I had been a poet for quite a long time, and then stopped writing for ten years. I wrote a novel. I put it in the drawer. The next morning, I woke up with this voice in my head, the voice of Alvaro. I began writing and I wrote, very quickly, a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages… in six weeks, let’s say. The novel, so everyone knows, due to mistakes that I made along the way, took seven days a week, 365 days a year, seven years to write. I made a terrible mistake late in the book. I had to rip out a year’s work and it took a year and a half to replace it. But it was a daily — getting up at three-thirty or four in the morning to write. And I had invested so much in the book that I wanted to answer basic questions in my own life, in the course of writing the book.
in interview with Michael Silverblatt
The underground railroad was a real historical phenomenon given a metaphor for a name. In his novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead pulls the magical realist’s trick of literalising the metaphor. He repurposes the secret network of safehouses, waystations, and channels of conveyance for runaway slaves, and transforms it into an actual, physical network of subterranean trains that carry runaways from one station to the next. This is the novel’s central conceit, and no shortage of critics and judges of literary prizes have expressed their admiration for its cleverness.
It is clever, I think, but it’s nowhere near clever enough to sustain the entire novel and it is eventually upstaged by other, more minor conceits. More cleverly, for instance, Whitehead sweeps his heroine along a journey away from a cruel plantation in Georgia and through an alternate version of the United States, and en route he transforms the literal scenarios encountered by his African American characters into metaphors for aspects of the African American experience after emancipation. In South Carolina, the runaway Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in a museum depiction of a slavery plantation. She makes suggestions on how to improve the accuracy of the scene and essentially becomes condemned to “freely” perform the torments of her old life in bondage. Other set pieces in other states offer variations on this conceit — this sort of dialectical self-subversion of daily life in antebellum America — applying it to things like lynchings, bounty hunting, abolitionist proselytising, earned manumission, and so on and so forth.
The result is a perfectly well-written novel. It’s almost the ideal of the well-written novel. There’s hardly a single sentence in The Underground Railroad that doesn’t issue straight out of the broad contemporary sense of how a novel ought to be written and what it should aim to do. It’s been years since I’ve come across such a flawless embodiment of the concept of “literary fiction” as booksellers and the marketing departments of publishing houses understand that phrase. You don’t have to squint in the slightest to see why this novel landed the Pulitzer Prize. It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel before it even won.
I guess that’s all a roundabout way of saying I didn’t much like or admire The Underground Railroad, even as I could see what it was trying to do, and even as I could see that it was doing those things as well as many readers would hope for. On reflection, I think I have two reasons for this lukewarm response to such a celebrated book, two reasons that arise directly from my feelings towards Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece The Known World. That novel won the Pulitzer Prize, too, way back in 2003. It’s also set in antebellum America, it also tells its tale with a magical realist slant, and it’s so obviously a model for some huge chunks of The Underground Railroad that I was staggered to see Whitehead making no mention of it in his acknowledgements — even though he makes space to thank Franklin D. Roosevelt (!) and to express his gratitude for the music of David Bowie, Prince, and Sonic Youth.
Straight off the top of my head, here are some of the things in Whitehead’s novel that struck me as either blatantly derivative of The Known World, or else weak attempts at homage. The sketches of plantation politics in the opening chapters, which bring a number of slave “types” into conflict with one another. The names of key characters, like Moses and Alice, which are shared between the two novels. The open discussion of the legal and moral significance of free papers, which echoes Jones’ ruminations on the same topic in relation to the character of Augustus Townsend. The Indian bounty hunter, Ridgeway, who at first seems to be drawn from Jones’ slave patroller, Oden Peoples, but later appears alongside several servants in a way that unambiguously invokes Jones’ slave catcher Darcy.1 The pamphleteering and lecturing towards the end of the novel, which occasionally echo the words of a pamphleteer and lecturer in The Known World. The closest that Whitehead comes to tipping his hat in honour of Jones is when his protagonist, a young woman named Cora, discovers a library full of books and finds “[o]versize volumes contain[ing] maps of lands [she] had never heard of, the outlines of the unconquered world.” The imagery of those words conjures up the controlling metaphor of Jones’ novel — the Waldseemüller map of the known world — and then neatly inverts it, sketching out the contours of its shadow.
