It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.
Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.
The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.
Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.
So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.
Reading the description on the back of Strangers With the Same Dream, I was skeptical. I felt no immediate urge to read about Zionist settlers in the 1920s and the kibbutz movement. But a little part of me thought, hey, isn’t this what reading fiction is all about? Reading about topics and people and places you find no immediate interest or resonance with? Or might have existing assumptions about? So I let the small part of me take over, and I thought, I like Alison Pick, I’ll put myself in her capable hands and see where this goes.
So glad I did! The novel is beautiful, told with an inventive narration and thoughtful about how it positions the Zionist project through self-conscious reflection from its narrators on the relationship with the Palestines the group is displacing. The story is told in three parts, each narrated from the perspective of a different character recounting the same events. The shift in narration has the effect of inviting the reader to see how – even within the same community with shared politics and ambitions – the truth of the story, the beliefs about motivations and goals, are malleable and personal. Wikipedia let me know there’s a name for this phenomenon – the “Rashomon effect,” which were I a trivia player or better at life, I’d already know about (and you probably do). In any case, tis’ when the same event is told differently by the people who were all there. Underscoring the point I suppose, that if history/fact is contradicted even by those who all shared the same experience, what little doubt is there that those of us encountering the event from a distance – whether geographic or historic – are only ever going to get a partial (both incomplete and biased) version.
I did find the introduction of a ghost in the first chapter, and the recurrence of this ‘character’ distracting and irritating. The ghost of the murdered/suicide character doesn’t offer much to the narrative, instead layering a heavy-handed Doom and Gloom vibe, as well as Aura of Mystery that I found myself all too happy to ignore. And it was easy to do so as the ghost would (seemingly randomly) appear and make some Ominous Statement and then disappear again and I was like who cares.
Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is the sort of book you read while at work. Like tucked inside an important memo. (One of my memories of elementary school is our teacher discovering that Joseph had been hiding a novel behind his math textbook and the teacher went bananas and used a meter stick to hit the book across the room. Which with the benefit of age now seems an unmeasured response. I mean, I can see being annoyed if he had a porn mag tucked in there, but a novel? Oh well. I guess we must Be Respected at all times. I DIGRESS.)
It’s an excellent novel. Really. Go and get it now and start reading. Things I think make it excellent (in no particular order): Continue reading
One of the skills I developed during my undergraduate degree was finding connections among the books I was reading for different courses. I’d hear about an idea in one course and take that idea and put it to work in another; or I’d notice themes from one novel resonating in another course that might be distant in time or geography. I’m not sure whether this cross-reading was intention on the part of the program (I’m pretty sure not) but the consequence was that I took personal pleasure in finding these moments of connection or overlap. I’d probably have made for an excellent thematic critic. Alas. I raise all of this because even now with the combination of my terrible memory and my appetite for reading I often find myself midway into a book and certain I’ve recently read something similar, or surprised that everyone seems to be writing about X topic (which probably owes more to how I select what I read than the novels themselves…). Continue reading