It all started with one of those Facebook challenges. Norm Maves, a longtime friend and former colleague, hit me up with this one: Post a book cover, once a day for 10 days, from a book that’s influenced your life. Norm is a smart fellow and a good person, a mentor to many and a sportswriter who cares as much about the people as the sport. Check that: He cares more about the people, and they care right back. How could I possibly say no?
Just post the book covers, the instructions said. No need to comment, unless you want to. But of course, commenting’s what I do. I can’t help myself. And I can’t help overthinking a thing. Ten books? I thought. Just 10? How could I possibly? Almost immediately I turned a simple exercise into an ethical dilemma: How could I choose only 10 books? On what justification? I think of the books in my life as my comrades, my friends, my tribe, and the tribe is large. I’m not a list-y sort of person, though I’ve learned to take one to the grocery store, where I then practice improvisation. To choose so few, to leave so many out, seemed a betrayal, like abandoning friends in need.
Well, I thought. I could bundle a few: do two or three books on a single day that somehow linked. Following that self-ruse, I cleverly turned my list of 10 into a list of 15. But that hardly mollified my unease: All those others, unhonored and unnamed!
Finally I came to the conclusion that a list is only a list, and that any list I make will change from day to day depending on where I and the world at large happen to find ourselves at that moment. So, I trust, will yours. The more books we read (the more music we hear, the more people we meet, the more places we see) the broader becomes our personal encyclopedia, and we call on those pages that seem pertinent to a particular time.
I found, assembling this list, that it contains a certain urgency to grapple with large issues in the world – not escapism as such (my encyclopedia has ample space for a good whodunnit, a good children’s novel, a lark of the Jeevesian variety), although each of these books I found a pleasure to read for its sheer literary quality. The state of the nation and the world in a time of rising extremism, autocratic leadership, racial and ethnic hatred, economic disparity, and the triumph of the bully mentality is constantly on my mind, and reflected in the books I chose.
Here they are. Not yesterday’s list, not tomorrow’s, but today’s. And I will only add that I would probably find a way to justify including Riddley Walker, Pride and Prejudice, and Gulliver’s Travels on any list, any time:
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
Shakespeare’s Dog, by Leon Rooke
To begin: Russell Hoban’s rip-roaringly funny futuristic novel “Riddley Walker,” and Leon Rooke’s hilarious Elizabethan rag, “Shakespeare’s Dog” – two fantasies far apart in time but very close in spirit.
“Riddley,” set in a far-off English future a few hundred years after a great disaster (think nuclear war) is about a ragtag group wandering the countryside, trying to build something new. Hoban creates his own language, based on contemporary English but twisted and angled (think of speaking Middle English today; pretty soon it starts to make sense) and the book is one big linguistic joke: He has FUN with words. The perfectly logical yet utterly wrong assumptions our heroes make about the past based on the shards of archaeological evidence they’ve found are deliciously hilarious. And who wouldn’t fall for a novel in which Punch and Judy play a crucial role in the forming of a new religion?
“Shakespeare’s Dog” is just what it says: the story of the young Will, henpecked in Stratford and escaping to London, as told by his dog Hooker, who has a dog’s-eye view of the world and is singularly unimpressed by his master’s airs and so-called talents. A dog, of course, is a very practical beast, and also one given to carnal impulses, which, unlike humans, it does nothing to suppress. Hooker tells a riotous tale, and is a natural storyteller: Will could learn a thing or two from him, and probably does.
I re-read both of these books every few years. Come to think of it, it might be time again.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
I must’ve been just a little older than John Grimes, James Baldwin’s 14-year-old hero, when I first read Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and I discovered that even though I was an isolated white kid from a mostly white small town in the Pacific Northwest and Baldwin was a black Harlem expatriate in Europe, I identified strongly. Both John Grimes and I were attracted to and deeply wary of a passionate evangelical religion, and Baldwin, looking back on his younger self, understood that: Instead of mocking them, he took both the desire and the wariness seriously. Like Grimes, I felt strangely like both an outsider and an insider in my own place. I was restless, wanting to know about the world outside. John Grimes moved around the great city of New York; Baldwin had packed up and moved to Europe.
