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

Writing Seeing: The Known World (2)

Continued from the previous post.

The knower of The Known World displays the extent of its omniscience by glazing the narratives of various characters with extraordinary disclosures that are temporally and causally severed from the events unfolding on the page. As these sorts of disclosures accumulate, they open a disjuncture between sentences that are necessary for narrative cohesion and those whose lack of necessity casts them as indulgences — indulgences which ultimately offer little more than an announcement of the knower’s presence and an aggrandisement of its abilities. Here, for instance, is a paragraph on the activities of Anderson Frazier, a Canadian muckracker who visits antebellum Virginia and writes “a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors.” The knower takes a short step forward in time, beyond the Civil War, to reveal that “[t]his series [proved to be] Anderson’s most successful,” and then leaps headlong into the future to reveal that

nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.

The information gleaned from this temporal leap, presented as only an aside in a much more straightforward narrative, serves no discernible purpose other than to demonstrate the knower’s ability to leap into the future and so disclose knowledge unobtainable by others. Continue reading

Writing Seeing: The Known World (1)

Who knows the world of The Known World? Who else could ever be able to know it? With every disclosure made of the world, the world itself slips out of sight. While the knower unleashes a torrent of words with which to cast fresh light on the world, those very words only smother the world like tireless motes descending upon a steady accretion of dust. Continue reading