Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
Memory has always been tricky; now that machines remember for us, it’s only gotten trickier. Google has already become Borges’ Fuñes, condemned to remember everything and, hence, unable to determine what’s actually worth saving. Kafka: “I can swim just like the others. Only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten the former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, being able to swim is of no help to me; and so, after all, I cannot swim.” This is the situation we find ourselves in; when memory has been reduced to a science, the only appropriate response is to reclaim it by art. Increasingly, the novels I cherish most are those that offer tools for navigating the changing landscape of memory — thus my good fortune to have stumbled upon the Australian novelist Brian Castro.
I first heard of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing while at a conference in Sydney in 2003, where a panelist mentioned in the same breath as the German novelist W. G. Sebald. Intrigued, I bought a copy for the plane ride home, and Castro’s book took me immediately, gathered me up like few others. “Winter had descended on Shanghai,” it began. “There was no real hope of finding tomatoes. You went looking anyway. It was a cure of sorts. No, not the tomatoes, but the search.” I read nearly the entire 400-page book on that flight, enthralled and entranced, my concentration broken only by the flight attendant who kept hitting on the two girls next to me (which wasn’t all bad; he snuck them the first-class dessert, which they in turn gave to me). When I got home, I went straight to the only publisher I knew, and pressed the book into her hands and told her she needed to buy the American rights. Luckily, she did.
Castro’s obscurity in the States is a little hard to fathom. Like David Mitchell, Castro plumbs the histories of decaying empires, trawling the Eastern coasts of the Pacific Ocean, and intertwines them with vertiginous family dramas with the sensitivity and eloquence of Marilynne Robinson. Like Ondaatje, he approaches the ruin and calamities of the past without hand-wringing moralizing, instead tracing the echoes of these disasters on marginal figures otherwise forgotten. He’s won almost every literary prize Australia has to offer (short of the Booker), and at one point during the summer of 2011 the bookmaker Victor Chandler had 33:1 odds that he’d win the Nobel Prize (a long shot, to be sure, but better than the odds for A. S. Byatt or Ian McEwan).
Put simply, Shanghai Dancing is the best contemporary book in English that most Americans have never heard of. Castro’s “fictional autobiography” follows Antonio Castro (whose biography shares much with Castro the author) –forced to leave Shanghai as a child, he returns 40 years later seeking an inheritance consisting both of money and stories. Gradually, the latter will become more important, as Antonio’s investigation unearths stories of failed business enterprises and embezzlements, the atrocities of Japan’s occupation of Shanghai during the 1930’s, affairs and mistresses and illegitimate children, and even the Spanish Inquisition:
Sometimes you suffocate when you think of the past; of a life that never was, flashing up in sepia. Memory which is creamy-yellow, cracked; composed of protogallic acid, protosulphate of iron, potassium cyanide. Let’s not get too technical. Not right now. It makes for too much exposure. Still, in the dark, you remember that in Shanghai they used to wrap tomatoes in tissue paper. Like this story. Like the way everything in history is wrapped in a tissue; of words, of memories, of lies.
Castro’s solution to a surfeit of lies and contradictions, of “official histories” and other modes of obliteration is a mélange of voices, of tones that range from the literary to the technical to the groan-inducing pun — a light touch amidst what might otherwise bear down its reader. Fragmentary and sprawling, Shanghai Dancing never loses its focus — or rather, it encourages the reader to see its focus in terms of the fragmentary and the incomplete. The “Shanghai Dancing” of the title is given a dozen different slang definitions, from “a rite of passage” to syphilis, but ultimately it becomes the mode by which Castro’s novel engages with history and family memories — a narration that never settles into one voice, and which never settles for the accepted answers.
And then there are the photographs. In the wake of Sebald’s death, there have been dozens of novels that have attempted his approach of incorporating photography alongside prose, and less successful imitators have shown that one can’t simply slather photographs onto the page and expect profundity. Castro’s use of photography, like Sebald’s, plays on the inherently unstable relationship between text and image, and forces open the gaps between them to add more layers onto the novel. At one point, Castro gives us a straightforward group portrait of Antonio’s father’s jazz band from 1926: six men in tuxedos, their instruments neatly arranged in front of them. The image is staged in such a way as to lack any ambiguity; the caption that accompanies it, however, undercuts this entirely:
The Venus Café, New Year’s Eye, 1926. My father the band leader is seated. His best friend Lobo Ling stands beside him. Later they are going to kiss the girls in turn and watch the future unfurl with fireworks and bullets and take their trousers to the laundry in the morning past a line of bodies in the gutters, each shot in the back through their sleeveless pullovers.