As different as John’s Harlem world and mine were in so many ways, I felt an affinity. I was bowled over by the clear searing beauty of Baldwin’s language (in this novel, often suggesting the cadences of the King James Bible) in both his novels and his essays: I would go on to read pretty much all of both. Here, I began to understand, was a contemporary American literary master who spoke directly and deeply and with controlled passion.
I’d read some of James Weldon Johnson’s poetry earlier and read Richard Wright’s “Native Son” around the same time, but “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which felt personal, opened something wide for me: the vital artistic culture of black America. The world was stirring, and I stirred with it. Soon I was exploring the historical and contemporary travesties that gave rise to this independent, defiant, and sometimes celebratory-in-spite-of-it-all culture that is also deeply, inseparably American, and without which America cannot be understood. Beginning to take all this in as a teenager, even from a distance, was a budding of adulthood and the realization that the American Myth was just that: a story that demanded a deeper, more complex alignment with reality. (Soon enough Vietnam kicked in with a vengeance, and hastened the realignment.)
James Baldwin became one of my guides, weaving a vision that was personal, social, political, aesthetic, and profoundly American. He took 10 years to finish writing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” his first novel, and it wasn’t because he didn’t have the language: He needed to grow into an acknowledgement of his own past. Edwidge Danticat described the book a couple of years ago in an essay in The New Yorker: “This novel is not just a well-thought-out and well-crafted lyrical work but also a protest chant, a hymn, a rebuke, a memorial, a prayer, a testimonial, a confessional, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece.” Can’t say it better than that.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The famous opening sentence to Jane Austen’s funny, fraught, frightfully civilized, and deeply humane novel “Pride and Prejudice” suggests the style, import, and intentions of what’s to come as the tale unspools: a playful dry wit, a deep allegiance to practicality and economic security, the possibility of romance, perhaps even a multiple meaning for “good fortune” – money, yes; but also the good fortune to be morally and intellectually equipped to lead a wise and balanced life. It also makes clear that despite the novel’s serious intentions this will not be a 10-furlong horse race but an amble through the countryside, with plenty of sights to see.
The characters, of course, are memorable: not just the reluctant soulmates Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, but the whole astonishing Bennett clan, from the wise to the prissy to the utterly foolish; and what’s remarkable is that so many supporting characters who might be caricatures – dastardly Mr. Wickham, fatuous Mr. Collins, pragmatic Charlotte Lewis, odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh – have such splendid literary vigor.
Some people dismiss Austen as a creator of “mere romances,” a judgment that strikes me as about as perceptive as a platitude from the prattling Mr. Collins. It unfairly diminishes an entire genre (one dominated by women writers) and suggests that domestic matters are of vastly less importance than the adventuring of men. In fact, “Pride and Prejudice” is very much about the taming, not of the shrew, but of the gentleman caller (a co-taming, if you will, as the two lovers slowly come to realize what’s true and important). For all of its entertainment value “Pride and Prejudice” is a deeply moral novel, consumed with questions of how we choose to lead our lives. The novel was published in 1813, putting it on the bridge between the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic age, and it neatly balances the two, embracing passion but declaring that passion must be guided by judgment and intelligence.
Good fortune in Austen’s world derives from tamed and guided appetites, and in that sense it’s akin to the universe of Shakespeare’s plays, in which benevolent order is supremely important and unchecked ambition or reckless inattention or malevolence brings kingdoms down. Austen’s kingdoms may be of the human heart, but the same holds true: Give a Mr. Wickham free rein to indulge in his depravities and disaster will befall. And of course Austen’s wry, spry, mobile mastery of the language and its creative possibilities is a constant pleasure as it creates new realities. Without drawing direct parallels between Mr. Wickham and today’s deep American predicament, I might suggest that at the very least hiring Miss Austen as a ghost tweeter with veto powers over the clumsy and bellicose expression of imperial impulse would constitute a vast improvement, and possibly keep the ship of state from listing quite so perilously. Or so we could hope.
