"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead (2016)
"But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren't looking, alluring and ever out of reach."
Colson Whitehead lives in New York and started his career writing for The Village Voice. He's written several other novels, and his books have won many awards. The Underground Railroad is his most recent novel, coming five years after his last book, Zone One.
In The Underground Railroad Cora, a slave in Georgia, attempts to escape life under an especially cruel master. Her flight from plantation life leads to several stops along the underground railroad, and at every turn she's confronted by the inhumanities of daily life in the slave states.
It's a thrilling novel, and brought to mind several other novels touching upon similar themes. Faulkner came to mind, though Whitehead's prose isn't nearly as experimental. I also found myself remembering parts of Toni Morrison's Beloved* and Ann Petry's The Street. And while I thoroughly enjoyed The Underground Railroad, I can't help but think that Whitehead isn't quite in the same league as the above-mentioned authors. Taken as a whole, The Underground Railroad isn't as fleshed out as Go Down, Moses, Beloved, or The Street, either in terms of the details it presents or the way the characters are developed. It felt to me like The Underground Railroad should have been a much longer book, with more space given to some of the other characters. It also felt more like the outline of a novel, missing some of the scenes that would have made it truly great.
Besides Beloved and The Street, Cormac McCarthy's The Road came to mind. This is another book that wasn't quite fleshed out, and another book that received acclaim far beyond the author's other, superior works. Like The Road, The Underground Railroad makes a great (and timely) point, but one wonders if that point couldn't have been made even stronger through the inclusion of certain details. Both books were highly praised by the likes of Oprah and other tastemakers, yet both books are, to me at least, somewhat unsatisfying.
Of course given the current social/political climate and the trend towards "representation" (laudable though it often is) people are falling over each other to praise this book. It's unfortunate, however, that in praising this book people often overlook other, better books which preceded it. The Underground Railroad is certainly good, but I'm thinking that Colson Whitehead either has written or will write better.
"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
"The Street" by Ann Petry (1946)
Some of My Favorite Authors
"Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
*I realize that my review of Beloved is very critical, and doesn't make it sound like a very good book. Just the same, I think it's much better than The Underground Railroad. Part of my reaction to Beloved was colored (if you'll excuse the pun) by having read Jazz not long before.