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Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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Three years ago I wrote here about Life After Life, Kate Atkinson‘s brilliant puzzle of a novel which featured Ursula Todd, who seemed to be born again and again into the same life, lived a little differently each time. I’ve just finished the novel Atkinson calls a companion, rather than a sequel, the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy.

A God In Ruins, unlike Life After Life, is mainly concerned with the characters’ adult lives. There’s a chapter in which Teddy is a child, but most of the remaining 400 some pages are about Teddy’s WWII service as a bomber pilot, and then his postwar life. In 2012, he is dying in a nursing home.

We learn of his time piloting Halifaxes out of a base in Yorkshire, the crews he serves with, and his several tours of duty. “Well, the job isn’t finished yet,” he writes in a letter when his family wonders why he went back to flying, instead of staying out of danger once he’d done his part. “The truth was, there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was.”

Just as Life After Life was, among many other things, about the wartime experience of civilians in England who risked their own lives to aid people during the Blitz, A God In Ruins is about the men who flew for England, carrying our raids that were, for the first time, targeting civilians, firebombing cities, in the name of bringing the German war machine to its knees.

Teddy meets Ursula in London on leave, and they have a conversation about this “area bombing.” She asks, “Indiscriminate attacks. The civilian population considered to be a legitimate target — innocent people. It doesn’t make you feel . . . uncomfortable?” Teddy responds defensively, pointing out that Germany started the war, to which Ursula says, “I rather think we started it at Versailles.”

Teddy sees her points. He is in a difficult position, walking a line, as so many people do, between day-to-day truths and “big T” Truth. And he knows it. He says he wishes he could go back in time and kill Hitler, and Ursula says, “you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel.” Teddy responds, “Or the apple.”

And that, I think, is one of the things this book is about. Could mankind really turn out differently? Or are we destined to wage war, and is that a struggle against our very selves at heart? What makes us turn away from innocence and beauty  (this book is full of lovely countryside, meadows, birds, and plants) and choose instead to destroy each other, and ourselves?

But these questions, about human nature and goodness, our capacity to be kind or cruel, to love or not in the name of gain (our own or some other, perhaps national) are all part of the story, and certainly a continuation of Life After Life, but are in a way subverted in the end by an even greater question. Atkinson says in the author’s note: “And of course, there is a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination . . . .” I can’t explain this without giving too much away. I had no idea what was coming, I must say, until the last fifty pages, and even then I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what was happening. Atkinson gets at the heart of what is real and what is imagined, pushing the fictional envelope while also writing what is in many ways a much more traditional novel than it’s companion.

Teddy turns out to be every bit as marvelous a character as his sister, and the writing is also both keen and lovely. I wish I’d had a long stretch to really immerse myself in this novel, because it deserves to be read that way. Even in snatches before bed, it was a book I didn’t really want to end. And when it did I was left sitting, thinking, absorbing, and holding what I’d just felt. Atkinson makes clear the full marvel — for good or ill — of being human and the strange mixture of pleasure and pain that living brings. A God in Ruins is in a way a tribute to the capacity of the human mind. If you haven’t felt amazed by what you’ve read lately, this may be the book for you.

Should you read Life After Life first? I think this book could easily stand alone, but as a pair they definitely compliment each other.

 

 

 

 

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