Even with an evocation of such violence, Castro’s project is not to castigate or instruct us in politically correct history, so much as to complicate the relationship between family history and national history, the two infecting one another.
‘Tis the season of back-to-school, back-to-work; back to various labors of love and life. In that vein, I recommend two books, in two Parts, on the subject of work – literary, intellectual, manual. Today, Part 1, I give you former Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s Life Work.
Life Work has been a beacon for me since my early days of writerdom. I came to the writer’s vocation late and from off-the-map, which has contributed to a general awkwardness around the word “work” – a word reserved, in my experience, for that which involves antagonism, obligation, and toil; and which generally refers to a physical destination as opposed to an activity. (Syntax is everything in the statement, “I am going to work.” Is the second part a verb infinitive or an adverbial prepositional phrase?) “Ok, off to the gulag,” my partner jokes wryly as he heads to his downtown office. Surely, he is going to work; what the hell will I be doing all day?
“Once, in a headlong sentence I clearly intended to say ‘life,’” Hall writes of a therapy session during dark years of marital meltdown and alcoholism, “but by mistake…said ‘work’ instead.” This recollection illuminates the theme of Hall’s beautifully crafted meditation cum memoir: the lost sense of work as integral, devotional, absorbing; distinct from labor, including but not limited to “what we do to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm,” and, if not nobler than the toilsome sufferings of humankind through the ages – Hall cites, for example, Mexican farm laborers, 19th century merchant sailors, black American slaves – then indeed no less.
Work. I make my living at it. Almost 20 years ago I quit teaching – giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises […] I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages – but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.
There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work.
Life Work takes the form of life (and work) in real time: “Today makes a week of Life Work.” Hall pulls back the curtain on his daily regime, his “best day”: up at 4:30, coffee, dress, drive out for the paper (this is rural New Hampshire), breakfast, then at the desk until “I feel the poetry juices drying out.” A household chore, more coffee, and on to prose. By 11am, the writing work is done; now lunch, then a short nap, after which he and his (second) wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, “know what we will do next. How nice to be old enough, living together and alone, to make love in daylight…”
If all this makes ye industrious urbanites want to retch, Hall anticipates your repulsion:
I worry that my enthusiasm over work, over the best day […] will seem to a saturnine or grumpy reader the ultimate in complacency […] Why is happiness unforgivable? […] I make for myself a golden age.
Only depressives make a golden age; or maniacs create a golden age because their dark brother lurks behind the barn.
But he does not anticipate what comes next: Part I of Life Work ends in early April; 10 days later he begins Part II, having been diagnosed, in the interim, with liver cancer.
The book shifts markedly in tone henceforth, and yet an even deeper fidelity to inquiries regarding work takes hold. “I realized I had always worked in defiance of death.” We learn of family histories (generational transitions from manual, to white-collar, to creative work), the sculptor Henry Moore’s model of work, and Hall’s journey in Christian faith (the work of the spirit). The book ends three months after it began, with Hall about to start chemotherapy: we are suspended in uncertainty with him, as he works on short projects “which absorb me as much as any work can.”
Seventeen years after publication, we know “the ending.” Hall survives cancer, but it’s his beloved wife Jane, 20-some years his junior, who dies of leukemia two years later. How profoundly prescient was Hall’s understanding of “work” as the avatar for “life,” as the two of them confront ruthless mortality together. He writes: “There is only one long-term project.”
Coming up: Part 2, in which a philosopher-motorcycle mechanic makes the case for the cognitive riches of manual work, for living concretely in an abstract world.
Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry’s famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, “[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;” just the same, each story — the details remembered or who won the contest, for example — is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man.
With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration.
Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book’s chapters. But for this story — probably Whitehead’s finest — history is a stepping-stone.
The Underground Railroad’s prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She’s eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale.” She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.”
The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry’s granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who “cursed herself for her smallmindedness.”
From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the “ruthless mechanism of the world,” like Ajarry, or experience the “eddy of liberation,” like her mother.
By now, if you have read anything about this novel — perhaps that it was on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller — you know its central conceit. For Cora’s escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery.
Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was “not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as “the law.”)
When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the “mythologized” Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all,” built on “murder, theft and cruelty” — best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning.
Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track — only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead’s book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won’t change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. “This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.,” one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.
Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, “[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead’s older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. “[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking,” Whitehead told Vulture.
The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as “a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.” In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”
The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora’s frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage.
The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator’s words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes — so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: “In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.”
The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book goes.
As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won’t fade:
Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible…[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.
Even if she finds her way out of hell, it’s clear that freedom doesn’t mean heaven. “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” one character tells Cora. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”