On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

Whenever one of her students finished, my graduate school advisor took everyone out to dinner and paid for the meal.  These were expensive meals, too – between San Francisco’s culinary culture and Silicon Valley’s sudden money, many restaurants near Stanford turned very pricey.

I wouldn’t eat.  I’d order a glass of water, no more.  If it were lunchtime, I’d say that I planned to go running early in the afternoon.  If it were dinner, I’d murmur that K & I had eaten already.  My advisor would frown, but after the first few times this happened, she stopped arguing.  She probably thought I was anorexic, or deranged.

Nope.  But I’d read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.  In his words:

gift_us_newGift exchange must … be refused when there is a real threat in the connections that it offers.  In ancient tales the hero who must pass through hell is warned that charity is dangerous in the underworld; if he wishes to return to the land of the living, he should lend a hand to no one, nor accept the food offered by the dead.

Gifts from evil people must also be refused lest we be bound to evil.  In folk tales the hero is well advised to refuse the food and drink offered him by a witch.

We often refuse relationship, either from the simple desire to remain unentangled, or because we sense that the proffered connection is tainted, dangerous, or frankly evil.  And when we refuse relationship, we must refuse gift exchange as well.

If I’d nibbled an eight dollar plate of french fries, I probably wouldn’t have been trapped in California.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.  That was a world with which I hoped to maintain no ties.

urThe stakes for Cora, the hero of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, are higher.  I was miserable during graduate school, but Whitehead writes of a world in which innocent people are routinely tortured and murdered in all variety of grotesque, horrifying manner.

When Cora stumbles to the road after trekking for days through a secret subterranean tunnel, she sees several wagons trundling westward.  The first two wagons are driven by white men – she ignores the first, and, when pressed by the second, turns down his offer to help.

The third wagon was commanded by an older negro man.

You hungry?” the man asked.  He was from the south, from his voice.

I’m very hungry,” Cora said.

Despite her hunger, Cora could not accept aid from the whites.  Although her escape was facilitated by several white people (most of whom were then tortured and murdered for having aided her), she cannot trust strangers with pallid skin.

Indeed, a minor character, another survivor of the final massacre that Cora fled, gives a pithy summary of this distrust in her old age:

She lived on Long Island then, after roaming all over the country, in a small house with a Shinnecock sailor who doted on her to excess. She’d spent time in Louisiana and Virginia, where her father opened colored institutes of learning, and California.  A spell in Oklahoma … The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name.  The Great War had always been between the white and the black.  It always would be.

Several pages earlier, Whitehead proffers a speech from a character highly regarded for his intellectualism; this speech delineates the sides in this war:

Our ancestors came from all over the African continent.  It’s quite large. … They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages.  And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. … We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. … The word we.  We are not one people but many different people.  How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?

For we are Africans in America.  Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.

Color must suffice.  It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future.  All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family.  We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

The world in Whitehead’s novel is stark and brutal.  What’s worse, the most horrific elements of the story are real.

colson_whitehead_2014The Underground Railroad is a blend of historical fiction and Man-in-the-High-Castle-esque sci-fi.  The novel is set in a world that resembles the 1800s United States, but it is not our world.  Underground tunnels crisscross the country, secretly built by a coterie of technologically-advanced, presumably African-American citizens (when asked of the provenance of the tunnels, a character gnomically replies “Who builds anything in this country?”).  And a century’s worth of racial injustice has been condensed into the several years that Cora spends fleeing the torturers who claimed to own her.

Personally, I felt that this speculative re-imagining of America weakened the story.  By picking and choosing various injustices throughout history and shifting them into the past, Whitehead creates the illusion that these sins all pre-dated the Civil War.  After all, the passage about the “Great War” quoted above implies that Whitehead’s world experienced a similar abolition of slavery toward the turn of the century, else how could “colored institutes of learning” be opened in the south?

But the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as with many of the abuses documented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is so chilling because it transpired long after the Civil War – the syphilis study did not officially end until the 1970s.

