The Underground Railroad: A Novel

By Christman, Phil | The Christian Century, October 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Underground Railroad: A Novel


Christman, Phil, The Christian Century


The Underground Railroad: A Novel

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 320 pp., $26.95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Slavery is the sort of topic that makes novels seem trivial, even as it demonstrates in blood the power of a pernicious cultural fiction. Writing a novel about it--as Colson Whitehead has done, with startling success--is like taking a selfie in front of an active volcano: you're lucky if you just get away with looking small.

Of course, great novels have been written about slavery, and this history adds another layer of risk to Whitehead's project. Readers of The Underground Railroad may find themselves, rather ghoulishly, comparing it to Beloved, Kindred, Middle Passage, Flight to Canada, The Known World, or the great slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, or Solomon Northup--a caliber of competition few novelists would willingly invite. (That such a list can exist at all is white America's shame and black America's triumph.)

Another, far less significant history shadows this book as well: Whitehead's history of writing novels that fail to live up to the memory of his 1999 debut The Intuitionist, which memorably applied the Thomas Pynchon/Don DeLillo mode --essayistic riffs unfolding alongside a slightly cartoonish plot driven by technology and politics--to the lives and conflicts of black Americans. As each new Whitehead book rolled through the literary publishing hype-machine, drawing its spate of admiring reviews--many of which, after the brilliant but frustrating sophomore effort John Henry Days (2001), featured some variation on the phrase "His best since The Intuitionist!"--it was hard to escape the feeling that his was a talent limited by its own cleverness.

The first surprise of The Underground Railroad is its style: muscular, understated, aphoristic. Whitehead has always been capable of devastating efficiency, but he's never been so disciplined as here. "When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention," Whitehead writes of Ajarry, his heroine's grandmother; the single sentence distills whole shelves' worth of knowledge and biographical reconstruction. A few pages later, Ajarry's life is summarized as follows:

   Her first master got swindled by a man who sold a device
   that cleaned cotton twice as fast as Whitney's gin. The diagrams
   were convincing, but in the end Ajarry was another
   asset liquidated by order of the magistrate.... Another
   owner expired from dropsy, whereupon his widow held an
   estate sale to fund a return to her native Europe, where it
   was clean. Ajarry spent three months as the property of a
   Welshman who eventually lost her, three other slaves, and
   two hogs in a game of whist. And so on.

The "And so on" does more emotional work than whole paragraphs of earlier Whitehead books.

The efficiency of the language isn't merely a technical achievement: it speaks to Whitehead's thorough immersion in his research, his mastery of a hundred facts in search of the one that will make a scene come alive. …

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