But the real problem with Whitehead’s evocation of The Known World is that his prose isn’t the equal of Jones’ prose because he doesn’t take pains to exploit the implications of his style. I’ve written about the effects of Jones’ prose at length before (1, 2) but the Cliff’s Notes version runs something like this. Throughout The Known World, Jones employs omniscient third-person narration. His narrator is genuinely and self-consciously omniscient, not only knowing much more than the characters and sharing his or her knowledge with the reader, but continually making the reader aware of what the characters do not and cannot possibly know. By favouring this sort of narration, Jones gives himself license to make remarks in his prose which are automatically attributable to “the knower” who narrates the text. These remarks are at various points insightful, flippant, wry, pitiful, shocking, baffling, and more besides. The point is that they come from someone who has both a reason to make them and the capacity to do so. Whitehead’s prose contains remarks that would be just as at home in Jones’ novel, but often they feel out of place in The Underground Railroad because Whitehead doesn’t use his mode of narration to make them consistently attributable to any particular consciousness.
Here, for instance, is a remark on interracial relations in South Carolina: “On Main Street, in stores, in factories and offices, in every sector, black and white mixed all day as a matter of course. Human commerce withered without it. In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.” In context, through free indirect style, these observations become attributable to Cora, but the language of that last sentence can’t possibly be hers. For one thing, it contradicts what Whitehead specifically tells his readers about Cora’s literacy skills. She is a clever young woman, but it’s improbable that she’d use lofty words like “liberty” and “bondage,” or use a word like “withered” in a figurative sense, because elsewhere in the novel she doesn’t know the literal meanings of words like “optimistic,” “gainsay,” “ravening,” and “hoar.” For another thing, though, the language in that final sentence is blatantly anachronistic. The term “African American,” which the sentence pulls apart syntactically, didn’t really begin to circulate in American public discourse until the second half of the twentieth century. Who, then, is the mediating consciousness here? Who is able to access Cora’s thoughts and impressions and then translate them into more contemporary language?
You could say, for argument’s sake, that Whitehead isn’t interested in writing sentences that pose these sorts of questions. Even if the sentences themselves do pose them, it’s possible that, unlike Jones, Whitehead doesn’t necessarily want his readers to focus on such abstractions. Fair enough, I suppose. But elsewhere, in a variation on the same problem, remarks are explicitly attributed to Cora even though, language aside, the thoughts that animate them can’t belong to her either. “Cora figured that a new wave of immigrants would replace the Irish,” Whitehead writes, “fleeing a different but no less abject country, the process starting anew.” Granting that the insight may belong to Cora even if the words do not, whose consciousness lies behind the metaphor in the next two sentences? “The engine [of the exploitation of migrant labour] huffed and groaned and kept running,” Whitehead writes. “[White Americans] had merely switched the fuel that moved the pistons.” These thoughts are cloaked both in words and in terms that are utterly foreign to the character who is supposed to think them. Whose consciousness do they really belong to? Or — to pose the question in the terms I prefer when thinking about Jones’ novel — what sort of consciousness is brought into being, created on the page, when a writer phrases these thoughts in prose of this particular kind?
The Underground Railroad is shot through with such prosaic misattributions, each one composed with impossible lucidity and comprised of unlikely imagery and insights. Here’s one of my favourites, which I adore on its own, as a fragment of lyrical prose, even though, when read in its rightful place in the novel, it’s the textual equivalent of a burr in the grain of a plank of wood:
What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around in a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.
Of such beauties has Whitehead made The Underground Railroad. It’s a novel that fairly bursts with gorgeous, prize-worthy, prize-winning writing, even though it neither thinks through the implications of its style nor explores the nexus between its style and the characters who populate its narrative. It could have been so much more than what it is, but it doesn’t try to be, and so it ends up stumbling into a better novel’s shadow.
1. That’s to say nothing of Ridgeway’s evocation of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The Judge, you’ll remember, makes the following statements:
This is my claim… [a]nd yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.
