I’ve not been the best blogger lately. But, along with a bunch of things that are keeping me from my computer (see below), I have been reading a lot.
I also have a new desk and two new desk lamps. And a dog. (And, yeah, three of those books are about dogs.)
This is the dog; his name is Hobbes. He looks like a cross between a fox and a teddy bear at the moment–or you can just go with Ewok–but he will look more and more like a Cairn terrier (which he is!) as he grows up, which he is doing rapidly. And yes, he is utterly adorable.
Now, you might not expect there to be things of interest in the dog books for anyone who has not just adopted a puppy. You would be wrong. On January 21, just before I headed to Montpelier for the March (which was awesome), I read this passage on the acknowledgements page of Cesar Millan’s Be the Pack Leader. Before I quote it, I’m going to repeat that I read it right before going to the March.
Okay, here’s Cesar (who I may or may not have a crush on):
I worry about the fact that my kids are growing up in a very unstable world; a world that is going to require some incredible pack leaders if it is going to be made right again. I believe that women hold the key to helping put our world back into balance. But they can’t do that until men truly acknowledge and honor the unique wisdom and the leadership women have to offer–and until women can embrace the pack leaders within themselves. . . . I also believe that women are more likely than men to act for the good of the pack. And like dogs, we humans need to remember that without the pack we are nothing.
I should have put that on my sign.
Aside from all the dog training books (which are paying off, by the way: Hobbes knows the sit, come, stay, and “get busy” commands and he sleeps all night long–no whining, no accidents–in his crate), I also read The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, two books, as it turns out (quite by accident), about young women who have lost their mothers.
The Mothers, I’m sorry to say, just did not do it for me. My daughter loved it, and so have many other people. But I found the book to be extremely thin on plot. Everything of note that happens, happens right away in the book, and honestly, it’s not that much. I kept waiting for a reveal, or more to the story, or something. But no, it really was all there in the first 50 pages or so. The biggest disappointment for me, though, was in the lack of character development. None of the characters or their relationships had any real impact on me; none of them seemed true, and they were certainly not richly dimensional. There are flashes of memorable writing that I kept hoping would become more sustained or at least more frequent. They didn’t. The book didn’t offend my admittedly snobbish literary sensibilities, but I never had that money moment when I can’t wait to get back to the book. It was, at best, just kind of meh.
The Underground Railroad delivered the money moment, though. I have a slightly complicated response to this book, but I did find it entirely worthy of all the hype it has gotten in the months since it came out. The complicated part of my response comes not from the writing itself–which is spectacular–or the plot or the character development, both of which are the literary equivalent of a great big apple pie to the bitter oranges of The Mothers. But I didn’t entirely buy the magical realism Whitehead is attempting in the first part of the book. At first, my response was that it was interesting–and anyone who has ever been a student of mine knows that “interesting” is my least favorite word. It was one thing to make the railroad an actual underground railroad. Like a lot of people who I’ve talked to about the book, I was one of those children who thought that the underground railroad was literally that, and I love that Whitehead’s literal rendering of it sort of plugs in to the huge number of people who fall into that category. But the section of the book set in South Carolina (the book follows an escaped slave, Cora, from Georgia, to South Carolina, to North Carolina, to Tennessee, to Indiana) and the eugenics experiments, also fictionalized, unsettled me a bit.
I do very much understand that behind that chapter are real things like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. I get it. I also think that at another time in our own history, I wouldn’t be troubled by this fictionalization at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would appreciate it. But here we are, at a truly shameful moment in the history of the United States , in which all manner of “alternative facts”–no, let’s just call them lies–are being uttered in the service of racism. And I suddenly find myself worried about the status of fiction in a book about race.
Let me see if I can express this clearly: although the book is fiction–Whitehead imagined this story–most of what Cora encounters in this book is not based on “alternative facts.” The book’s harrowing descriptions of the practices of slavery owe a lot to memoirs by former slaves like Frederick Douglass (yeah, that Frederick Douglass, the one who’s doing such a great job and being recognized more and more), or Solomon Northup (Twelve Years a Slave). Rendered so exquisitely in a work of fiction as fine as The Underground Railroad (or Beloved, or The Known World, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or any number of other important novels about antebellum America), these unspeakable crimes against humanity assume a kind of truth, and deliver a wallop, that purely historical writing rarely, maybe never, achieves (the Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote a really terrific piece on just exactly this for the New Yorker a few years ago).
But what happens when, in a book that otherwise translates actual facts into powerful fictional narrative, the writer breaks his own stride and truly makes something up? I want/need to say that an artist of course has full license to do just that. And I will say it, and insist on it. But I also need to acknowledge that it might come at some cost, especially these days, and maybe especially in a book about race in America. Do you risk inviting some readers to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the harrowing truth of the novel because a part of it is so fabricated as to be a bit confusing? Can fiction sometimes go too far, in other words, and risk cancelling its deep truths at a time like the one we’re in now in which art is called into exigent service?
I can’t answer that question well. I can’t in part because it’s almost too painful to think about. And I can’t in part because, given my training and what I do for a living, I am by definition a sophisticated reader of fiction. The Underground Railroad, though it wobbled a bit for me, finally delivered a serious punch. I loved this book. But I worry a bit about what it might sow in others who read their fiction a little more literally, who might not be quite as appreciative as I am of the experimental quality of Whitehead’s writing, and who might be looking for a way to find fault with a movement like, say, Black Lives Matter.
And I hate that I worry about that.