Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Props to the NY Times for running 4 chapters from Colson Whitehead's novel
Props to the NY Times for its new occasional Sunday section, printing a book excerpt on broadsheet newsprint available print only (how's that!) - a great idea because book excerpts work very well in this format and most online readers are too impatient to read 4 chapters of a book at a sitting. The debut for this feature is Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Underground Railroad, a book that certainly didn't need this extra push but a worthy choice from the NYT - Whitehead's a really good writer who probes American culture and history, with a particular interest in black culture and experience, and with a literary edge that pushes conventions but not to an extreme. The first two chapters of the novel start off like a pretty typical account of an escape from slavery and a journey north - I'm sure all readers will be reminded of Beloved - well narrated, a good and scary adventure and a sorrowful look at a low point in American history - and then the narrative takes a strange turn: just as the 2 runaways arrive safely at the "underground rr" safe house the owner takes them into the basement and - there's a real tunnel and a real locomotive. Whitehead has made the figurative into the real. Strange. It appears that each of these first 4 chapters centers on a different state - literally and figuratively - in the journey to freedom, w/ chapter 2 in SC - and again, it seems to be a straightforward narrative w/ the main character now known as Bessie - a name she assumed to avoid pursuit and capture - working as a housemaid, but then, oddly, she goes home to a large brick tenement that the state of SC has built for "negroes" and we learn that her papers now say she's property of the US govt., which has bought escaped slaves to protect their freedom - so, wait a second, we soon realize that this isn't a historical novel but an alternate history, a South (and North) that never was. She is pursued by various demons, giving the narrative great tension: an ardent slave catcher/bounty hunter, and a sinister doctor and medical system that is striving to sterilize black people and to use unsuspecting escaped slaves in a cruel study of the effects of syphilis (this part is, sadly, real). Who wouldn't keep reading?