The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

Let the Great World Spin.

My ranking of the top prospects for 2015 impact is up for Insiders, and I held a (somewhat hard to read) Facebook chat about that piece on Tuesday. I also have a piece up for Paste from my visit to Toyfair NYC earlier this month, talking about recent and upcoming releases from major boardgame publishers.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award (a prize I’ve always found to be even more eccentric in its choices than the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) in 2009, and the book is saturated with praise from critics and other authors for its scope, its structure, its characters, everything about it. I almost feel inadequate as a reader saying I thought it was a nice* book, but I just did not connect with it on any of those other levels.

*I’m using “nice” here somewhat sarcastically, sort of like saying it was “interesting.” It’s a very good book, just not a life-changing one for me.

McCann’s gambit here is to use the day that Philippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center as the central event that links all of the stories in the novel, stories involving a set of characters whose lives are improbably connected by tiny threads that strain credulity. It’s a short story novel, but far better structured and plotted than Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the more perplexing Pulitzer winners I’ve read (which is a bit more than half of them). The first story introduces us to the Corrigan brothers, two Irishmen living in New York, one a monk (of sorts) whose mission is to help the various prostitutes who work under the Deegan Bridge, near his apartment in the south Bronx, a character at once incredibly compelling yet also drawn in impossibly sharp lines without enough graying around the edges. One of the prostitutes has two babies, who end up in foster care with a mother who’s lost three sons to the Vietnam War, who is in a social/support group with other mothers who’ve lost sons to the war, including Claire, the slightly neglected Park Avenue wife of a successful judge who happens to be the one who draws both the case Petit and of the aforementioned prostitute and her mother, arrested for robbing a john a year or so prior. Each of these characters takes a turn at the center of the narration, although only some get the first person treatment.

The precision of these narratives and the spidery fabric that connects them is itself impressive, but more from the perspective of respect for the craft than from a readability or even a literary point of view – ultimately, if those stories weren’t connected, this wouldn’t be a novel at all, but a story collection. Where McCann succeeds most is in varying his voices to put the reader inside the minds of the diverse cast of characters he’s assembled; the prostitutes and the socialite and the monk and his more temporally-minded brother all have to have different voices, even if it’s a third-person narrator and McCann manages to do that well and craft each character with great empathy, without ever coming off as overly sentimental or, given the racial mixture he’s describing, prejudicial. It would be too easy to turn his black prostitutes into blackface caricatures of a very real underclass, but McCann avoids that trap with great skill.

But by shifting its focus Let the Great World Spin also avoids your grasp; it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to any character or to the story when they change so frequently, but also because McCann keeps them at arm’s length from the reader, with the exception of the Park Avenue mother Claire, who misses her son and yet wants more than anything to find a kinship with other grieving mothers who begin to separate themselves from her when they see her home and assume she’s far wealthier than they are. Her husband, Solomon, was one of the book’s most hackneyed characters, yet she pulsed with life, with her grief intertwined with her social anxiety, her desire to be just one of the gals, each of whom has also lost a son in a pointless war. She felt so real that I could picture her gait on the expensive carpet, her expressions, her tiny movements and gestures, all because of how McCann depicted her inner monologue. If all of his characters had lived and breathed on the pages the way she did, I would probably be banging the table for all of you to read this book. Instead, I found it a skillfully written work, an enjoyable read, but not one I was rushing to finish due to narrative greed or a deep emotional connection with the characters.

Next up: I’ve already finished The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and begun George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.