And Whitehead imagines a region that has outlawed the presence of any human with too much melanin in his or her skin (perhaps even European immigrants living here stayed indoors, or routinely smeared themselves with thick swaths of titanium dioxide, lest they be mobbed & murdered for a tan).  But, within the context of a sci-fi alternate history, readers might believe that the violent enforcement of a “whites only” district ended long before it did in this country.

bloodattherootThese abuses were ongoing a mere thirty years ago.  From Carol Anderson’s New York Times review of Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root:

A few years later, in 1987, the civil rights legend Hosea Williams … took marchers … into Forsyth County [outside Atlanta].  It wasn’t a fair fight.  Men, women, children and Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed law enforcement and hurled stones, debris, and epithets as they surged at the nonviolent protesters.  “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The only thing that finally broke Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the onslaught of economic development.

Especially at this moment in history, when millions of young black men are ensnared in our nation’s incarceration crisis, when dozens have recently been murdered by the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them, it feels strange to condense horrors into a small sliver of long-ago time.  Slavery itself in many ways continued into the 1940s, as documented in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name.  If you read the Thirteenth Amendment, you’ll find that slavery is still constitutionally legal even today, as long as a mockery of justice is enacted first.  In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how egregiously unfair these mockeries of justice often are in the present-day United States.

Some of the violence in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is thankfully confined to the past.  The unpunished multi-day torture-cum-murder of re-captured fugitives, for instance.  And the Underground Railroad itself is an idea firmly rooted in the pre-Civil-War United States.

But I worry that, by linking these ideas to more recent examples of injustice, Whitehead’s novel won’t draw this violence into the present, but rather make contemporary injustice seem long past.  After all, we humans are adept at forgetting the suffering we cause.  After the slave catcher in Whitehead’s novel asks Cora whether she feels bad about having killed a boy during her escape, the slaver summarizes,

Of course not – it’s nothing.  Better weep for one of those burned cornfields, or this steer swimming in our soup.”

 

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

The bookshelves at the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project are chaotic.  Not everyone who volunteers there is a big reader, so sometimes people don’t know where a book might belong.  But the bigger problem is with books themselves.  Most — especially the good ones — are about more than one thing.

The shelves have vague categories to make it easier to find a book that’ll be enjoyed by, say, a prisoner who wants to read about Norse mythology, or about classic cars, or about gardening, etc.  But many books could reasonably fit in several different places.  I always use the rule of thumb, “Where would I look for this if I was filling a package for somebody who’d love it?”, but, even then, somebody else’s brain might leap to different ideas after reading the exact same inmate’s letter.

Last week, for instance, a few of us spent a minute arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  Not a real argument, mind you, just the kind of friendly debate that people use to distract themselves from feeling sad about the fact that they’re filling a package for a 32-year-old dude who’s been in jail since he turned 19 for possession of small amounts of cocaine.  A little levity helps sometimes.

13219367264_4a6e46e010_b
Image by wplynn on Flickr.

So, Cat’s Cradle?  I say “literary fiction.”  Second choice, “classics.”  But another well-read volunteer said, “sci fi.”  She forwarded the evidence of “ice-9,” a special type of water crystal that could destroy the world.

The book is definitely speculative.  You don’t need to worry that someone will drop a small seed crystal of ice-9 into the ocean and cause everyone to freeze.  But it’s very mildly speculative, I’d say.  Less so that the imaginary drugs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, or the elevators in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or even the packing density of folded paper in Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.  All of those, to my knowledge, are very rarely considered to be science fiction.

Not only does Cat’s Cradle seem to be less speculative than any of those, but it also features some of my favorite writing about how the general populace interacts with scientific findings.  Consider this passage from early in the book, where the narrator has gone to investigate a famous recently-deceased scientist.

“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

          “Who was?” I asked.

          “Dr. Hoenikker–the old man.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He didn’t show up.”

          “So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

          “Oh, we got one.  Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said.  She didn’t see anything funny in that.  She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her.  She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.  “He said, the trouble with the world was…”

          She had to stop and think.

          “The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He was if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

          “He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.  He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

          “I missed that,” I murmured.

          “I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

          “That’s right,” said the bartender.

          “What is the secret of life?” I asked.

          “I forget,” said Sandra.

          “Protein,” the bartender declared.  “They found out something about protein.”

