Running Strictly to Timetable: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review by Nina Allan

Running Strictly to Timetable: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review by Nina Allan

By Nina Allan

 The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

I could tell by the way they pulled her arms into the ground that the bags were getting heavy, that she was barely holding on to her groceries and dreams. Even though she was exhausted and growing more and more despondent with each bumpy rise and fall of the worn out suspension, she preferred to stand rather than sit next to me. They come to LA, aspiring to be white. Even the ones who are biologically white aren’t white white. Laguna Beach volleyball white. Bel Air white. Omakaze white. Spicolli white. Bret Easton Ellis white. Three first names white. Valet parking white. Brag about your Native American, Argentinian, Portuguese ancestry white. Pho white. Paparazzi white. I once got fired from a telemarketing job, now look at me, I’m famous white. Calabazas white. I love LA. It’s the only place where you can go skiing, to the beach and to the desert all in one day white.

She held on to her vision rather than sit next to me, not that I blamed her, because by the time the bus hit Figueroa Boulevard, there were a number of people on board whom I wouldn’t have chosen to sit next to, either. Like the insane fucker who repeatedly pressed the ‘Stop Requested’ button. “Stop this bus, goddamit! I want to get off! Where the fuck you going?” Even that early in the day, stopping the bus between designated stops was the same as asking the flight crew of an Apollo rocket to the moon to stop at the liquor store on the way – impossible.

(Paul Beatty, The Sellout)

It might be easier to review The Underground Railroad if I actively disliked it. Colson Whitehead’s 2016 bestseller has proved to be one of the most talked-about novels of 2016, not just in science fiction circles but generally. Among the shadow Clarke jury it has easily proved the most popular title, not only in terms of the number of Sharkes who have chosen to review it, but also in the positive way it has been received – Paul Kincaid even went so far as to say that he would judge the overall success of this year’s official Clarke shortlist by whether it included The Underground Railroad. Now that shortlist has been released, we all know the official jury clearly felt the same way. It will be interesting to see whether Whitehead also makes this year’s Booker line-up. Judging by the almost universal enthusiasm for The Underground Railroad, I would think the chances of his not reaching the longlist stage at least would be remote.

Even before it was published, The Underground Railroad enjoyed a spectacular amount of pre-buzz. I came to it with a certain amount of apprehension – could any book possibly survive the weight of so much hype? – but expecting to admire it nonetheless. Colson Whitehead is a writer with a notable track record in literary innovation – he gave the zombie novel the full Franzen, after all – and has always been a better-than-solid craftsman. Yet in spite of judging it a perfectly decent book – it’s a thoroughly professional, smoothly executed, highly readable novel on an important subject – I found myself distinctly underwhelmed. Where The Underground Railroad is concerned and in spite of wishing I liked it better than I do, I remain in a condition of some bemusement: I simply cannot see what all the fuss is about.

In the beginning, I believed my dissatisfaction with the novel might have something to do with it not being science fiction. Many words have been expended upon the speculative conceit at the novel’s heart, so I won’t waste time going into extraneous detail on that here, except to say that my initial reaction to the making-real of the eponymous railroad was: so what? So Whitehead had chosen to replace the historical ‘railroad’ – a network of safe houses and secret escape routes that existed to help escaped slaves from the South flee to relative safety in the north – with an actual trains-and-tracks railroad? I could not see that this had any substantial impact on the action of the novel. Indeed, Whitehead could have written a straight historical narrative about the real Underground Railroad without having to change an awful lot – one might even argue that a greater historical accuracy would have lent to his endeavour a substantially greater impact than the halfway house between mimesis and speculation he had chosen as its milieu.

I have rowed back on this initial position. After following with interest the arguments of my fellow Sharkes as to why, precisely, The Underground Railroad absolutely has to be counted as science fiction, I quickly found myself willing to be persuaded that this is so. Megan’s argument in particular proved the clincher for me:

The Underground Railroad has very little history in it. It’s all made up. Those are alternate times and universes Cora visits. It’s a brilliant device Whitehead uses to compare the violence of slavery with the violence of later, supposedly more tolerant eras. He’s using this technique to show that our America hasn’t actually moved past the horrors of slavery, that they have continued and still continue in various insidious ways. Cora is visiting the evils of the system as it transforms.

