Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

She discovered a rhythm, pumping her arms, throwing all of herself into movement.  Into northness.  Was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it?  Each time she brought her arms down on the lever, she drove a pickax into the rock, swung a sledge onto a railroad spike.  She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad.  The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her.  Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them.  The station masters and conductors and sympathizers.  Who are you after you finish something this magnificent--in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side.  On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light.  The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood.  The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

What if the Underground Railroad really were an underground railroad?  That's the premise of Colson Whitehead's novel, which is a piece of what they used to call speculative fiction: not an extrapolation of contemporary politics onto the possibilities of the future, but a reimagining of the past in the service of contextualizing and reenergizing it.  By literalizing the railroad--and reimagining the slave societies of the South in such a way that turns their social realities into literal ones as well--Whitehead hopes to make the horrors of slavery seem new, and freshly horrible.

The heroine is Cora, a slave under the control of the sadistic Randall brothers in Georgia.  Her mother is the only slave to have ever escaped from the Randalls', and so when Cora escapes with a slave named Caesar, it raises the ire of the famous slavecatcher Ridgeway, whose failure to catch Cora's mother many years ago still haunts him.

Cora's path takes her through South Carolina, where what seems like a more enlightened society turns out to be stealthily designed to oppress slaves.  They don't seem like slaves anymore, and are granted limited freedoms, even healthcare, but Cora learns that medical studies are secretly carried out on them.  (Of course, this horrible invention is not an invention at all, but a literal description of the famous Tuskegee experiment, which infected black men with syphilis.)  Cora takes a job as a reenactor in a museum, depicting slave life in a way that makes it look anodyne and paternalistic.  (It reminded me of this Vox piece on what it's like to lead tours at a plantation.)  She escapes into North Carolina, where powerful whites have decided to eliminate the political anxiety slaves pose by simply getting rid of them--all of them--and hanging their bodies along a miles-long trail.  Tennessee is literally burning, an apocalyptic setting right out of The Road.

Ridgeway is the novel's most effective creation.  While the whites of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee tie themselves in knots with moral justifications for the way they structure their societies, Ridgeway understands the cruelty of slavery, and simply doesn't care.  Which is more insidious: their rationalization, or his honesty?  Cora, by contrast, seems more like a bundle of heroic tropes: ignored, belittled, even among slaves, but intrepid, hopeful, headstrong.  It's an unfortunate result of the novel's construction, which requires Cora's virtue to contrast Ridgeway's evil, that makes her so dull.  Whitehead's attempts to complicate her psychology--her resentment toward her mother; her complicated guilt over killing a white boy in her escape--largely fall flat.

So does the novel as a whole, unfortunately.  For all its recontextualizing, it never seemed to me as if The Underground Railroad had something especially insightful or memorable to say about the practice of slavery or its effects.  Whitehead seems mostly to use his imaginative license to maximize slavery's depravity--but, unless you're one of those idiots asking the plantation tour guide if some slaves didn't have it real good, what kind of fresh understanding is that?  But the novel's biggest problem is that nothing in it is as imaginative, or out-there, as the railroad itself.  The Underground Railroad doesn't quite live up to the power of its premise.

Here's Chloe's review.

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