skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
I just finished Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which is definite proof that a book-length allegory CAN ALSO be a coherent and compelling novel. (Is this a Kazuo Ishiguro callout post? MAYBE.)

The easiest and most facile way to describe The Underground Railroad is basically like Underground the TV show meets Snowpiercer. I mean, significantly less silly than Snowpiercer, which is a deeply silly movie -- but insofar as it's a train-based road trip for your life in which every stop is an Allegory On the Evils of Class and Capitalism, like that, except in this case it's an allegory on America's original sins.

The book's heroine is Cora, a woman who escapes from a deep-South plantation on an enormous hidden network of rails and tunnels, gaining and losing allies along the way. Each time she gets off she thinks that maybe she's found a place where she can stop and live a human life, and each place she visits reflects a different knife-angle of the generally horrific history of race in America -- alternate histories, but real ones.

Allegory aside, Cora is very much a real and complex and compelling character, and the places she visits have heft to them. Cora's identity is bound up in the legend and mystery of her mother Mabel, the one slave in the plantation's history (before Cora) who was able to escape and vanish completely; she's a real person, too, and so are all the other perspectives that we glimpse briefly in interstitial interludes along Cora's journey. It's a really good book. It's a very page-turning book, and although it's (obviously) extremely grim at times, it's not actually a hopeless book.
skygiants: Jane Eyre from Paula Rego's illustrations, facing out into darkness (more than courage)
Okay, it takes someone very special - in the best possible way - to write and pull off a noir novel about the shady underworld of elevator inspection.

Which is not the only reason why Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist is a really, really good book! Basically it is the story of Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the Elevator Inspector's Guild, in a city that may or may not be a version of Manhattan and takes place at no set time but feels at any rate like it was filmed in grayscale. The city is torn in a bitter rivalry between the Empiricists - who believe in the traditional mode of elevator inspection - and the Intuitionists - who believe it is possible to tune oneself into the elevator and sense its elevator-y problems and desires. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist by practice, and has the highest success rate in the department, but isn't really a part of either political group - at least, not until one of her elevators plunges into total freefall, quite possibly taking her career with it.

Like in all the best noirs, Lila soon finds herself accidentally involved with secret shady conspiracies, double-crossers, goons and corrupt politicians (the leader of the Elevator Inspector's Guild has ties to the mob! They put the heat on reporters who might reveal elevator inspection secrets!) And, like in not all that many of the best noirs, the story engages with issues of race and class and philosophy and the dream of a better future (through the discovery of the perfect elevator, of course.)

I just have one complaint about the book - and that is, though it is very important to the novel that Lila Mae is the first black female elevator inspector, and we see another black elevator inspector who came before her and who is significant to the plot, there don't appear to be any other women in the Guild. Or if so, they're not mentioned. Is Lila Mae the first woman to be an inspector as well as the first black woman? Because that is important if she is, and should be talked about, I think! And if she's not, and there are other women in the Guild who are apparently as invisible as Lila Mae, then I sort of feel that . . . that should be mentioned too. I don't mean to say that the focus of the book should shift at all, but it seems clear that this is a sexist as well as a racist society, and it would be nice if it were at least touched on.

That aside, though, it's a pretty incredible story. I really liked it reading on my own; I also sort of wish I had a chance to read it with a class or a book group, because it's the kind of book that asks for in-depth discussion to start disentangling all the themes and metaphors underlying the plot.


skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (Default)

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