Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

An unflinching look at slavery and fugitive slaves, Colson Whitehead doesn't romanticize the era, neither slave nor slaveowner, doesn't elevate anyone to a status of hero or villain. The protagonist, Cora, is certainly the hero of the novel, but her acts of violence leave her feeling guilty and mark her as less than good. And the antagonist, the slave catcher Ridgeway, is just making a living carrying out the law of the land, as inhumane as that law was. While the underground railroad that Whitehead portrays is a fantasy, a literal railroad under the ground, the story of slavery is a real one, a harsh reality that reveals the depths of depravity that the people of the United States of America, the country of equality, had once reached. Whitehead shows how slavery not only brought down slaves and blacks as a whole, but was also harmful to whites. In her attempt to escape, Cora learns that it's not so easy to shake off the shackles of slavery and its deleterious effects remain for a long time.

Cora's grandmother was a first generation slave, having traveled from plantation to plantation until ending up in Georgia on the Randall farm. Cora's mother, Mabel, was famed as the only slave to escape the farm successfully, and Cora never forgave her for leaving her behind. But a more learned slave, Caesar, who winds up on the farm when his previous owner duplicitously split his family up, seeks her help to escape. Cora's reluctant. Successful escapes are rare. The whole country is turned against the slave and slave catchers can be ruthless in their hunt. And those who escape often meet horrendous ends. Of course she relents, or there would be no story. Her owner, James, passes away and is replaced by his brother, Terrence, a cruel, vicious man who marks her as his by slipping his hand down her shirt in front of the whole plantation.

While the history books portray slave escapes in simple terms, heroicizing the person who helps the slave fugitive, Whitehead shows the whole process to be messy and bumbling, full of errors. The person helping the slaves escape is not always kind-hearted, but hardened to the work, fearful of discovery, even cowardly. Even the escaping slave is not a model of moral virtue, no Uncle Tom. Cora, in her escape, kills a twelve-year-old boy. Yes, he was trying to capture her and she was fighting for her life, but at twelve, he was innocent, and the charge of murder is a dangerous label for the runaways. It's also a taint on her character. Slavery has shaped her into a vicious person, especially when she senses her life is in danger, and has hardened her from any softness except in rare instances.

I mention romanticism and heroics because often that's how stories of slavery are painted, whether historical or fictional. Many stories about slavery are often concerned with whether a master is kind or cruel, as if that trumps the fact that the slave is a piece of property and not a human being. The slave is portrayed as morally pure, religious, and loving. This strips them of their humanity - no person fits all of those qualities so perfectly. There's a scene where Cora earns work in a museum as a living exhibit piece on a set about slavery. She soon realizes that the slaves are the only ones played by real people. All of the white actors are mannequins. This gives the impression of Cora as a creature in a zoo exhibit. Plus, Cora notices that the stories the exhibit shares about slavery don't mesh with reality. I've visited my share of museums showing slavery in a way that strips it of its violence. Whitehead wants to dispel that myth, of ignoring the bloody violence of the institution. This is made clear when a fugitive slave returned to the Randall farm is punished by having his genitals cut from him, sewn in his mouth, and after three days he is burned alive.

Whitehead's prose is detached and choppy. He uses sentence fragments throughout and his style lacks any smoothness. It's rough, just like the treatment of slaves. Detached as the narrator is, Whitehead doesn't allow this narrator to keep emotional weight at bay. This is an emotionally powerful story, full of suspense, despair, sorrow, and, at times, even triumph. It's also an action-packed story, carrying the reader across several states, lulling the reader and characters into false senses of security before stripping it away. At times Whitehead does spend a bit much time on tangents, philosophizing on the personhood of the slave. While interesting, it does slow down the plot and it's not anything new for those versed on their slavery history. Yet it's only natural that he includes these passages. This is a thoughtful work, one that is filled with powerful moments and never dull.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Passing for Human, by Jody Scott

The only thing that Jody Scott's Passing for Human seems sure about is its manic energy. Each page crackles with an energy unsurpassed by none, and yet this energy is its undoing. Scott, I assume, is attempting to tackle serious social issues, yet her flippant tone makes it hard to take anything that happens seriously. The breathless way Scott jumps from action to action, idea to idea, leaves the reader with nothing to grasp, whether ideologically or visually. I see that the book was originally published in 1977, but never really took off, and now Scott's estate would like to see if her book will fare better after her death. I'm afraid this has aged a lot and many readers won't understand references to Emma Peel or Brenda Starr, though maybe that doesn't matter. The writing style may appeal to those who like frequent mentions of "zowie!" but to others it will grow tiring. This is sci-fi-lite, satire-lite, and just light stuff in general.

An alien race, the Rymesians, are observing Earth to determine whether the planet's dominant species, humans, known to Rymesians as bushmen, deserve to remain alive or not. On this quest is anthropologist Benaroya, often confusingly referred to as simply B. (lazy editing?), Brenda Starr, Brenda, Miss Star, Emma Peel, Emma, and Miss Peel, among other names. This grows more confusing when more Rymesians enter the fold and are referred interchangeably by their Rymesian name and their human body name. These Rymesians have dolphin bodies in their natural form, but a body is not truly important to them. Their souls, or consciousness, or what have you, are able to jump from body to body. Not in the sense that they can take control of any person, but they can jump into any empty body at any time. This is nothing based in any sort of science, but more of a spiritualism. Anyway.

A cliche story would take this concept and cause the alien to come to love the human race and want to save it. This is not a cliche story, but that's not to say this isn't what happens. It's very confusing, actually, what happens. Benaroya begins flying down the highway in a fancy car, being chased by police officers. Her skillful driving skills, however, cause them to crash and die. Then she provokes a frustrated woman into a race, causing her to crash and die as well. Benaroya, in her bikini Brenda Starr body, is arrested and within the hour has seduced her lawyer into having sex with her in his office and professing his love, and all the while she's just excited to have mated with a human so quickly. This may sound amusing, with a few zowies! and zoinks! thrown in for good measure, but it's actually more tiring than it sounds.

For one, Scott, or maybe just her characters, shovels venom upon the human race. It's tough to tell if Scott is the one so spiteful of the human race or just her alien characters, and it's also tough to tell exactly why she or they are so spiteful. Everything from the shape and makeup of human bodies to humanity's careless handling of Earth's resources is an object of scorn. But the scorn fails to do any true cutting because it's fired off like a five year old boy trying to aim his urine into the toilet and hitting the seat and floor instead. Somebody who agrees with her might not see a problem with some of her remarks, and I don't necessarily disagree, but the level of vitriol isn't really earned in the novel.

Scott certainly writes with a lot of manic energy, but another word I would use to describe her writing style is ephemeral. It fails to grasp anything - setting, character, satire - and the reader will have trouble grasping these things as well. The action at the beginning feels impossible. The car races through the streets seemingly without other vehicles or objects, without the limitations or noises or feelings of driving at such a speed. Characters move from area to area as though by means of teleportation. Benaroya proclaims hatred of the human species early in the book and mere chapters later somehow has a fondness of them and does not want them destroyed. I know Scott is trying to be funny and satirical, but her satire crosses some lines and teeters dangerously near to her seeming misanthropic. Scott seems to be using her Rymesians as a stand in for humans who view other humans and animal species as inferior and deserving of scorn. On the other hand, Scott also seems to be using her Rymesians as a vessel for her own dire view of humanity. While critiques of humanity are always needed, and always coming, there should be at least something constructive, not just hate.