Nobody could wait for Colson Whitehead’s new book — including Oprah, so here it is, a month early. In a surprise announcement Tuesday morning, Winfrey chose “The Underground Railroad” as the next title for Oprah’s Book Club. Originally set for release Sept. 13, the novel is available now, the result of an extraordinary plan to start shipping 200,000 copies out to booksellers in secret.
Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, “The Underground Railroad” marks a new triumph for Whitehead. Since his first novel, “The Intuitionist” (1999), the MacArthur “genius” has nimbly explored America’s racial consciousness — and more — with an exhilarating blend of comedy, history, horror and speculative fiction. In this new book, though, those elements are choreographed as never before. The soaring arias of cleverness for which he’s known have been modulated in these pages. The result is a book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. “The Underground Railroad” reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era.
The conceit of Whitehead’s novel is oddly whimsical: He imagines that the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses and clandestine routes used to smuggle slaves north, was, in fact, an actual railroad built underground. “Most people think it’s a figure of speech,” a slave catcher says, but in this version of the antebellum South, that engine of courage is forged from tons of iron, stone and wood. The first time we see one of the stations in Georgia, it’s wondrous:
“The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. . . . The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.”
As a feat of imagination, this network of stations and tracks is a marvel, but it could easily have overwhelmed the novel, recasting the pre-Civil War era with steampunk kitsch. Wisely, Whitehead only rarely shows us the underground railroad. It gains real heft as a symbol of bravery and perseverance, a subterranean force in the story, which usually remains strikingly realistic.
The central character is a young woman named Cora, enslaved on a Georgia cotton plantation owned by Mr. Randall, a wealthy twin with a gruesome turn of mind. His slaves are whipped and beaten, of course, but they’re also raped and flayed and murdered in ways meant to satiate his own degenerate lusts and keep his human chattel in a state of debilitating terror. Cora, left behind when her mother escaped years earlier, lives in the plantation’s lowest shack, a place for the dying and insane, those flogged into imbecility and permanent disability.
This is grim material to be sure, but hope animates the story, and Whitehead’s narrative is a fascinating lamination of disparate tones. Sentences seem to twist phrase by phrase — mocking, mourning, satirizing, celebrating. While describing the horror of the plantation, he also honors the slaves’ courage and relishes their wry humor. Elegant lawn parties are undercut by casual references to torture. But the ultimate effect of sabotaging our glossy history is to remind us that we stand upon “stolen bodies working stolen land.”
Cora, so observant and determined, makes a perfect witness of this grotesque realm of gentility floating on blood. Fleeing via the Underground Railroad, she passes through the varieties of slave experience in America. A station agent assures her, “South Carolina has a much more enlightened attitude toward colored advancements than the rest of the South,” and indeed, she and a friend “have to learn how to walk like freemen” and “undo some of the damage to their personalities wrought by slavery.” But too quickly the sinister aspects of their faux liberty become apparent, and Cora must escape again, reinventing herself in that most American way in some new temporary oasis. Running from “the miserable thumping heart” of one town after another, she moves through a culture determined to domesticate African Americans or infantilize them or sterilize them or demonize them or ultimately exterminate them.
Cora is such a sympathetic character and her survival is so constantly threatened that the story charges along with incredible power. Danger is everywhere, but her particular nemesis is a slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway, who failed to retrieve Cora’s mother years ago and won’t be made a fool of again. He’s part of a gang of patrollers: armed men empowered by their own confidence and lack of scruples to stop any black person at any time and demand complete obedience on pain of death. (Fortunately, this never happens in America anymore.)
As Cora winds her way across the country looking for refuge, we can hear echoes of other periods of terror and moral idiocy, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study and the Salem witchcraft trials. In one town, fine Southern men convene to solve “the colored question,” a harrowing allusion to the 20th century’s central atrocity. And Cora’s temporary job in a Museum of Natural Wonders suggests with comic and cringing effect just how early we began manufacturing our national myths, anesthetizing ourselves to others’ pain and rendering invisible the bounty stolen from generations of African Americans.
“Truth was a changing display in a shop window,” Cora thinks, “manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” She recalls a fellow slave at her birthplace who was trained to speak for the delight of their master’s guests: “Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either.”
Cora can be a deadly defender of her imperiled liberty, but she also knows that her oppressors are, in some ways, “prisoners like she was, shackled to fear. . . . America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.” Cora may not ever find freedom, but she’s on the right path.
The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday. 306 pp. $26.95