Friday, September 23, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition

This week has seen the first inklings of the new TV season, as the US networks start trotting out shows in the hopes of success, legitimacy, or even the tiniest bit of attention.  And yet here I am, still talking about some of the shows of summer.  This is partly because, as we've all more or less accepted, network shows just aren't where it's at anymore, and there isn't that much to say about yet another raft of samey procedurals and underbaked high concepts.  So this post covers a British miniseries and a Netflix series, as well as a few network pilots.  Still, I do enjoy this time of year, and I keep hoping that one of these shows will surprise me, so stay tuned for further reports. 

(Not discussed in this post, because there wasn't much to say about them: Designated Survivor, which has an ironclad elevator pitch that I'm not sure it knows what to do with, and Notorious, which seems desperate to be a Shondaland show but actually feels more like a parody of one.  And coming from the other direction, I would have liked to write more about Donald Glover's new FX comedy Atlanta, but the truth is that I'm still not sure what I think about it--it's a really interesting and well made show, but not one I've fully grasped yet)
  • Victoria - ITV has been promoting the hell out of this sumptuous miniseries about the early years in the reign of the titular queen.  But while the subject matter--and the presence of former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman, wearing an extremely distracting pair of blue contact lenses, in the title role--have an obvious appeal, the more one sees of Victoria, the less persuasive its argument is that there is actually anything here worth watching for.  Victoria takes some liberties with its history, mostly so that it can more easily fit it into the forms of a romantic melodrama--suggesting, for example, that the teenage Victoria was in love with her first PM, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), when in reality she seems to have viewed him as more of a father figure; or injecting tension over the question of whether Victoria will warm to her future husband Albert (Tom Hughes), when in reality she had known him since their early teens, and was very fond of him from the start.  But as tedious as these choices are, they pale beside the miniseries's real problem--that the more it shows us of Victoria, the less interesting she seems.  It finally becomes clear that while Victoria had tremendous symbolic significance, the actual events of her life were rather boring, with her main accomplishments being that she outlived the rest of her family, and then successfully set up a dynasty.

    Victoria tries to get some mileage out of the difficulties that its heroine experiences as a reigning queen--hardly anyone around her believes in her abilities, and her choices and freedoms are constantly being curtailed by people who pay lip service to her title but are clearly more swayed by her gender and youth.  But it constantly bumps up against the problem that the things Victoria wants to do are rarely admirable, or even very difficult--the first episode ends with her pushing through personal sorrow to perform the utterly ceremonial function of reviewing her troops.  And more often, when Victoria tells us that she's being stymied because of her gender, what shows up on screen is a petulant, spoiled child who is determined to get her own way, as in a scene in which her resentment of one of her mother's attendants leads her to subject the woman to what is essentially medical rape.  When, in a later episode, Victoria crows about the fact that she precipitated a constitutional crisis in order to gratify her desire to keep Melbourne in her entourage, it's hard not to wonder whether the miniseries is making a stealth argument for abolishing the monarchy.

    Victoria wants us to be on its heroine's side, even when not doing so might have made for a more interesting story.  The most recent episode revolves around the financial negotiations that precede Victoria's marriage to Albert, with the taciturn prince insisting that he be granted a sufficient allowance to be independent of his sovereign wife, and Victoria unable to understand why Albert isn't content to depend on her generosity--as so many wives in his position have had to be.  For a moment, there's the potential to say something interesting about how Victoria, for all her outward demureness, actually relishes her power, and is perfectly happy to prop up unjust, oppressive systems so long as she gets to be the one doing the oppressing.  But the episode is too committed to the epic love story of Victoria and Albert, and ends with Victoria giving up her power for the sake of marital bliss.  That's probably true to life, but in a show that has already proven itself willing to twist history to its needs, it's disappointing how those needs keep taking the story in the most boring, predictable directions.