The logic of this analysis won me over completely to the ‘The Underground Railroad is science fiction’ camp and I feel I emerged with a better understanding of what Whitehead was doing and why he found the use of speculative materials to be an essential element of his project. Niall Harrison made a point of querying the exact nature of those speculative materials, and found Railroad worked more potently for him when considered as fantasy:

I don’t see the different states in The Underground Railroad as alternate universes; both people and information move easily between them, which to me makes them operate as a single universe. But…it’s not a universe that connects cleanly to our own, or one that is completely internally self-consistent. That, to me, is something that moves the novel more towards fantasy than science fiction… Moreover, I would actually say that sense of connection between the different “islands” in The Underground Railroad — i.e the fantastical quality of the setting — is central to its effect, the juxtaposition of different moments in the historical oppression of black Americans, all of which happened, but which did not happen in the always-already fashion they happen in The Underground Railroad. For me, treating the different states as separate / more isolated / more science-fictional alternatives diminishes that effect.

As someone who has previously enjoyed arguing the semantics of science fiction versus fantasy, his argument was not entirely lost on me. The relative importance of such an argument, however, was. At least partly as a result of being so closely involved with the Sharke project, I have come rather to see such arguments as having limited value, speculative fiction’s version of angels dancing on pinheads. For me, the more important question by far centres on whether my acceptance of The Underground Railroad as properly speculative fiction changes my overall feelings about it as a novel.

Sadly it does not. There will be many who argue that in the matter of criticism it is impossible to divorce form from content, that The Underground Railroad is already important within its historical and social context, because of what it says and who is saying it. As someone who adheres substantially to the school of thought that holds the music of a text to be as important as the song it is singing – personally I would say more so, or where is the point in the novel as a written artefact? – I found The Underground Railroad to be closer in nature to programme music than a full symphony: a pallid, join-the-dots approach to its subject matter that has already guaranteed for itself a positive audience response by giving that audience exactly what it expected.

Aside from the opening, plantation-set chapters – a segment that, as other Sharkes have pointed out, may have proved more successful for me simply by calling to mind Toni Morrison’s incomparable Beloved – the prose style of The Underground Railroad seemed entirely unremarkable to me. As stated at the outset, I do not mean to suggest that The Underground Railroad is not readable, because it is – one might even describe it as a page-turner. The narrative style is accessible and fast moving and solidly well handled. But in this it differs not one whit from any number of similarly sound, professionally executed, well produced middle-of-the-road novels published in the last twelve months, whether they be about slavery or coming of age or internecine intrigue in a New York law firm.

In terms of how it is written, I found nothing to surprise me in The Underground Railroad, and as a result I found the inherent and inarguable power of the subject matter to be considerably depleted. For a book that has so much to say, it came as a considerable disappointment to me to discover that this book has no voice.

I still wonder how differently I might have felt about it, had the novel not come freighted with such a mighty weight of expectation. A book that arrives in the marketplace already garlanded with advance word of its ‘greatness’ is, in its way, at something of a disadvantage when it comes to critical appraisal. For while The Underground Railroad might be good – and it is without doubt the most professionally accomplished work on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist (a vexed statement in itself but we won’t go into that here) – I was led to expect that it would be great, and personally I think that’s pushing it, to say the least.

By sheer coincidence, or perhaps not, 2016 also saw the publication of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, another prizewinning American novel that takes race, not to say racism, as its defining subject matter. With an outrageous piece of speculation about the reintroduction of segregation at its heart, one could even – very tenuously, even I will admit – make an argument for The Sellout being Clarke-eligible. I don’t care about that, though. What I care about is the writing, which in Beatty’s case is as wild and dangerous and energised as any and all of its subject matter, as brilliant and provocative in its elucidation of that subject matter as that subject matter is urgent.

The Sellout opens with a prologue that is an extended riff, a tour-de-force demonstration of how Beatty means to go on: an unstoppable whirlwind of language, story, meaning and insult, a riot of colour and argument. The author doesn’t give so much as a glance behind to check if you’re keeping up – that’s your job, not his. The issue of who he might or might not be offending is the last thing on his mind:

Black women have beautiful hands, and with every ‘fuck you’ cocoa-butter stab of the air, her hands became more and more elegant. They’re the hands of a poet, one of those natural-haired, brass-bangled teacher poets whose elegiac verse compares everything to jazz. Childbirth is like jazz. Muhammed Ali is like jazz. Philadelphia is like jazz. Jazz is like jazz. Everything is like jazz except for me. To her I’m a remixed Anglo-Saxon appropriation of black music. I’m Pat Boone in blackface singing a watered-down version of Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That a Shame’. I’m every note of nonpunk British rock ‘n’ roll plucked and strummed since the Beatles hit that mind-reverberating chord that opens ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. But what about Bobby ‘What You Won’t Do For Love’ Caldwell, Gerry Mulligan, Third Bass, and Janis Joplin? I want to shout back at her. What about Eric Clapton? Wait, I take that back. Fuck Eric Clapton. Ample bosoms first, she hops the rail, bogarts her way past the cops, and bolts towards me, her thumb-sucking charges clinging desperately to her ‘Don’t You See How Insanely Long, Soft, Shiny and Expensive This Is? Motherfucker, YOU WILL Treat Me Like a Queen!’ Toni Morrison signature model pashmina shawl trailing behind her like a cashmere kite tail.