The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
Now take a look at the speech that Ridgeway delivers in order to justify his profession, hunting down and apprehending runaway slaves, and try — just try — not to think of Holden beside the campfire:
“We do our part,” Ridgeway said, “slave and slave catcher. Master and colored boss. The new arrivals streaming into the harbors and the politicians and sheriffs and newspapermen and the mothers raising strong sons. People like you and your mother are the best of your race. The weak of your tribe have been weeded out, they die in the slave ships, die of our European pox, in the fields working our cotton and indigo. You need to be strong to survive the labor and to make us greater. We fatten hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”
“You heard my name when you were a pickaninny,” he said. “The name of punishment, dogging every fugitive step and every thought of running away. For every slave I bring home, twenty others abandon their full-moon schemes. I’m a notion of order. The slave that disappears — it’s a notion, too. Of hope. Undoing what I do so that a slave the next plantation over gets an idea that it can run, too. If we allow that, we accept the flaw in the imperative. And I refuse.
Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:
Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.
“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. The lion’s share of helping students to read poetry involves dragging them back down to earth, away from the abstract dimensions of literature, and getting them to read the poem as a literal text. That’s usually impossible, of course, since it’s a rare poem that works wholly and solely on a literal level, but this is exactly the point: you find your springboard into the substance of the poem in the places where it begins to resist a literal reading, where it becomes difficult to appreciate the words in their literal sense, where the words carry a hint or a whiff of something more than their literal definitions.
Zapruder calls the search for these places an “exercise” in “getting as deeply into the words as possible.” It’s basically an exercise in considering the diction and syntax of a poem from the inside of the creative process, through the eyes of the writer, rather than as a reader approaching the poem as a thing already written and awaiting meaningful interpretation. It involves assessing the precision of each word on the basis of its innate prosodic qualities, the prosodic effects it generates in conjunction with the words around it, its register, its tone, its connotations, its associative qualities, and so on. The result of reading a poem in this way is, as Zapruder writes, a keener sense of “[o]ne of the great pleasures of reading poetry,” namely:
to feel words mean what they usually do in everyday life, and also start to move into a more charged, activated realm. In poetry our familiar language can start to feel resonant with significance, more alive, even noble. The words we use in our everyday lives carry along with them deep reservoirs of history (personal and collective) that can, through a poem, be activated.
But in my experience, the real difficulties that students encounter come from the need to become and remain attuned to those “deep reservoirs of history” beneath the surfaces of words. Even if students are able to adjust their approach to poetry and maintain their focus on the granular elements of a poem, there’s no way to teach them, via direct instruction, the history of each and every word in the language; no way to help them understand the process by which words become invested with multiple meanings, suggestive capabilities, and evocative powers. The only way to develop a sense of such things is to read — closely, widely, and often. That’s where the real learning begins, I think: totally outside the classroom and out of the teacher’s hands.
Two years after the last time we spoke, an old friend of mine was convicted of having committed a terrible crime.
I’m thrilled to say that I have a long short story, or perhaps a short novella, in the latest issue of Numéro Cinq. It’s called Unspeakable. Resistance is the word that first springs to mind when I think back over it. It’s a story that in some ways resists being read at all, beginning in a dizzying rush before it shifts gears to a more bearable momentum, and by the end it resists being brought into existence by the events it depicts. A lot of those events are true. Most have been distorted. Some have been exaggerated, others reined in and restrained. Names have been changed throughout. I’ll leave my explanatory remarks at that. To say more would be to cross the lines the story draws around itself.
One of the books I got a kick out of last year was Jeremy M. Davies’ absurd and hilarious novel Fancy. Now, at Full Stop, Walker Rutter-Bowman has a great review of Davies’ collection of short fiction, The Knack of Doing. The collection, he says,
is a master class in writing by constraint. The constraints are playful, as if Davies has posed a series of small challenges for himself — write a story by letter, by repetition, by list, by blurb. Davies delights in the unlikelihood of stories. That he can draw drama from unlikely forms and sources animates his writing. He has the defiant air of an escape artist, finding elaborate ways to constrict himself, then freeing himself with a flourish. These escapes are displays of his talent: his virtuosic language, his grammatical panache, his narrative dexterity.
But the review is ultimately not a rapturous one, or at least not without reservations; Rutter-Bowman identifies some interesting ways in which Davies’ mastery of self-imposed constraints also leaves his stories a little stunted.
