on the distillation of history in story (The Underground Railroad)

The bonus of a bank holiday weekend is that there is an extra whole day for reading. I spent mine with Colson Whitehead’s new book The Underground Railroad, which comes out in the UK this autumn. I will now spend the next few months buying and reading his entire back catalogue because, OMG, that book is amazing. I read it in 36 hours straight – while also taking in two and a half proms and a film. It is compelling.

If you’ve not heard about it already, it’s about Cora, who is a slave from Georgia making a break for it on the Underground Railroad – only the railroad here is an actual railroad with actual trains. This ‘AU’ twist really works for it, because you immediately get to let go of how much of the story is historically factual and how much is tweaked and shifted for impact. It means the book is able to be a kind of distillation of historical reality, thoughts and arguments about race and slavery that instensifies the reader’s experience.

Here each section gives you a chapter about Cora’s time in one state, a particular episode and snapshot of her world. Each is slightly off-real, if you like, given that the ideas, practices, laws and events she encounters aren’t really real, historically, but which are really real emotional and philosophical ways, in that they play out ideas and arguments about race that underpinned slavery and still swirl around discourse about race and race relations. Then it gives you one short chapter about another character who is a part of her story, illuminating that world a bit further with an additional perspective. Why are people the way they are, and why are they how they are in this world?

Tangentally, I remember when Andrei Makine’s book The Life of an Unknown Man came out, one reviewer complained that one man couldn’t have experienced all of these things. That’s NOT THE POINT, REVIEWER. The point is that the reader gets to experience all of these things, variations of which did happen, through one character or story. I love this kind of approach to history in fiction, it totally works for me.

The Underground Railroad adds to the instensity by being resolutely matter of fact about Cora’s reality and her feelings about it. Accounts of violence, for example, are simply but clearly described, they’re not indulgently graphic, looking to shock or provoke other emotions in that moment. So, as a reader the pressure just keeps building on you, without giving you the kind of emotional vent that one big scene does or that a big emotional character moment does. You have to keep going and dealing with it alongside Cora.

By the time Cora had reached North Carolina, I was tweeting at my friend Sarah, who gave me the book, going, ‘I don’t like this any more, this is really hard, I kind of want to stop and not deal with it.’ But at the same time, Cora doesn’t get to escape things, you don’t get to escape things. The Underground Railroad absolutely demands something from the white reader: that you acknowledge this experience and the pain of it, and that you have the responsibility to do that. This book is on the New York Times bestseller list, and it totally wants to confront the white, sophisticated, middle to upper class audience it will get in that space with the experience and a realisation of the privilege and responsibility that that not having been your experience and your past brings if you’re in any way serious about helping to heal a society still divided around this history.

It’s absolutely not just for – probably not even primarily for this audience – but I’m absolutely not the person to talk about what the reading this is like if it is a story of your history and experience. I’m here for recommended reading and listening from that perspective, please.

Also, once a book gets the kind of hype and tractor this has, this is clearly going to be a major audience. And also, a major voice in the conversation about the book – one that risks being  overwhelming if it isn’t self-aware about it. So it’s worth point out that this book does not, I thonk, want to let the mes in its readership to settle for feeling good and woke because we’ve read it. It wants more.


Recommended background music: Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields or Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, both of which I had on this weekend.

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