LAST MONTH, Oprah told everybody to read Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, which gave the New York Times best-selling MacArthur Fellow a massive signal boost. President Obama read it while on vacation and told Fareed Zakaria it was “terrific” and “powerful.” Booksellers and famous writers are tweeting about it. This is the Big Book of the Fall Season, y’all. So allow me to be the 1,000th person to tell you: It’s even better than the hype.
Formerly a critic at the Village Voice, Whitehead has written six very different novels. His readers might notice a few key elements from earlier works floating around in The Underground Railroad—a focus on African American history, a strong female lead, horror, and elevators—but this piece of alternative history is very much its own. The story follows Cora, a third-generation slave who is prepared to take exactly zero shit from anyone as she travels through a literal underground railroad in an attempt to escape a life of bondage. The book hums along like a potboiler, but it hits with the power of a classic.
This is a rare feat. Genre fiction feels empty when certain literary devices—character traits, setting, images—exist only to advance the plot. Literary fiction feels boring when “nothing happens.” In this book, Whitehead gives you the best of both forms: an ingeniously plotted story that is also rich in language. Poets will like the way Whitehead’s sentences regularly fall into double rhythms. Literary fiction writers will like his two-beat lines and his command of the paragraph. People looking to quicken their pulse will read this book in 18 hours with only one break for eating because how will Cora ever really escape her cramped attic hidey-hole when there’s a slave catcher chasing after her with the cold certainty and endless patience of Death, and when just about anybody can kill her for any reason they want?
From the genre fiction playbook, Whitehead uses the plotty “hook and return” sentence a lot. “To explain why he and his wife kept Cora imprisoned in their attic, Martin had to go back a ways.” His other favorite is the “long introduction of a new character at the beginning of a chapter” technique. In Whitehead’s hands, those moves aren’t just flashy lures. They help us get into Cora’s mind. The first establishes a tone of suspense, a state Cora inhabits nearly every second of her life. The second, more cinematic move creates a sense of disorientation. When Cora meets new people along her journey, she never knows whether they’ll try to help her or kill her. And neither do you. Sometimes it’s a little Column A/Column B. Most of the time they just try to kill her. Anyhow, those two structural elements aren’t just being used to artificially flavor the plot. They enact the idea of not-knowing, which reasserts the book’s central theme. This is one of the bedrock pleasures of literary fiction.
But pain sprouts from every pleasure in this book. Every blessing is a curse. Take one image Whitehead works throughout the narrative: the moon. On the plantation, Cora is a farmer in her own right, the sole inheritor of her mother’s garden, a tiny patch of ground she protects with her life. While Cora is on the run (an escape that began under a new moon, though many escape by the light of the full), she falls in love with farmers’ almanacs because “the tables and facts couldn’t be shaped into what they were not”—a welcome image of security for a woman who’s granted none. And yet, the character most closely associated with “facts” in the book is her primary antagonist, Ridgeway, the calm, ruthless slave catcher. He’s introduced as the son of a blacksmith, heir to his “father’s iron facts.” Every single thing in Cora’s life works like that. Even unshackled, she only truly feels free in brief moments: a glimpse of stars on a run through a swamp.
To assemble his alternate history of the period, Whitehead blurs chronologies, combines historical figures, and embellishes events. A passionate debate between a character named Mingo and another named Lander recalls the debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, but also incorporates a bit of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism. The history of forced sterilization of black women provides material for one of the book’s most disturbing sections. And at one point, Cora has a quilt, an item often associated with Harriett Tubman, suggesting that Cora might be her own underground railroad conductor. However many of these specific traits and events are only based on real life, if you told me they had happened just as Whitehead wrote them I’d believe you.
The uncanniness of Whitehead’s scenes and characters make their connections to contemporary corollaries resonate more loudly. Hype isn’t the only context in which we receive this book; we’ve been waiting for it for a while. The way Whitehead writes about the relationship between slave catchers and free blacks in South Carolina sounds an awful lot like the stories of Sandra Bland and Philando Castile. A few weeks ago, Frank Ocean kicked off his highly anticipated album, Blond, with a line about the desire for Nikes. “Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes,” Whitehead writes.
The Underground Railroad will also satisfy stony postmodernists who hold that a novel can only be “about” novels. In the beginning of this story, in a quietly devastating matter-of-fact tone, Whitehead’s narrator describes the characters in purely economic terms. They’re worth crates of rum and some gunpowder. Their price fluctuates based on perceived usefulness and other market forces. This move essentially places the reader in the position of the slave trader. Over the course of the novel, the characters grow into complex human beings with deep histories. That’s an old, tried, and still true power of the form, Whitehead seems to be arguing here. And one we clearly still need.
by Colson Whitehead