For nerds like me, the words “NBA finals” resonate not so much because of giants sportsing hard as for a more thrilling contest whose outcome will be announced November 16: the National Book Awards.
When 2016’s shortlist for fiction was released earlier this month, I had read exactly zero of the five picks. But, while my father did not succeed in instilling me with his love of sportsball, I did inherit his readiness to jump up and scream, whether with elation or outrage, at whatever screen is displaying the results of a fiercely anticipated competition. That reactionary commitment is what impels me on a madcap binge-read through the shortlist in the remaining weeks til the announcement.
This week I enjoyed Colson Whitehead’s slave-narrative masterpiece The Underground Railroad. See my thoughts below, feel free to comment with your opinions on the novel, this year’s shortlist, or the meaning of life, and don’t forget to check back each week as I review The Throwback Special, News of the World, The Association of Small Bombs, and Another Brooklyn.
Like other novels about human history’s heaviest crimes, The Underground Railroad is a study of the soul in extremities. Cora, the steel-willed protagonist, escapes the hard labor and sadistic punishments of an early 19th-century Georgia plantation into a life lived perpetually on the run. If slavery was a trap, her hard-won “freedom” is little better than that of a hunted animal.
For Ridgeway, the renowned slave catcher hard at her heels, Cora’s mother Mabel was the one that got away. For Cora, abandoned at the age of 10, left to the machinations of slaves who coveted her tiny plot of land or her unprotected young body, Mabel represents the dark side of escape. “He [Ridgeway] hated her mother as much as she did. That, and the fact they both had eyes in their head, meant they had two things in common.”
The complex antagonism between villain and heroine, pursuer and pursued, both propelled toward interlocking fates by bitterness against a figure from the past, is a microcosm of Whitehead’s antebellum South. In this world, no one ever escapes slavery, and not only because of fugitive slave laws or obsessed masters and slave catchers (though these abound). If past traumas remain visible on characters’ bodies, marks used for identification in their capture, the hidden traumas are as deeply branded. As Lander, the gifted mixed-race abolitionist, puts it, “[Slavery’s] scars will never fade.” For whites and blacks alike, the cycle of violence seems inescapable, possibilities for personal growth circumscribed by an institution that chokes the humanity of all.
In prose as subdued yet strong as Cora herself, Whitehead whimsically paints the mysteries and wonders of an alternative but recognizable American past. Here, the “underground railroad” is a literal subterranean network of tunnels and trains; anachronistically, there is already a skyscraper in South Carolina. But these subtle elements of magical realism take a backseat to the intense psychological realism of the character portraits. Each part of the book marks a new stop in Cora’s journey, and each begins with a chapter from the perspective of a less central character. In these Whitehead manages to humanize the wicked, the well-meaning but cowardly, and those struggling to retain their sense of goodness alike.