          “Yeah,” said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut beautifully captures the way science is often treated in the popular press.  Exceedingly important, graced with insight about the secret of life… and yet still the purvey of weirdos.  Other people.  For the masses, it’s enough to read that scientists have discovered something or other, forget the details, and carry on with their lives.

I mean, I do this too.  I read an article that there might be another planet in our solar system — five or so other astronomical objects have peculiar orbits, suggesting that they’ve been influenced by a heavy, perhaps planet-sized, object — nodded, murmured “That’s nice,” but didn’t feel a thing.

Or there was — and this is even closer to the “secret of life” gag in Vonnegut’s passage — the time when I read that astronomers had tallied the Doppler shifts for many distant objects and decided that our universe will not be collapsing in on itself. The current best guess for how the universe will end is that expanding space will push everything apart faster and faster until emptiness abounds. The universe will be dark, every particle lonely and cold.

I read about all that, thought, “Whoa, that’s heavy,” and drew a comic strip. That’s all, though. Unveiled secrets of the universe didn’t change how I live my life.

dave55

So, the science behind ice-9?  It’s pretty standard thermodynamics.  When water freezes, there are several different configurations it might solidify into, and each of these has a slightly different stability.  Vonnegut’s ice-9 is a hypothetical configuration that is very stable but difficult to form.

6842477087_91f0866575_b
Image by wplynn on Flickr.

Describing this to math and numbers people — to scientists — is pretty easy.  I’d draw a graph that shows a deep valley hidden by a mountain.  I’d say “this is the energy level diagram for ice-9, and even though water would be happiest in its lowest-energy state, it can’t get there because it’d pass through such a high-energy transition state.”  If you were a scientist, you’d nod sagely — “yes yes, we learned all this as undergraduates.”  If you’re not, I can only assume that your eyes would glaze over with boredom.

So here’s an analogy instead: qwerty computer keyboards are ridiculous.  They were designed to make people type slowly.  A world in which everyone used an efficient keyboard layout would be better.  But the process of changing everything would be aggravating.  Having to remember two different layouts — because the computers at the public library would presumably still have qwerty keyboards long after you’d upgraded your rig at home — would make our fingers slow and sloppy.

Or those early white settlers traveling westward through America.  If they could reach California, they’d be living easy.  The weather’s nice, the soil fertile.  But there were dangerous mountains in the way.  While crossing those mountains (my information here comes solely from the Oregon Trail computer game), people were dropping left & right (and having naughty words engraved on their tombstones) from dysentery.

Vonnegut proposed, though, that a seed crystal of ice-9 would lower the energy barrier of that transition state.  This is a pretty common phenomenon, actually.  Ice-9 works the same way as mad cow disease.  Prions are a protein configuration more stable than the functional form but difficult to reach.  Once a small amount of the protein assumes that new configuration, though, it can catalyze the mis-folding of all the rest in your brain.

Just like the suddenly-solid oceans at the end of Cat’s Cradle, prions freeze up the brain.  Then the brain stops working.  Then you’re all done being alive.

Prion_subdomain-colored_sec_structure.png
A human prion protein.

Just you, though.  Ice-9 killed everybody.  So, sure, Cat’s Cradle is sci-fi-esque.  But quite realistic.  Plus — and I suppose this is the biggest reason why I wouldn’t call it science fiction — Vonnegut wastes little time explaining how his speculations work.  You can believe him or not — yes, his ideas are reasonable, but he feels no imperative to prove that to you.  Instead he introduces the mild speculation as a way to investigate how people behave.

Vonnegut winks at his readers.  At the beginning of the book his character dutifully recites that if everyone studied science more, the world’s troubles would be over.  But Vonnegut himself glosses over the science of his world, instead lavishly describing the philosophies that arose in response to the discovery of ice-9.

I think the dude’s priorities are in the right place.  I mean, look at our society.  We’re spending huge amounts of money investigating rare childhood diseases, or the routine maladies of age… but we spend a pittance on childhood nutrition, which would benefit people far more.  Our society’s biggest problems are philosophical.  We don’t help those children: they earned their fate by choosing to be born poor.