The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet)
I qualify that statement only because I have not read every novel published in 2016. Nobody has. But I have seen nothing to suggest that I am wrong in this assessment. And I am not alone in this view; the novel has, after all, won America’s National Book Award.
I consider it the best, in part, because it is a novel that speaks to the moment the way that few other books do. It captures the screams of Ferguson, the anger of Black Lives Matter, the despair in the face of the renewed racism that celebrated the last American election. It is a book that places the experience of being black in America today on a trajectory that puts it closer to slavery than we ever like to think. And it does all of this with intelligence, with beauty, with subtlety, with wit and with invention. It uses the tools of the novel the way those tools are meant to be used, but so seldom are.
It is a book that held me with its first sentence, and continued to hold me, with horror and delight, through to its last sentence.
It is a good novel, perhaps the best novel; but does that mean it is the best science fiction novel?
In part, that all depends on what you mean by science fiction. I have always had a very catholic view of the matter, so for me this is not an issue.
True it has none of the technology we like to associate with science fiction. The only item of technology on display is a railroad engine, a steam-belching behemoth appropriate to the 1850s setting. It is the sort of engine we see in cowboy movies, complete with cowcatcher; of its time and unexceptional. Or at least it is if you don’t count the fact that this train runs in tunnels measureless to man, carved out of the bedrock of America we know not how and we know not when and we know not by whom. The train runs, unseen and unknown, below the surface of America, delivering slaves from their individual hells to … well, for now let’s just say elsewhere. It is the hidden conscience of America. It is the literalisation of the Underground Railroad that Harriet Tubman and other free blacks and escaped slaves organised at immense personal risk to ferry escaped slaves from safe house to safe house until they reached Canada. It is, of course, a metaphor. It is visually arresting and it serves its purpose of ferrying our viewpoint character from place to place, but we cannot rest our identification of the novel as science fiction upon this piece of engineering.
No, the engineering that stamps this novel as science fiction for me is social engineering.
But that is not where the novel begins, and it cannot be where this review begins. It begins, as slave narratives must, in the past. It begins with Cora’s grandmother, captured by Dahomeyan slavers and sold as “part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder”, and sold again once she arrives in America for “two hundred and twenty-six dollars. She would have fetched more but for that season’s glut of young girls.” Glut: how simply the language tells us these are not people but produce. Whitehead is careful to record her price as she is sold on from one owner to the next: two hundred and eighteen dollars, two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and sixty, two hundred and seventy. Finally she is bought for “two hundred and ninety-two dollars, in spite of the new blankness behind her eyes, which made her look simple-minded.” It is important to know your price: “know your value and you know your place in the order.” Knowing that won’t make you a human being, but it might help you survive. Or maybe not. She has five children that she teaches this mantra to, four of them die: “her youngest never woke up after a boss hit him in the head with a wooden block”; but at least they were never sold off.
This is the world into which Cora is born, the world that is never questioned because it is the air that she breathes. Whitehead describes slavery in such a low key way, the way you’d think about anything that was so familiar that you never had to stop and consider what was actually entailed, that at first the reader is tricked into thinking it’s really not so bad. For instance, Cora’s story starts with a birthday party for one of the old slaves. But then you start to notice the details. “Jockey’s birthday only came once or twice a year” and it’s always on a Sunday because that’s when they finish work at three o’clock, and everyone attends unless they have a pass to sell crafts at the market in town, or they’ve hired themselves out for day labour, and they could never disappoint a white man because of a slave’s birthday because “everybody knew niggers didn’t have birthdays.” One short paragraph about a celebration, and there’s so much oppression in it. Slaves don’t have birthdays because they’re not really people; and that’s a view even the slaves accept, which is why birthdays are arbitrarily chosen dates. Even then, labour always comes first, even on their “half day” of rest. And even when they are not present, even when they are making no particular demands, everything revolves around appeasing the white men; the slaves are complicit in their own slavery because they know of no alternative. Eventually, when the white men do put in an appearance, we will witness their casual, unthinking brutality, but long before that we understand the brutalisation of the slaves simply from the way they conduct their everyday lives, from what is assumed, from what is not questioned.