  • The Get Down - Most of the attention paid to Netflix shows this summer was lavished on the mega-success Stranger Things, leaving Baz Luhrmann's historical-musical-teen-drama to languish in its shadow.  That's a shame, because while Stranger Things was impeccably made and a lot of fun, it was also somewhat hollowThe Get Down, in contrast, is a mess--of the six episodes in the "half-season" released this summer, only one really works as a piece of storytelling, and the rest are frequently shapeless, self-indulgent, and silly.  But The Get Down also has heart, passion, and a deeply-felt desire to tell its story that I haven't seen in almost any other show this year (with the possible exception of this spring's Underground).  When the show's disparate (and often seemingly contradictory) elements click together, it's like nothing I've ever seen.

    Set in the Bronx in the late 70s, The Get Down focuses on three young people: Zeke (Justice Smith), a soft-spoken high school student and burgeoning poet who is being urged towards college and respectability by his family, but who is drawn to the emerging hip hop scene, finding in it a means of expressing his rage and political views; Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), the girl of Zeke's dreams, whose own dreams are of disco stardom; and Shaolin (Shameik Moore), a drug dealer and hustler who wants to turn over a new leaf by becoming a DJ.  These are, obviously, blatant stereotypes, but they're brought to vivid, unforgettable life by the young actors, who convey not only passion and determination, but a complex understanding of their situation.  Zeke, for example, is genuinely torn between respectability and the hip-hop life, seeing things to desire and strive for in both of the possibilities before him, and driven by genuine ambition in both directions.  Which is a much more nuanced handling of this type of story than you usually see.  Perhaps more importantly, it feels significant that these character types--familiar, for example, from Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom, whose earnest tone The Get Down frequently mirrors--are being played by black and brown people, that they are treated as people who get to dream, and to be exuberant in the pursuit of their dreams.

    It's that combination of exuberance and savvy that makes The Get Down fascinating, and that convinces me that it's worth keeping up with despite its flawed beginning.  Alongside its musical numbers and candy-colored tales of kids who just want to sing, the show paints a surprisingly detailed and complicated picture of the political situation in the Bronx during its era.  Jimmy Smits hams it up as a local politician who is trying to amass enough political power to transform the neighborhood, but some of his ideas, about the things that people of color deserve and have been taught to live without, would be revolutionary if they were stated on the news, much less in a show that is essentially a hip hop version of Glee.  And the insight the show offers into the workings of the white political establishment--for example a mayoral candidate who explains that he is hammering at non-violent crimes like graffiti tagging because it plays well to white, middle class voters--is sharp enough to cut.  Alongside shows like Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Get Down is a reminder that sometimes it takes a degraded, "trashy" genre--like the let's-put-on-a-show story--to give a voice to the kind of people that prestige TV tends to forget, and to talk about issues that it tends to ignore.  The Get Down isn't exactly better than something like Stranger Things, but in its choice to use its genre to actually say something, it is infinitely more vital and alive, and if the second half of its season lives up to the promise of its first, it'll truly be something to see.

  • The Good Place - It's often hard to judge a comedy based on only a few episodes, but this difficulty is compounded in the case of Mike Schur's new series.  Three episodes into The Good Place, I'm still not entirely sure what the show is about, and starting to suspect that the story it's trying to tell is actually more complicated and fantastical than it initially lets on.  Which is not to say that what The Good Place starts out as is not complicated and fantastical.  Waking up in a pleasant-looking waiting room, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is informed that she has died and gone to heaven (or rather, "the good place").  Eleanor's guide, Michael (Ted Danson), explains that he has constructed this particular corner of heaven to be perfectly suited to a few hundred souls who were all the best of the best, and carefully selected to mesh well with each other--including, in Eleanor's case, her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper).  There's just one problem: Eleanor was, in life, a terrible, selfish, manipulative person, and the life of philanthropy and good works that Michael ascribes to her never happened.  Terrified of being sent to "the bad place", Eleanor convinces Chidi to keep her secret, a task complicated by the fact that every time she does something bad, the good place reacts by destabilizing and attacking its inhabitants.  It's left to Eleanor--with the help of Chidi, an ethics professor--to learn how to be good, for the first time in her (after)life.

    This is, obviously, a massively convoluted premise and a lot to set up in a couple of 22-minute episodes, especially since revelations about how the good place works, and how it has been malfunctioning, are still coming--at the end of the third episode, for example, we learn that Eleanor is not the only person to arrive at the good place incorrectly.  As a result, it's hard to judge The Good Place as a comedy.  The cast is obviously fantastic, and Bell in particular is great at playing both lovable and nasty, but at the moment The Good Place is more interesting than funny.  Perhaps the show's biggest problem is that, as a story about a person who is learning to be good, The Good Place is often unconvincing.  Eleanor's past as a terrible person, seen through flashbacks, is more cartoonish than horrifying, full of too-blatant flaws like littering or refusing to boycott a coffee shop whose owner sexually harassed employees.  I keep drawing comparisons between how the show draws her, and how a show like Community conveyed the mundane-yet-horrifying depths of Jeff Winger's narcissism, which maintained its grip on him even after he made a genuine effort to change.  The Good Place's idea of goodness feels equally shallow, and perhaps tinged with Hollywood's neoliberal conception of goodness as an individual, rather than communal, trait.  Almost everyone we've met in the good place was a philanthropist or a charity fundraiser or an aid worker--the sort of goodness that is reserved mostly for affluent people, and which is often held up as a reason for why we don't need government or welfare to help people who are in need.

    But of course, it seems very possible--even likely--that this is the point.  As more and more flaws reveal themselves in the fabric of the good place, it feels as if the show is deliberately pointing out the limited and limiting nature of its concept of goodness-for example through the character of Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a condescending blowhard who also raised billions for charity.  Schur's previous show, Parks and Recreation, built an elaborate (and often borderline-fantastical) world in its setting of Pawnee, Indiana, and I'm starting to suspect that The Good Place is attempting something even more ambitious, a whole cosmology which the characters have to figure out.  It still remains to be seen whether he and his writers can make a comedy out of a premise like that, but for the moment, The Good Place is one of the most intriguing new shows of the season.

  • This Is Us - The pilot for this it's-all-connected, multi-strand character drama has had some of the most effusive reviews of the fall.  Which leads me to wonder: were all of these reviewers high?  This Is Us's opening episode is one of the most turgid and regrettable hours I've ever spent in front of a TV--to paraphrase a very useful construction, it's a bad writer's idea of what good writing looks like.  Rooted firmly in the genre of family melodrama, This Is Us lacks the one quality that is essential to such stories' success--specificity of character and setting.  And because its writers lack the ability to make their characters and situations feel real and lived-in, they instead opt for absurd, over-the-top plot contrivances, which actually end up being more boring and uninvolving than another show's low-key naturalism--this is a pilot that struggles mightily, and eventually fails, to elicit an emotional reaction from a story about a dead baby.

    The first of This Is Us's interlinked storylines involves a young couple, Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), who are in the hospital, about to welcome triplets.  It's a rather pointless story whose significance only registers when the pilot delivers its twist ending, but in the meantime it's notable how little personality the show gives Rebecca, even as it emphasizes Jack's concern over the fact that her delivery experiences complications.  In a second storyline, an obese woman named Kate (Chrissy Metz) joins a weight loss group.  Though it's not exactly surprising that the only story network TV can think to give to a fat character revolves around their weight, the sheer hysteria of Kate's storyline is dismaying.  By the end of the pilot, we have learned virtually nothing about her except that she is fat, and that this makes her completely miserable--she seems to have no interests, no hobbies, no friends, no job, nothing going on outside of her obsession with her size.  The one thing we do learn about Kate is that she has a twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor who stars in a dumb sitcom that gets most of its laughs by having him take off his shirt.  Again, it's not surprising that a show this melodramatic would look down on comedy, but the terms in which This Is Us conveys the shallowness of Kevin's show defy belief--everyone working on it, except Kevin, seems to be a talentless hack who cares only about ratings and pleasing the network.  (This condescension is particularly aggravating when one compares This Is Us to something like Jane the Virgin, a comedy that achieves more genuine emotion in any random five minutes than this show manages in its entire pilot.)  When Kevin has an on-set meltdown after a (schlocky and overwrought) dramatic scene is cut, we're meant to think that he's rediscovering his artistic integrity, when really he's just being petty and unprofessional.

    Finally, the last plot strand concerns Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a successful and happy family man who tracks down his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), in order to furiously berate him for leaving the infant Randall in a fire station.  While it's understandable that Randall would have complicated feelings towards his father, the fact is that leaving a baby in a fire station isn't hugely different from giving them up for adoption (especially since we learn that Randall was adopted on the very same day that he was abandoned, by a loving and affluent family).  So the depth of Randall's rage, and William's calm acceptance that what he did was unforgivable, feel unearned.  (Nevertheless, this is probably the most successful plotline in the pilot, largely because Brown, late of a transcendent, Emmy-winning turn on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, is the only actor in the cast who manages to imbue his character with anything resembling humanity.)  All of these stories are leading up to a twist that reveals how these characters are connected--though if you know that a twist is coming, it is laughably easy to guess what that connection is--but as soon as that revelation comes, we're left with a question: what is there in this show that's worth watching for?  This Is Us's pilot was written to service its ending, but that ending still leaves us with a bunch of boring characters caught up in unconvincing situations, and absolutely no reason to keep watching.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Strange Horizons Fund Drive

Strange Horizons, the erstwhile speculative fiction magazine, is currently running its annual fund drive.  I've had a close relationship with Strange Horizons that has spanned most of my writing career.  They were the first magazine to publish my reviews, thus bringing my work to a wider audience.  I served as the magazine's reviews editor between 2011 and 2014 (which means that my name appeared on the Hugo ballot when it was nominated in the Best Semiprozine category).  And I continue to write for them today, most recently in my two-part review of this year's Clarke shortlist.

But beyond my relationship with it as a writer, what makes Strange Horizons special and important to me is the material it's put before me as a reader.  A lot of the testimonials you're going to see around the internet in the next few weeks are going to talk about Strange Horizons's fiction department, which has and continues to give platforms to new writers, many of whom have gone on to great things.  That's worth recognizing and celebrating, but to me Strange Horizons will always be special as one of the finest, most interesting, most fearless sources for criticism and reviews.  There is, quite simply, no other online source of genre reviews that covers the breadth of material that Strange Horizons does, with the depth of engagement and the multiplicity of perspectives that it offers.  The editorial team that took over from me in 2015, under the leadership of Maureen Kincaid Speller, has excelled at finding new voices, such as Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, and Keguro Macharia, to offer their vital points of view, while maintaining the presence of reviewers like Nina Allan and Erin Horáková, whose writing is essential to anyone interested in the state of our field.

A focus on Strange Horizons's non-fiction content feels particularly important to me at the moment, because in the run-up to the fund drive month the magazine has featured some truly exceptional writing, showcasing a variety of styles, approaches, and subject matter that all demonstrate how valuable it is as a source of genre criticism.  Great recent reads from Strange Horizons's non-fiction departments include, but are by no means limited to:
  • Aishwarya Subramanian's review of The Explorer's Guild, Volume One, a YA adventure novel co-written by, of all people, Kevin Costner.  It's a supremely unpromising review subject that most of us would dismiss as a cynical cash-in, but Aishwarya demonstrates how, in the hands of a good reviewer, even the most inauspicious topic can be fruitful ground for discussion.  Her review discusses the adventure novel genre and its pitfalls, as well as the difficulties of resurrecting it today, but it also treats its subject seriously, and finds things to praise about it.

  • Tim Phipps's review of Star Trek Beyond, which is really more a meditation on Star Trek fannishness in the age of remakes and reboots, and which will warm the hearts of any old-school Star Trek fan (and particularly fans who, like myself, love Deep Space Nine the best).

  • Katy Armstrong's review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  There's been a lot of virtual ink spilled about this project, but Katy's review is the first I've seen that both approaches the play as a fan (and especially a fan who was active in fandom, and is familiar with the voluminous body of fanfic written about the series), and is written from the perspective of someone who has actually seen the play, rather than just reading the script-book.  Though still critical of the story's problems, Katy is able to convey how some of them are ameliorated, or even cancelled out, by the theatrical medium, which is a perspective that discussions of this new entry in the Harry Potter canon have desperately needed.

  • Iori Kusano's review of the virtual reality game Job Simulator, which addresses the implications of a game that simulates low-paying, service-sector labor, which is played on a platform that most actual employees of the jobs it simulates couldn't afford.  At a time when we're still having to debate whether game criticism should address anything more than graphics and gameplay mechanics, this review quietly offers a vital alternative.

  • Adam Roberts's review of Apocalypse: An Epic Poem, a novel in verse about climate change by Frederick Turner.  Strange Horizons's editors challenged Adam to review the novel in its own style, and it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his writing that he rose to the challenge.  But within the lines of his poem-review, Adam also takes his subject seriously, discussing the history of novels-in-verse and the challenges of the form, as well as the points in which Turner succeeds and fails.

  • From the articles department, Erin Horáková's masterful, fascinating essay "Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - The Legacy of Blakes 7".  Even if, like myself, you know Blakes 7 only as a buzzword for a certain kind of old-school SF fan, you'll find a great deal to chew over in Erin's article, which touches on politics, fandom, the way that television has been influenced by the show, and the ways in which it has changed that would make a show like it impossible today.  It's a brilliant piece of cultural commentary, and more importantly, one that it is almost impossible to imagine being published anywhere but Strange Horizons.  As much as venues for pop culture criticism have proliferated in recent years, most of them are focused on the blazingly current, and on discussions that can be consumed in bite sizes (hence the dominance of the TV episode recap/review).  I've spent the last few weeks trying to place a piece that is shorter than Erin's, and less historical in its subject, but still long and not topical.  It's been amazing to realize how many venues are excluded by those qualities.  As a demonstration of why Strange Horizons is necessary in our current genre landscape, Erin's essay is highly instructive.
When you've finished reading all these excellent pieces of non-fiction, I hope you'll consider donating to Strange Horizons, and helping it to continue being a source for such writing.  The main fund drive page is here, where you can donate via PayPal or Patreaon.  All donors are entered in a prize drawing, with many great prizes that are constantly being added to.  As funding goals are reached, the magazine is releasing special bonus content (Adam Roberts's review of Apocalypse was one such prize).  This year's fund drive target is $15,000, but stretch goals go as far as $22,500, and if the magazine reaches those goals, it has ambitious projects planned for the next year, including a special issue on Spanish SF, and new projects focusing on translated and interactive fiction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The long opening segment of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is carefully, almost studiously naturalistic.  In plain, but also irresistible and affecting language, he presents the life story of his heroine, Cora, starting first with the history of her grandmother, kidnapped from Africa and finally ending up, after much circumlocution (which is to say, being sold and re-sold), on a Georgia plantation, and moving on to detail the life of Cora's mother, who escaped when Cora was a child, and finally to Cora herself.  Whitehead's eye for the details of life on the plantation--and in particular, life in the insular, predatory community that arises among the slaves--is unflinching.  Many reviewers before me have noted the brutal quietness with which he reveals that "Not long after it became known that Cora's womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half dragged her behind the smokehouse.  If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene.  The Hob women sewed her up."  But the entire segment is rife with moments like this, in which the sheer weight of what it means to live your entire life under the burden of being thought inhuman is presented without adornment, or even much signposting.  Taken on its own, this part of the book would still be a brilliant literary accomplishment.

But of course, if you've heard of The Underground Railroad, that's probably not what you've heard about it.  Leaving aside its selection for Oprah Winfrey's highly influential book club, what has made The Underground Railroad remarkable and notable is what happens at the end of this chapter.  Stunned out of a gloomy kind of complacency about her situation by a brutal beating, Cora accepts the invitation of another slave, Caesar, to escape with him.  Caesar has made contact with a local station agent for the Underground Railroad, and after a grueling, nail-biting escape--even the short distance between their plantation and the station is fraught with nearly impossible dangers for a pair of escaped slaves--what he and Cora find as their supposed path to freedom is a literalized metaphor.
The stairs led onto a small platform.  The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end.  It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern.  The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.  Cora and Caesar noticed the rails.  Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties.  The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting towards a miraculous terminus.
So dry and matter of fact is Whitehead's tone as he describes this impossible feat of, among other things, engineering that it actually takes some time for that impossibility to register.  This is hardly a new approach for Whitehead--his first novel, The Intuitionist, took place in a world in which elevator inspectors were a prestigious and tradition-bound group, closely guarding the secrets of their profession and suspicious when a new member, who is not only a black woman but who espouses the newfangled philosophy of "intuitive" elevator inspection, joins their ranks.  It sounds like a joke, but Whitehead not only presents it seriously but manages to make something soulful and even elegiac out of his premise--the racism and resistance that his heroine meets are no less hurtful because the profession she's trying to break into is ridiculous (in fact, one might argue that this is precisely the point).  Something similar is happening in The Underground Railroad.  Whitehead isn't trying to make slavery ridiculous, but by having Cora and Caesar's escape from it take the form of what is essentially a trip on the subway--they go underground in one spot and emerge in another--he unmoors slavery, and its latter-day permutations into prejudice and oppression, from a specific time and place.

As Cora is told by her first conductor, the Underground Railroad of the novel has no fixed route, no promised path to freedom.  Trains arrive on a schedule that is erratic, and their destinations are often unclear.  "The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another.  Stations are discovered, lines discontinued.  You won't know what waits above until you pull in."  Whitehead thus sets himself up for a sort of dark picaresque, with Cora and Caesar sampling life for escaped slaves in different states, trying to make their way to safety and happiness.  (The structure put me in mind of The Odyssey, and Whitehead namechecks Gulliver's Travels.  Though, and as one of this characters points out, both of these stories are tales about men who are ultimately trying to get home, whereas for Cora and Caesar home is a hell they must escape.)  The first of these chapters, titled "South Carolina", sets up its normalized strangeness right from the start, when Cora emerges from under ground: "She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled."  Once again, Whitehead plays it completely straight, and it takes a long time for the reader to be certain that the South Carolina that Cora and Caesar have arrived in--where they are housed in dormitories, educated, and given jobs, as part of a government program to "advance" former slaves--is not just counterfactual, but a place out of time.  When that confirmation comes, however, it brings the entire novel into focus.
His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments.  The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.  In fact, the niggers were participants in a study of the latent and tertiary stages of syphilis.

"They think you're helping them?" Sam asked the doctor.  He kept his voice neutral, even as his face got hot.

"It's important research," Bertram informed him.  "Discover how a disease spreads, the trajectory of the infection, and we approach a cure."
What Cora is traveling through, as she gets on and off the Underground Railroad, is not space, exactly, but history.  She experiences the different guises of American racism, the different faces it has worn and continues to wear, in a continuous physical space.  In South Carolina, Cora encounters what originally seems like kindness and liberal-mindedness, but which eventually reveals itself as self-serving paternalism.  The terms in which the authorities, who claim to be trying to help black people, actually end up restricting their choices and freedoms are taken not from the 19th century, however, but from the early 20th--forced sterilization, and proposed eugenics programs: "What if we performed adjustments to the niggers' breeding patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency?  Managed other attitudes, such as sexual aggression and violent natures? We could protect our women and daughters from their jungle urges, which Dr. Bertram understood to be a particular fear of southern white men."

This is not to say that The Underground Railroad's scheme is as straightforward as having Cora jump from one period to another.  Even within the South Carolina chapter there are elements that clearly come from different settings and time periods.  Later in the chapter, Cora is hired to appear in a display room at a recently opened museum of American history.  She plays roles in romanticized, sanitized recreations of a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic, a slave auction, and a plantation.  Her predicament--glad for the easy work but aggravated by how it whitewashes the brutal, backbreaking labor she used to perform--echoes a modern complaint by reenactors in actual historical sites, as well as the broader discussion of how American history teaching tends to downplay the brutality of slavery and perpetuate the myth of happy, well-treated slaves.  A later chapter in which Cora, now in the hands of a slave catcher, makes a quasi-hallucinatory crossing of a desolate, burned-out Tennessee landscape lends itself less easily to historical reference, but is clearly designed to open a discussion of America's mistreatment and dispossession of Native Americans.

If there's a criticism to be made here--and to be clear, I'm not sure it rises to that level--it is that this device can have the effect of making The Underground Railroad feel programmatic.  At times it almost feels as if the novel is ticking talking points off a list--the introduction to the slave catcher Ridgeway, for example, includes a short history of the institution of slave patrols and their operation, whose language ("They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes") seems designed to recall discussions I'd read recently about present-day police brutality, and how the history of policing in America has its roots in these slave patrols.  And though the fact that Whitehead has a character whom Cora meets muse that "Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation's government" a mere month after Michelle Obama made the same observation in a speech to the Democratic convention is surely a coincidence, it also speaks to the book's need to be topical.  At points, The Underground Railroad feels like a fictionalization of the conversation that we've been having for several years, about the place of African Americans in American society, the legacy of slavery, and the way that racism continues to manifest itself, even in a society that claims to have overcome it.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, especially given Whitehead's prodigious gifts as a writer, and the assuredness with which he manages his fantastic device.  But one effect that this approach has is that Cora seems to get lost in the shuffle.  This shouldn't happen--Cora is a wonderful creation, plucky but also deeply damaged, remarkable but also susceptible to the same pressures and traumas as anyone else.  One of the points Whitehead makes with her is to observe how the same courage and determination that make it possible for her to run, can also curdle into cruelty when subjected to enough mistreatment.  One of Cora's defining traumas is having been left behind by her mother when she escaped, and she is never able to forgive this betrayal.  She fantasizes about one day meeting her mother, "Begging in the gutter, a broken old woman bent into the sum of her mistakes.  Mabel looked up but did not recognize her daughter.  Cora kicked her beggar's cup, the few coins flew into the hubbub, and she continued on her afternoon errand".

The Underground Railroad is, in general, unflinching and unsentimental in depicting the psychic toll of participating, even unwillingly, in the system of slavery, whether it's Cora's myriad lingering traumas, over the things that were done to her and the things she's done, or the breakdown of even those slaves who seem inured to the hardships of slavery ("They joked and they picked fast when the bosses' eyes were on them and they acted big, but at night in the cabin after midnight they wept, they screamed from nightmares and wretched memories"), or the reluctance and terror of many of the white people who manage stations, most of whom come to terrible ends when they are inevitably discovered.  But though these points are typically well made, they also never feel like the point of the story, and this is particularly true of Cora.  By its very nature, Cora's journey can't have a destination.  If the point of The Underground Railroad is to take her (and us) through a guided tour of American racism, then the very fact that that racism is still at work--that books like The Underground Railroad are still necessary--means that she can't arrive in any sort of promised land.  Whitehead manages, with an elegance that is, by that point, unsurprising, to give the novel an ending that is satisfying without betraying his scheme, but the result is that Cora's journey loses much of its urgency.  She becomes, despite her vivid and deeply-felt humanity, more a viewpoint than a person.

What I think Whitehead is struggling with in The Underground Railroad is a problem that I've become more aware of, in recent years, in the context of fiction about the Holocaust.  At some point, you have to ask: what is the value of art about atrocity?  Can art exist merely for its own sake when it's discussing a real evil that blighted and claimed the lives of millions, or does it have to serve a purpose, be it educational or political?  Is it even right to impose a narrative--especially one that tends towards a happy ending--on an evil that by its very nature defies narrative, and which swallowed up the lives of so many?  Whitehead's choice--using the fantastic to detach his story from the conventions of narrative, and with it making the point that while slavery is over, it is also still with us--is not just brilliant, but inspiring.  But it also leaves The Underground Railroad feeling a little chilly.  It's a remarkable work, one that I am still, despite this review, struggling to describe and sum up.  But it's also one that I can't entirely love.