Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Underground Railroad: Alternate History, All-Too-Real

When I got to talk briefly with Colson Whitehead while he signed my copy of The Underground Railroad at BEA this past May, I bragged to him that his book The Noble Hustle was my go-to hand-sell for dude customers at our bookstore (yeah, I'm so cool </sarcasm font>). I asked him if he still played poker, and he said he doesn't much because he has a young daughter now. It was a breezy, quick conversation, and I was thrilled I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the famous author, as I usually do.

Now that I've read his sobering, brilliant, unflinching, utterly spectacular novel, I feel like a prime asshole — like given the subject matter of the book he was signing, I should've been a tad more somber, or respectful, or just less trying to impress him. Because clearly, the thing he was he was signing as I jabbered away about poker is the work of a genius.

Indeed, don't be surprised if The Underground Railroad winds up on many of the end-of-the-year literary prize shortlists, if not the least for sentences like this: "Then it comes, always – the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for tiny moments across the eternity of servitude." Or this: "The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act."

Whitehead's sentences are magisterial, they absolutely just crackle. A blurb on the back from John Updike (presumably an older blurb, but relevant here for sure) tells us "Whitehead's writing does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world." That's it, right there. On the nose.

In this novel, Whitehead has refreshed not just our sense of the world, but the world as it could have been to give us an alternate history in which the Underground Railroad is a real, physical railroad. (Why? It'll make sense when you read, but it's something you should discover on your own — it's pretty profound.) Some time in the early 19th century, a teenage slave named Cora escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation and travels on the railroad throughout the South. In each state she visits, Whitehead gives us a different alternate history, or different approach, to the "African problem." In South Carolina, for instance, blacks are relatively free, but are forced to be sterilized and terrifying medical experiments are performed on them. In North Carolina, blacks are outlawed, period. Georgia is pretty much the same as it actually was. Slaves are beaten, brutalized, raped, and basically treated like the human property they were considered to be. Just utterly devastating. Not easy to read.

All the while, a slave catcher named Ridgeway chases Cora from state to state. Cora's mother had also escaped, and Ridgeway had never been able to find her, to his eternal shame. It's not until near the end of the novel, in one of the many fascinating mini-profiles of characters Whitehead includes between each chapter, that we find out what actually happened with Cora's mother.

Another of the profiles is about a doctor in South Carolina (who treated Cora on her way through), who grave-robs for cadavers to learn more about the human body. He mentions the irony of only being able to learn about life after one is dead. And also, that it was easier to find black cadavers because their graves weren't as well guarded, and black bodies were just as useful to him as white. And, therefore: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal."

This is one of the best books of the year. I enjoyed the hell out of reading it, but it frequently had to be put aside for a minute, a deep breath required, before continuing. It's a truly great piece of fiction.

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