James Ley’s attitude in his review of George Saunders’ recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo is… well… I’m not quite sure what. Let’s say it’s in the region of prickly/irascible/dyspeptic but without any trace of genuine displeasure or hysteria:
Saunders is a formally adventurous writer; he has his characteristic quirks and obsessions, his own distinctive style. But his work sits quite comfortably within a well-established tradition of postmodern American fiction. In fact, it is hard to think of another contemporary author of comparable renown whose aesthetic is so obviously stitched together from other writers’ old fabric scraps. His fiction is a patchwork of Donald Barthelme’s conceptual whimsy, Thomas Pynchon’s zany cultural satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom, interwoven with an anxious humanism and a demotic turn of phrase that takes a perverse delight in malapropisms, solecisms, absurd jargon and ridiculous brand names — qualities that are more or less direct cops from David Foster Wallace.
And later, building off Zadie Smith’s praise for Saunders as “a morally passionate, serious writer,” Ley adds:
Maybe I am the only person to detect something a little Gertrudian about this observation, but it sounds to my ears rather like an indirect expression of concern that there is at least a faint possibility that someone, somewhere could mistake Saunders for a morally indifferent, frivolous writer. Would anyone bother pointing out that, say, George Eliot or Franz Kafka or Jenny Erpenbeck are ‘serious’ writers?
The implied anxiety is of interest, I think, not because it suggests that a writer who works primarily in a comic mode cannot also have a serious purpose (a proposition so obviously false that it hardly needs refuting), but because it suggests a buried insecurity about the moral authority of literature itself. The point not only bears upon the reception of Saunders’ work, but the form and content of his moralism. It is not a coincidence that among the most prominent champions of his fiction are a cohort of novelists of a certain vintage — Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan — all of whom are, in one way or another, haunted by the DFW-shaped hole in contemporary American literature. It has been Saunders, more than any of his peers, who has taken it upon himself to address the issue raised by Wallace in the early 1990s, in the context of a generational debate about the cultural status and purpose of serious literature — namely, whether a work of fiction might yet affirm positive human values in a chronically frivolous cultural environment that equates irony with sophistication and ingenuousness with naivety and simple-mindedness.
I’m tempted to quote further, especially to quote Ley’s judgment on the profundity of Saunders’ “seriousness and moral passion,” but that’d risk ruining the pleasure of his review in its entirety. Ultimately, I guess, it’s a takedown of Saunders, but it’s an exceptionally articulate and insightful takedown that makes ample effort to appreciate the intentions and virtues of Saunders’ work. It’s one of those rare essays that is not only more sophisticated in its own right than the subject under discussion, but that also renders its subject in more sophisticated terms than those in which the subject can render itself. It’s a doozy and it deserves your full attention.
I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collected essays over the last couple of months, two or three each week, never more than one in a day. I’ve been familiar with the more famous essays for a long time now — I remember teaching “Self-Reliance” and my favourite essay, “Experience,” almost a decade ago — but at the start of this year it occurred to me that there were a number of essays I hadn’t read, so I decided to take a look at them all.
More than anything else, more than the quality of Emerson’s ideas, what I admire most about the essays is the incomparable rhetoric, the sheer extravagant beauty of the expression. Happily, I read them in the Modern Library’s collection of Essential Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an introduction by Mary Oliver. Even more happily, Oliver’s superb essay was made freely available online last year, so you can see for yourself how precisely she nails the essence of the Emersonian aesthetic:
Emerson’ s trick — I use the word in no belittling sense — was to fill his essays with “things” at the same time that his subject was conceptual, invisible, no more than a glimmer, but a glimmer of immeasurable sharpness inside the eye. So he attached the common word to the startling idea. … [In addition,] his writing is made up of the nineteenth-century sentence, so nimble with commas. The sparks of his expression move forward softly and reasonably, in their shapely phrases — then they leap.
That’s it exactly. Think of the words Emerson uses, words of extraordinary visibility and palpability: “pith and marrow,” “pinnacle,” “trench,” “wavelet,” “chain,” “knot,” “roots,” “fruitage,” “throb.” Look at how he tethers each of them to some sort of ineffable concept, not quite as if attempting to convey the concept by way of a metaphor but rather as if the concept had assumed a physical form, as if it could be understood almost by producing a sensation on the skin. It’s one-of-a-kind prose, and it’s invigorating to see Oliver do it justice in her own distinctly poetic way.