. What does the fictionalization of the historical conditions of the antebellum US offer? Well, one thing that leaps to mind is that it runs us through a (attenuated) catalogue of options available for black people in the US both before and after emancipation. Unlike a conventional slave escape narrative, there’s no real escape- only descent into a variety of states of insecurity and un-freedom. Also, unlike figures like Frederick Douglass or Olaudah Equiano (but like, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates), Cora is essentially an atheist. In this context, that means she flirts with cosmic pessimism- but in the end, keeps running. The ending is a happy-ish one, but muddled.
Whitehead appears to be in agreement with similarly lauded literary figure Coates about the intractability and overwhelming existential power of white anti-black racism. It’s hard to quibble much with that, all things considered, though I think in the end it’s imperative to push back against its implications. Among other things, it leads to the individualism we see in this novel. Like in a horror movie, sooner or later everyone Cora cares about, her team so to speak (fellow escapees, people who help her), are dead, and Cora alone has to mount her final escape. She creates her own Underground Railroad in lieu of the collective effort that failed her. This winds up not just dismissing any white agency in undoing racism (well-meaning whites are universally depicted as incompetent), which is an understandable enough pessimism, but any collective agency, including black collective agency. There’s no such thing as society, only men and women and their trauma. For a book notionally about the massive, multiracial liberatory undertaking that was the Underground Railroad, this is an odd way to go.
How much does all of that matter in judging this book? Some, I’d say. It flows reasonably well as prose. Whitehead handles perspective shifts, from Cora to various others, deftly. Character work does what it’s meant to do, I think. But if you’re going to have a magical realist epic about national themes, you need to have a vision. If nothing else, any magical realist element in any work demands a justification for its flights of fancy. I think Whitehead did half a job with that. He produces a decent pocket-sized selection of American racial hells. I wonder, in the hands of a more imaginative writer, what more might have done with it, and in the hands of a writer with more of a vision, what alternatives to chosen ones running like hell away might have come up. But I guess that’s where the zeitgeist is at, or anyway was in 2016. We’ll see how far the current moment can push it in a more useful direction, and what sort of literature it might produce. ***’