Colson Whitehead's fine first novel, The Intuitionist, announced the arrival of an impressive allegorical imagination. Here was a worthy heir to Ralph Ellison who wrote of race and class and the contemporary world with cool cleverness and theoretical savvy; here was Don DeLillo with a hip-hop beat; here was a writer to watch. So when The Underground Railroad appeared, with its magic realist conceit of a literal subterranean rail line transporting slaves to freedom (or not), I thought that here at last would be Whitehead's Gravity's Rainbow, his big, ridiculously ambitious, Hurricane Katrina-strength mind-blower of a novel. I expected this book to ram me down the cannon's throat, stuff my butt with gunpowder, touch flame to fuse, and blow my ass away.
Reader, it didn't.
The Underground Railroad is good enough to keep me reading, even though Whitehead is no prose stylist and his language is standard litfic stuff. It's an appropriately brutal allegory of African-American history that occasionally--but only occasionally--exhibits startling artistic power. The 'South Carolina' satire of separate-but-equal paternalistic cant and the 'North Carolina' nightmare of genocide and the American fascist carnivalesque (which Cora witnesses through a tiny hole in her coffin-like attic hiding place) are wonderfully accomplished; the other sections are less so, and the whole is dogged by narrative predictability and creaky, cartoonish melodrama--a 'Perils of Coraline' rhythm of danger and rescue, danger and rescue.... (Positive criticism might 'rescue' this aspect of the novel by pointing at Pynchon and calling it postmodern irony, but thus indicating the novel's unoriginality would be a strange defense strategy.) And the end of the story, with Cora boarding a wagon heading west, signifies two things, both rather dismal: either Whitehead is capable of thinking Cora out of slavery but not out of the imperialist, racist mythology of America's westward expansion, or he is Spielbergianly setting up a sequel, The Underground Railroad Two: Cora Kicks Californian Ass.
I closed The Underground Railroad deep in the embrace of an intentional fallacy. Surely, I thought, this little 300-page thing was not the book Whitehead intended to write. And it's certainly not the best novel he is capable of writing around these ideas. From blatant internal evidence, Whitehead appears to have intended a Gulliver's Travels-type panoramic satire of the entire African-American experience, from Middle Passage to Michael Brown. Maybe if Whitehead's publisher--or his internal editor, every writer's punishing superego--had permitted him to stretch out and write an 800-page epic a la The Sot-Weed Factor or Pynchon's big ones, he might've accomplished a mind-blowing masterpiece. This, unfortunately, isn't it. And I almost mourn the missed opportunity.