The Underground Railroad_Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Doubleday

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.

Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.

Those are the goodie takeaways.

Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.

While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?

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Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.

Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South descriptionwhispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.

The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***

The Heavenly Table_Donald Ray Pollock

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Doubleday, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: July 12th 2016 by Doubleday
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When I sat down with The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock, I was all set to have my love for Southern Gothicism stoked here—forget that, even just my love for a great read in the Southern tradition. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that I’m a sucker for it. Yet, The Heavenly Table fell unexpectedly flat for me, I’m sorry to say.

Here you’ll find the story of the Jewett boys, regular hillbillies turned cowboys in 1917 Georgia, chasing a Buffalo Bill-type dream and their own versions of “the heavenly table,” a metaphor used throughout this novel. Here, you’ll also find an entire cast of colorful characters whose big personalities jostled for space within these pages.

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For me, the problem with this read came down to two very important counterparts that didn’t marry well here: plot and soul. You can have a wonderful premise—a killer idea and plotline all sketched out—but that doesn’t mean that it will be executed with a real feeling of ambiance and depth. And for a novel whose blurb wants it to live up to the Southern Gothic tradition (with references to Quentin Tarantino, no less!) it has to have soul. Period. Otherwise, peel that label off and call it something else. Call it “Django with a 3 Stooges cowboy twist.”

The premise of Pollock’s The Heavenly Table was great—the characters filled the pages; the vernacular added some awesome local color; the setting was rich and there were a couple of Gothic elements that tipped their hat toward the tradition of O’Connor and Faulkner. I even saw Tarantino here, featuring cartoon-like descriptions of gore and debauchery that were cinematic and would translate well on the big screen. (In fact, this one would probably make a better movie than it did a read.) In short, the fundamentals of the story itself were fine, maybe even good, but I never felt any depth. I’m not even talking “feels,” just enough depth to make it funny, to make it feel real even in its raucousness.

     The Heavenly Table was beautiful as a metaphor but fell short in that it never gripped me and pulled me in. True enough, each character had some spit and dirt to them—in that way, it was gritty—but the rest of the grit came off as superficial and referential to other great works, to others’ great styles, and not fully of its own character. It didn’t make me yearn for the next flip of a page to see what lay in wait on the other side. To me, it read as classroom-learned writing with no natural swag. This was my first foray into Pollock’s works. It read like a 1st novel, which is surprising coming from an author with the renown that Pollock has amassed thus far. What I will say about this 3rd major work of Pollock’s is that he did let his own Southern Ohio, blue-collar roots hang out with a confident flamboyance and devil-may-care flair that I appreciated, making the read feel authentically Southern.

But Rule #1 is always: Don’t tell me; show me. And I think that one was tossed to the wind here in favor of superfluous character plotlines and backstories—I still can’t figure out what some of those characters were even doing in there, let alone why they had entire backstories of their own—and debaucherous accounts of adventure that I could see but not feel, not taste, not touch myself. It fell short of being fully 3-D for me, cinematic though the plot aimed to be. Without that added depth of flavor, without that thickened roux at its base, the cinematic appeal lost a little of its verve and sparkle— it lost some of its Rabelaisian humor appeal.

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That extra word count from all of those storylines would’ve been better served filling out the story of the main characters. This one had too many ideas that could have been narrowed down to a much better read. Yes, yes, I get the attempt at weaving several intricately woven stories together so that they come together surprisingly in the end—it’s awe-inspiring when done right—but this wasn’t that. This was too many ideas—some of which were poorly executed or simply unnecessary—with the end result being me confused about who was who and whether or not they would show up again often enough in the novel for me to even care about them (sometimes the answer was no). Really, The Heavenly Table took the long way to its finale and dragged in too many characters to do it, with the end result not having the kick that it could have. There were serial killers tossed in for the hell of it, like “oh by the ways” tossed in just for good measure, just to make sure the read was good and raunchy. I didn’t respond well to that kind of fabricated grit. Was Heavenly Table gritty (as the blurb stated) because it had heart or because debauchery was heaped on debauchery? I’d say the latter, like a bawdy and mildly depraved version of the Slapstick genre: events were just happening just to be happening at some times, and that really turned me off.

Yet, to others, this might be a real selling point, as it was indeed Rabelaisian. For those who want to ride along with a good ole early 20th century American adventure story, complete with liquor, whores, murder and debauchery, this is most definitely the read for you—and you’ll LOVE it! But if you’re looking for more depth based on the blurb, don’t be fooled by the O’Connor reference—you won’t find that kind of true soul of allegory here. 2.5 stars **

A Little Life_Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?

The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.

A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.

     “These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.

However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.

Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.

Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****