Cora is alone in all of this. Years before, when Cora was still a little girl, her mother ran away, and is the only runaway from the plantation never to have been caught by slave catchers, never to have been brought back, tortured and murdered for all to see. For this Cora feels resentment, abandoned, why couldn’t her mother take Cora with her to wherever it was she went; yet at the same time wherever she went, whichever unknown northern city she reached, is an image of freedom to sustain Cora. This emotional conflict is what makes Cora tough, uncompromising, independent, intent upon surviving on her own terms.
After witnessing one act of brutality too many, Cora agrees to join a fellow slave in a bid for freedom. It’s probably suicide, they must know that, but her mother got away and Cora is determined that she will too. And indeed they make it to the isolated home of a local white trader, who ushers them down into his cellar, which turns out to be a station with a train due to arrive in the near future. In this moment the novel changes; the hinge swings open and what had to this point been a quiet, detailed, brilliant work of historical fiction becomes something else. I’m prepared to call it science fiction.
Within the context of the novel, the various stations on the underground railroad that Cora visits are presented as being contemporary and coeval with the world of the plantation. The slave catcher Ridgeway, familiar from her plantation days, is always there, threatening to return Cora to her master. But they are not, they could not be, in the same world; each stage of her journey transports us into a different alternate reality, a reality in which some aspect of post-Civil War black experience is amplified. The journey that we make, from Georgia to South Carolina, to North Carolina, to Tennessee, to Indiana, is a journey through the various ways that white America has tried to deal with the blackness at its core.
Slavery was one such way, but if the various social engineering projects we encounter next are any better, it is not necessarily by much.
At first, South Carolina seems like very heaven. Cora is free, she has a job, even if that job is being a living exhibit in a human zoo, and there’s medical attention. Except that it turns out the medical attention includes involuntary sterilisation of all black women: Cora flees. In North Carolina we encounter the lynchings of the early decades of the 20th century institutionalised. In a passage that feels like a rewriting of something by Shirley Jackson, there is a great festival every week at which any black person found within the state borders is hanged, along with any white person found helping them. Cora watches all this from an attic where she is hiding out like an alternative Anne Frank. In the end she escapes only because Ridgeway, the slave catcher, captures her to be returned to her plantation. Their meandering route, however, takes them first into Tennessee, where blackness is literally equated with a pestilence that is ravaging the state. Here again, Cora manages to escape, turning up next in Indiana where an abolitionist has set up a farm to be run entirely by escaped slaves. The farm is productive and for a while all seems well, even if notions of equality do not run quite as deep as we might like. But the very success of the farm arouses the jealousy and anger of their white neighbours, and once again the walls come tumbling down.
There is no resolution to the story, because there can be no resolution. The story of being black in America has not reached any sort of an ending, so we leave Cora journeying once more, heading who knows where, hoping to find who knows what. There is no promise in this ending; but she has survived, so far, and that is something.
The moment that the train appears, the novel changes. Perhaps Cora had not escaped but was captured and killed in that instant, and all that happens subsequently is her dying dream. Perhaps the train really does carry her through different dimensions, different times, different realities. Perhaps this whole novel takes place in some parallel world where each state really is an hermetically sealed microcosm of different forms of black experience. It doesn’t really matter: we are inside Cora’s head, and we see what she is seeing. Is that science fiction? I’m prepared to say it is.
Undeniably, the writing does change at this point. The understated precision of the slave narrative, based on so many historical accounts, does not live on into the subsequent scenes where exaggeration is the necessary order of the day. But then, Cora is changing. The brilliance of the early chapters lies in the way the horrors are made ordinary, because that is how they would be for Cora. But outside of Georgia she is seeing things anew, learning horrors that are fresh to her, and they therefore acquire a vigour and a definition for her. So the novel changes from realist historical fiction to something fantastic, phantasmagorical. But I don’t think it loses in the transition; indeed, the transition is the whole point of the novel. It is the skill with which this is handled that makes The Underground Railroad a great novel. Is it great science fiction? I’m prepared to say it is.
Colson Whitehead is an interesting writer. He has written six novels to date, three of which, including his first, are works of the fantastic. Yet he is seen, on both sides of the literary divide, as a mainstream writer. I wonder if that is why some people seem reluctant to accept that The Underground Railroad is a science fiction novel? But it is. And a very good one.