How can we understand the truth? How can we ensure that our understandings of the past are clearer than our hopes for the future? In theory, the past is fixed. But if this is so, it is not because the events themselves are immutable. It is because the past is enclosed by language, trapped by our descriptions of it. The difference between our histories of the past and our fantasies of the future is more a matter of tense than of accuracy.
Colson Whitehead re-imagines the past using the accuracy of the fantastic to create a world that did not in fact exist, but feels just as realistic as anything we are told did happen. The Underground Railroad describes an America where the means by which slaves were in rare cases able to escape were not improvised routes, but rather, an actual underground railroad line, not surprisingly built by enterprising slaves. Once we step on board, history becomes very different, even if it always feels right.
We meet Cora as a slave in a setting so savage and awful, it feels utterly fantastical, like something a racist, fetishist creep might dream up. Yet we know that this opening section hews quite closely to accurately recorded real events. But the feel is so terrible, it’s hard to hold it in. We dissociate whether we want to or not. It’s a pure relief when Cora escapes and begins her journey on the railroad. And that is when Whitehead’s anti-fantastic inclinations kick into overdrive, all to the better for the terrorizing, gripping, beautifully told story.
Instead of veering into some sort of alternate history timeline, Whitehead takes Cora on what feels like an otherworld journey. Each stop along the railroad has its own feel, and its own sinister re-weaving or our world into something different that nonetheless captures the essence of horror and dread implicit in the American slave trade. The fantastic aspects are dialed far back as Whitehead remixes the worst bits of our history into a story just as terrible as that which leads to the present. Everything in The Underground Railroad feels right, but it just looks wrong.
Whitehead’s approach is hardheaded and hermetic. He never lets enough reality in to let you question what is on the page. The Underground Railroad is reality, or might as well be. But the elements of fantasy do more than externalize the horror of the slave trade. They allow us as readers to both enjoy the low-key dissonant strangeness of the narrative and to immerse ourselves in this story where our own involvement and awfulness hovers relentlessly in the background.
History prefers to be seen as non-fiction. We always want to believe that we are just, that we need but, record what has happened and that will tell the tale. Upon hearing what we have just lived through reported back to us, most of us beg to differ. No matter how right the facts may be, the story itself just feels wrong. Alas, experience is ever dry. Life, on the other hand, for better or worse, cannot help but feel fantastic.
I remember finding so many years ago, Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, and really being struck by the combination of realism and fantasy in that novel. It was a while before we actually got to speak, but he and I have been talking regularly for many years of his career. I must admit that it was particularly thrilling this time around though.
On the day Colson Whitehead and I spoke, The Underground Railroad was both nominated for a National Book Award and became #1 national bestseller. [The latter according to our local newspaper.] While it deserves a Hugo, a Nebula or a World Fantasy Award, it is perhaps only in a work in one of those genres where a book like this gets nominated for a genre fiction award.
And here is our long-form conversation: