What Could Have Been

Colson Whitehead, "The Colossus of New York"One of the other oddities of The Underground Railroad appears in the author’s biography, the very first sentence on the very first page of the book. The last words of the bio describe Colson Whitehead as the author of half a dozen novels as well as “a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York.” It doesn’t matter to me whether Whitehead himself wrote the bio or whether it was written for him. What matters is the extraordinary underselling of what is arguably his best book. The Colossus of New York is, as its title suggests, a love letter to a metropolis, but in no sense does Whitehead express his affections for Manhattan in the form of essays. You could maybe get away with calling Colossus a book of prose poetry, although even that label doesn’t fit well. There’s no easy way to say exactly what it is. Part of its power comes from that fact. To familiarise this unfamiliar thing by describing its contents as “essays” is to rob the book of its charms, shoehorning something idiosyncratic into the mundane. Continue reading

Fugitives and Followers

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. Continue reading

Mr. Saunders of Sesame Street

George Saunders, "Lincoln in the Bardo"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: Continue reading

Rumrill’s Rhythms

Jeremy M. Davies’ second novel, Fancy, is the sort of thing you’d be likely to get if Thomas Bernhard had submitted himself to the stylistic and structural constraints of the OuLiPo. Like most of Bernhard’s novels, it takes the form of a long, meandering monologue, essentially an unhinged rant. The ranter is an old man named Rumrill, and he is ostensibly delivering his monologue to a young man and woman who have agreed, perhaps only provisionally, to house-sit his two dozen cats. The visitors remain silent and unnamed throughout the novel, although after Rumrill suggests that they smell like pickled cucumbers he begins to openly disparage them as “Mr. and Mrs. Pickles” and even as members of the species “Homo cucumis.” As he lays out his instructions for the Pickles to take care of his pets – instructions that become so meticulously detailed, and so outlandishly elaborate, that they tumble from the physical realm into the purely metaphysical – Rumrill intertwines the day-to-day business of pet care with an account of the time that he, as a young man, agreed to house-sit the three dozen felines belonging to an elderly cat-fancier named Brocklebank. As he rambles on and on, the reality of the situation becomes progressively murkier. Did Brocklebank really own three dozen cats or just a plurality sufficient to make it seem as if he owned that many? Was there in fact a man named Brocklebank at all, or is he some sort of hypothetical construct that Rumrill creates for purposes unknown? Is there even a Mr. and Mrs. Pickles, or is Rumrill perhaps only ranting into a void? And what’s the deal with his obsessive recall of a long ago instance of serendipitous fellatio? Continue reading

Sympathy and Its Limits

It’s easy to make a very particular, pointed objection to Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ One of the things I admire about the story, however, is the way in which, rather than shying away from this objection, Carver acknowledges it, seizes it for himself, and thematises it. One of the seventeen stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, ‘So Much Water’ depicts the disintegrating marriage of a man named Stuart and his wife Claire. It begins just after Stuart has returned home from a weekend away on a remote fishing trip with a few buddies. On their first night of camping, we learn, he and his friends discovered the corpse of a young woman floating in a river. But rather than immediately filing a report with the police, the men agreed to tie the corpse to a nearby tree, and they only made a move to contact the authorities when they returned to town at the end of the weekend. Now there’s public outrage brewing. Stuart’s name is in the newspapers and he is receiving threatening phone calls at home. His marriage to Claire begins to strain. Claire can’t fathom how he could have so dehumanised the dead girl as to continue casting about for fish as if she wasn’t floating right there in the river. Continue reading

Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a beautiful novel for a number of reasons, although as I read it I often found myself wondering how much of its lustre would be lost on readers unfamiliar with Gilead. Unlike readers of Home, its immediate predecessor in Robinson’s trilogy of novels set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, readers of Lila will find much to appreciate even if they are not familiar with the other two titles. In part this is the case because Home replays many of the events already depicted by the narrator of Gilead, albeit from the perspective of a different character and therefore in a way that imbues them with new meanings, while Lila covers events that occur many years before the action of Gilead and that have been, until now, almost entirely unexplored. If a novel that requires its readers to possess knowledge of another novel thereby places a burden on their shoulders, Lila arguably leaves its readers at greater liberty than Home, and yet, while reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that liberty comes with its own sort of price. Continue reading

Taking Measurements

For a long time I was sure that if there was a question at the heart of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it was one of those sweeping humanist questions so common to American literature of the interwar period. Something to do with dignity, something to do with honour. Something along the lines of “What is the value of a single human life?” Now, though, I’m not so sure that the novel is animated by a question as abstract as that one. As I Lay Dying strikes me these days as a novel with little patience for abstractions. In fact, it strikes me as a novel that generates dramatic conflict through each character’s impatience with the abstractions in which the people who surround them have invested their energy. If there’s a question that animates it at all, it must be a question of less certainty with regard to the notion that human life has any fixed value at all: something like “How can we possibly determine the value of a human life?” or, better, “Within what frame of reference can we, do we, and should we, assign value to a life?” Continue reading