Demons, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Today I’m going with a couple of Russians: Fyodor Dostoevsky and his novel “Demons” (a.k.a. “The Devils” or “The Possessed”), narrowly edging his piercing and wonderful “The Idiot”; and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s harrowing banality-of-evil novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Put together, these two books encompass the astonishing beauty and cultural creativity of Russia and its flip side of brutal and fearsome political machinations – in Solzhenitsyn’s case the gulags of the Soviets, but the tradition goes back to the czars and carries forward to the pugilistic kleptocracy of Putin and his gang.
Tolstoy is as acute an observer as Dostoevsky but gentler, perhaps more sorrowful, in his evocations of the human heart. Chekhov is peerless in his tragicomic descriptions of people and cultures in unrest, choosing to diagnose but not prescribe. Of the three he also may be the most compassionate toward his characters – or maybe it’s just that I like the theater. I choose Dostoevsky and “Demons” because it seems to connect the nation’s conflicting sides: in addition to its compelling language and sharp cultural observations it has a satiric, gruesomely comic edge about the ways that societies let their gyroscopes spin out of control; how an entire culture can be toyed with egregiously by a small, determined, malevolent group. His demons stir up trouble not because they’re true believers in an ideology or a religion or anything else (although nihilism gets a sound spanking, and various other isms come into play as excuses and prods) but basically just for the hell of it, because it’s fun. Might that, at heart, account for at least some of the appalling mischief being performed in our own time and place? – empty souls, in it for sport, manipulating the devout and credulous?
Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was first published in English in 1963, and I read it soon after, while I was still in high school. It’s an astonishing book, set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and describing the desperate banalities of a single prisoner’s adjustments – he is innocent, of course, of the charges against him – to the casual brutalities of it all, and the small existential decisions he makes to get through a single day. Hard, quick, plainspoken, it’s a matter-of-fact horror story that happens to be largely true. In a repressive system everybody’s under pressure, everybody makes decisions based on survival, every movement has political import. Somehow, these things also made the book an enthralling read.
In the late 1990s I traveled to Russia as a journalist, following a museum story. One of the many good and generous people I met was a woman highly placed in cultural circles, a guardian of the artistic treasures of a great cultural tradition. At one point, as I expressed enthusiasm over one or another delight I’d just encountered, she leaned in furtively and almost whispered. “Russia is a good place for you to visit,” she said. “It is not a good place to live.” And this was before Putin. One bows in awe to the powers of the Russian artists, and cries for the Russian people, and curses the Russian state. So much humanity, so deep and so high, from the savage to the sublime.
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
Today I’m going to cheat a bit. This is excerpted from a piece I wrote in 2010, after rashly having inserted myself into a book-store conversation between a clerk and a man and his young son who were looking for a copy of “Gulliver’s Travels.” A new (and very loose, as it turned out) Jack Black movie adaptation was coming out, and son and dad thought it’d be fun to read the book before seeing it. The clerk was urging them to buy one of the many expurgated versions, and for some unfathomable reason I piped up.
“Buy the original,” I found myself saying. “It’s lots better.”
And they did.
And almost immediately I felt remorseful. What had I done? It wasn’t my call.
And yet, it’s true. The original IS lots better.
Jonathan’s Swift’s novel, first published in 1726 under the title “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships,” is one of the most hacked-at and sanitized books ever written, and those are the versions, unfortunately, in which most people encounter it. That seems to be largely because its fantastical elements (little people, giants, talking horses, flying cities) tilt it toward the catch-all of children’s literature, despite its often coarse detail and sophisticated adult themes. It is, underneath the flimsiest tissue of whimsy, a scabrous satire on European morals and politics, and quite rude on the subject of bodily functions, and such things will never do for the young and tender-cheeked. (Nor is it the only book to be hogtied and forcibly hustled into the children’s playpen in spite of its original intentions. It’s a bit of a jolt to remember that the Grimm folk and fairy tales, which have been so resolutely cleansed and prettified for nursery and adolescent consumption in the almost 200 years since the brothers first published them, were themselves sanitized versions of older, even more savage folk traditions.) In brief: Take out the scruffy parts of “Gulliver’s Travels” and you’ve ripped out its heart and soul.
