A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Tag: tour de force

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)

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The Plover, by Brian Doyle

 

This 2014 work is quite a novel, quite an unusual novel. Indeed, a tour de force. It breaks so many rules, in fact, as it creates worlds of its own. It offers both a real world and an imaginary world, each created with poetry, sensitivity, and humor. But most significant are the many rules of fiction it breaks—with its endless, rhythmic sentences, its magic realism of talking birds, and its direct and indirect addressing of the reader.

This is the story of a man, Declan O’Donnell, who journeys around the vast Pacific in his small fishing boat, the Plover. He revels in his solitude, but slowly takes on passengers along the way, passengers who expand his and our awareness of the expanse and depths of both the Pacific and the human experience. But this book requires patience. It is not a book for everyone. For a long while, I wondered where it was going, much less where the boat and Declan, its captain, were going. Finally, I realized that there were no rules. That I was to experience here the journey within as much as the novel without. That this was not just about reality, this was also an inner voyage, a journey into the meaning of human nature and the implications of our natural environment.

This Pacific voyage is so real, however, that one wonders how Doyle has made it come alive with such detail. Yes, the credits listed in his acknowledgements suggest tremendous research, which is often the key to richly conceived novels such as this. But one also speculates that it is time he has spent at sea himself that has enabled Doyle to capture this experience so brilliantly.

And yet the strength of this novel is not in that reality, but in the magic, meaning the author’s imagination. In the miracle of an impaired, dumb child, for example, who can communicate with birds, one of whom suddenly enables her to speak. And in other birds that give comfort and anticipate danger. There is even literary magic in the long, complex, yet clear sentences that stretch the core of a thought or of a situation to its verbal limits.

Underlying the magic and the beauty, however, is a story, for Doyle understands that he needs a story in order to draw the reader through what are at times ephemeral pages. And so the hero Declan picks up various passengers, each with a story to tell and each contributing to the journey. There is an old friend Piko, and his daughter Pipa who has been crippled by an accident and cannot talk; Tauromauri, a woman so huge she is first taken to be a man; Tungaru, a minister for fisheries, etc., who dreams of a Utopian nation of Pacific islands; and Danilo, a refugee with a marvelous singing voice. And finally, for suspense, there is the mysterious Tanets, a ship in pursuit of the Plover. Why is its captain, Enrique, so intent on sinking the Plover and its passengers? It will become clear when he becomes the final passenger.

There is additional suspense in a typhoon, a kidnapping and rescue, a hijacking, and a sea battle, but it is balanced by Declan’s introspection as he seeks to escape society, and society keeps confronting him with new passengers, new adventures, and new implications. And hovering in Declan’s mind are the writings of Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher whose thinking enriches the context of Declan’s search for meaning across a vast and empty Pacific Ocean.

One senses that Doyle declines to be limited by the rules of fiction. Perhaps this follows his interest in the spiritual aspects of life. Thus, just as that level of perception breaks the bounds of reality, so does a similar perspective seek to break theough the limits of the literary world. I do wonder how much this limits his exposure inside the literary world, but one suspects his primary concern is exploring the limits of both literature and the human experience—as, indeed, Declan is exploring his own limits across a Pacific also limitless.

This novel offers the continuation of Declan’s life after he fades into the Pacific on the final pages of Mink River. One wonders if Doyle will continue Declan’s story, and extend these books into a trilogy. He does open the door to a third volume, when Declan discovers a potential love on the final pages here. Such a continuation may depend, however on Doyle’s interest in exploring further a Declan who has changed from a troubled hero in the first volume to a solitary, searching hero in the second. Do still new adventures await him, in which he will further pursue the fulfillment he seems denied? It would appear that love might well offer a new, and perhaps spiritual, horizon. (April, 2016)

Note: Because of a previous contact, I sent the author my review; and he wrote this in his response: “I am interested in writing novels that are experiences in and of themselves. I want the language to be a world; I want the reader to be lured in and mesmerized; I want them to hear and see and smell what the beings in the book do; I want you to be startled when you find a blank page at the end; I want you to come with me into imagination and possibility and the probability of the nominally impossible; I want you to question what you think you know; I want to soar and sail and dive and delve; I want to push the form as far as I can, and I have only one rule: be clear. As long as the reader doesn’t get clogged and slowed, everything is possible.”