There is no way of reading The Sellout without laughing out loud – the wit, the linguistic dexterity, the sheer incendiary verve of its damning polemic are all and simultaneously sources of true visceral pleasure. And yet there exists alongside this impulse a strong argument not to laugh, because sometimes to laugh is to laugh things away. I have read that Beatty has expressed concern about the way white critics have stressed the humour in The Sellout as a means of dissipating anxiety over the seriousness of its content, and indeed The Sellout even contains an inbuilt pre-critique of its likely reception in white literary circles.

One night a white couple strolled into the club, two hours after ‘doors open’, sat front and center, and joined in the frivolity. Sometimes they laughed loudly. Sometimes they snickered knowingly like they’d been black all their lives. I don’t know what caught his attention, his perfectly spherical head drenched in houselight sweat. Maybe their laughter was a pitch too high… Maybe they were too close to the stage. Maybe if white people didn’t feel the need to sit up front all the damn time it never would’ve happened. “What the fuck you honkies laughing at?” he shouted. More chuckling from the audience. The white couple howling the loudest, Slapping the table. Happy to be noticed. Happy to be accepted. “I ain’t bullshitting! What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? Get the fuck out!”

To read a book and have the author tell me to piss off out of it – in the case of a book like this, that might be its greatest triumph, and really you need to read the five pages that immediately follow the above quote to get its full impact. It is something of a relief to discover that The Sellout took Beatty five years to write, because the novel is so accomplished, so perfectly achieved it would be impossible to imagine it taking anything less.

Here is voice. Here is text that does not make its message easily palatable for the reader. Here is a novel that remembers what novel means, that insists on the power and beauty of language as its primary material.

I don’t want easily consumable crib notes, I want the fully realised potential of the written word, I want diatribes and I want music.

I want the full symphony.


Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.

>> Read Nina’s introduction and shortlist


  1. PhilRM 7 years ago

    Hi Nina – Expectations are such difficult things to manage as readers, especially in the case of a book with such massive amounts of pre-publication publicity as The Underground Railroad. As I said in another comment, my initial reaction to TUR was very similar to yours, but my opinion of it has steadily gone up since I finished it and have come to understand what Whitehead was doing with his material (pointed out succinctly and precisely by Megan in her review).

    I’m going to disagree somewhat with you on Whitehead’s prose, however, in that I think the style he used – smoothly readable, but largely ‘transparent’ (to use that dreaded word) and often almost flat in its affect, even in some of the novel’s most horrifying scenes – was a deliberate choice on his part.* The viewpoint for the entire novel is Cora, a woman whom slavery and life have taught to be so controlled and cautious even in her thoughts that, e.g., she isn’t even aware that she’s going to intervene to save Chester from his beating until she’s already doing so. Would TUR have been a better novel if he had written it differently? That’s certainly arguable – it almost certainly would have raised my initial impression of the novel** – but I think Whitehead had a clear purpose in writing it the way he did.

    *I haven’t yet read any of Whitehead’s other novels to compare it to, but I just picked up a copy of The Intuitionist, and flipping through that it’s written in a much more idiosyncratic, lively prose style than TUR, so clearly Whitehead is capable of writing that way if he chooses.

    **Even if I hadn’t already been interested in reading The Sellout, the excerpts you posted would have sold me on it.

    • Nina Allan 7 years ago

      Hi Phil,

      I’ve been reading The Intuitionist, and already like it a great deal more than TUR for precisely the reasons you mention. I’d been hoping to base my review of TUR around a detailed comparison of three of Whitehead’s works but that would have entailed me rereading Zone One as well and what with all the other Sharke reading to get through I just haven’t had time. Which is a shame, because I’m interested in Whitehead as a writer – I’m especially keen to read his poker memoir The Noble Hustle.

      I’ve known from the start that I wouldn’t be entirely happy with my review of TUR as it is predicated too much upon my expectations for the novel rather than the novel itself. In this instance I found myself unable to disentangle the two, however, and so it is what it is. Perhaps this is a review that has something more useful to say about the publishing industry.

      I’ve found Megan’s contributions particularly invaluable in reappraising TUR. I might well give it another read in a year or two and see what I make of it then.


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