Notes on The Underground Railroad (2015)

The Underground Railroad is an extremely successful book and for this it must be analyzed. It won the Pulitzer prize and must now pay the Pulitzer price. It also won the National Book Award but I can’t think of anything funny to say about that. Colson Whitehead is clearly an extremely capable writer and nothing written here begins to question that. No, this scribble is about how this book fits together like a jigsaw.

The imagery of a jigsaw conveys the idea of perfect construction. It is the sense that all the pieces connect together and convey the perfect whole that is their fundamental quality. An incomplete jigsaw or one where you’ve lost some of the pieces is now broken, right? It is not the jigsaw anymore.

So comparing a book to a jigsaw is a commentary on how well put together the entire thing is. While this put-togetherness of the book can be elaborated in any number of ways – including in terms of plot and the craft of how you write a book about suffering without normalizing it. The latter is done expertly here, I feel. Colson Whitehead pulls the rug out from under you with a bitter flick of the wrist. It’s a gutpunch, one-two. For the sake of spoilers, I will not reveal how but it is the best part of the book.

In the Underground Railroad, the viewpoints and the characters that Whitehead explores follow a logic while seeming to be strange and haphazard. Each one (other than the black characters of course) explores a particular facet of the white gaze. There is the Doctor Stevens who sees racism as illogical but whose rationality allows him to explore eugenics. There is Ridgeway who sees cosmic order in the inequalities of the world. There is Ethel who dances in the warm glow of the white saviour syndrome. And so on. To that extent, they are allegory. (I really feel my lack of a lit background at points like these.)

Allegory is a strange to a genre writer because that is often seen as self-evidently the objective of your craft. Fairy stories are allegorical after all. Allegory is often how mainstream writers dip their feet into genre while maintaining an air of superiority. The ogre isn’t an actual ogre, it’s capitalism or an unsolved familial crisis! This isn’t about being ‘against interpretation’ but rather that when done badly, allegories seem like cues for applause. And nobody likes cues for applause.

In Whitehead, this doesn’t feel like the case because these viewpoints provide a diversity of perspective that seems to spread out, enveloping and surrounding the main character, Cora. The effect isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional. Which in the end is what makes it satisfying.

Photo Credit: Zengxiao Lin on Unsplash