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the underground railroad

18 november 2016

I knew nothing about Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad before starting to read it except its title and the fact that Colson Whitehead is one of my favorite contemporary novelists. If you want the full surprise experience I had, stop reading here, because reviews are full of spoilers and mine are fuller than most.

For the first 65 pages or so of its 306, The Underground Railroad is a fairly "standard" novel about slavery – appalling, unflinching, tragic. It recalls contemporary treatments of slavery like Edward P. Jones' Known World, Kaye Gibbons' On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, Steve McQueen's film of Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave. Life in the quarters on the Randall plantation in Georgia is brutal, and two of the slaves, Caesar and Cora, determine to run away and find the Underground Railroad.

Of course what you may remember from history is that the Underground Railroad didn't extend to Georgia. Despite popular conceptions, despite some fictions that imagine the entire South riddled with abolitionist white folks, the Railroad itself was a Northern phenomenon. Availing one's self of it depended on running from border counties of slave states to abetters in the North. Uncoincidentally, the most iconic conductor on the Railroad, Harriet Tubman, escaped from slavery in Maryland and returned there to lead friends and family north to safety. She would not have stood a chance of leading them all the way from Georgia; and though Tubman did later work in South Carolina during the Civil War, the direction of freedom at that point lay east, not north: toward the nearby Union lines on the coast, not toward hundreds of miles of the Confederacy.

Well, no matter; Caesar and Cora set out all the same, and maybe they've just been misinformed. Until they get to the first station and are loaded onto a literal underground train car and whisked to South Carolina, where they see a skyscraper with elevators and enter a utopian community managed for the (apparent) benefit of Negroes from all over the South.

OK, we're back in the world of magical realism, Whitehead's more familiar territory anyway (with the elevator in South Carolina as a nod to his first, magical-realist novel, The Intuitionist). Magical realism with a healthy infusion of surrealism, I should add. Cora travels from state to state, by Whitehead's weirdly literal Railroad or by other means, losing Caesar to a mob in South Carolina but picking up other fellow travelers in other places. South Carolina, which seemed so promising at first, turns out to be a thinly-veneered eugenicist hell. North Carolina is an apartheid state preserved by ethnically-cleansing any black person who dares to enter. Tennessee is mostly on fire. Indiana contains another utopian haven, this time built by the efforts of African-Americans, but it's too good to last. The novel ends with Cora still on her feet, still moving.

Along the way she loses nearly everybody she cares about, but keeps her head about her. A violent streak which has led to her being ostracized on her home plantation becomes her ticket out of the worst kinds of dangers, imagined vividly by Whitehead as nearly comic-book scenes of action (and I mean that in a very positive sense). Along the way, The Underground Railroad pays homage to texts that have blazed a path for it. In South Carolina, a woman runs mad thinking of her lost children: Toni Morrison's Beloved. In North Carolina, Cora spends an extended period hidden cramped up in a loft above an attic: Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In Tennessee, she's dragged along captive by an obscene slave catcher: Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.

The states that Cora sojourns through are states of mind, literary backdrops, distillations of attitudes that have pervaded the racial history of America. Even the safest places, one black orator says in the novel's Indiana, are "delusions"; "and America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all" (285). "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running," reads the scholarship letter that the deluded narrator receives in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; and Cora enacts the same perpetual flight from delusion after delusion.

I've missed only one of Whitehead's novels, the zombie-themed Zone One, and I've written here before about two of them, Apex Hides the Hurt and Sag Harbor. Prominent in all except the largely realistic Sag Harbor is the tension between real and surreal: or maybe, the realization that we live in a surreal world, and the real is just our ideal version of it. The Underground Railroad may be his sharpest, most focused meditation on that dynamic: and, at the same time, an adventure story with a quest plot that keeps you traveling headlong forward, under the earth, with its vigorous protagonist.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday [Penguin Random House], 2016. PS 3573 .H4768U53