If a person’s goal is to keep the young innocents eternally innocent, giving a child this book as Swift wrote it is like hiring a wolf to babysit a flock of sheep. Yet there’s an argument to be made for the real stuff, and we can hope the good father and son, both of whom seemed pleasant and intelligent people, found their unexpurgated “Gulliver” both challenging and rewarding. I know I did – in spite, or perhaps because, of Gulliver’s view of human history as “… an heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice or ambition could produce.” That’s a lot of swamp to drain. The literary miracle is, the book’s also great fun.
Freddy and the Bean Home News, by Walter R. Brooks
Ah, Freddy. Some pig! Better, in both my youthful estimation and my adult recollection, even than Wilbur, in E.B. White’s charming “Charlotte’s Web,” who had to sit around and wait for a wily spider to save his bacon. Freddy, the hero of 25 witty and surprisingly sophisticated pulp children’s novels and a book of poetry written by Walter R. Brooks between 1927 and 1958 (the memorably comic illustrations are by Kurt Wiese), was no shrinking violet in need of anybody’s help: he took matters into his own hooves, and did what needed to be done.
I consumed the Freddy books, every one, waiting impatiently at the town library if one I wanted was checked out, and for the purposes of this list I might have chosen the deliciously sly “Freddy the Politician” or “Freddy and the Ignormus” (“ignormus,”with its inescapable suggestion of “ignoramus”: a strangely provocative word for a pre-adolescent mind in the late 1950s) or “Freddy the Magician” or “Freddy and the Men from Mars.” I choose “Freddy and the Bean Home News,” because in it Freddy and his barnyard cohorts – a rooster named Charles, a cow named Mrs. Wiggins, a cat named Jinx, and many more – become newspigs, newshorses, newsroosters, news you-name-its. And they do it because fake news is a-flyin’, and they’re duty-bound to set the record straight.
Back up a moment. Freddy is the leader of a barnfull of talking animals living on the Bean Farm, which is somewhere in Upstate New York, vaguely in the area of Syracuse, and they are an anomaly both to Farmer Bean and the nearby townsfolk, yet everyone seems to accept the fact that they do, indeed, talk (and, unlike many talking humans, are demonstrably intelligent) and that they embark on many adventures, often heroic. This is all very straightforward, and also, in Brooks’s dry, understated style, enormously funny: the Freddy books are acute social comedies, with a keen eye for human/critterly foibles and an enthusiasm for the pitfalls (child-sized, so no one stumbles horribly) of the seven deadly sins.
There are good guys and there are bad guys. Some of the bad guys are from off the farm, and some of the bad guys lurk within: a gang of thieving, scheming barn rats, led by the dastardly Simon. The bad guys gain the advantage but cannot prevail in the end because, well, they’re bad guys, and Freddy and his fellow animals and those humans who have a shred of honesty and backbone simply won’t allow it. It is surely no accident, in “Freddy and the Bean Home News,” that the animals start their honest newspaper in 1943, during wartime, when honesty was both essential and at a premium, and when freedom of the press was no certain deal. Need I mention that we are again living in a time when fake news rides triumphant, the free and honest press is weak, and we are in desperate need, as a nation, of the ability to distinguish one from the other and choose that which is honest and reliable? Come back, Freddy, come back. America needs you. Now and forever. Oh: and, hold the bacon.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
“ ‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’”
Every now and again a miracle happens in the publishing world, a book that seems both a bolt out of the blue and an inevitability to the life of its times. Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” unleashed on a mostly unsuspecting world in the cultural doldrums of 1989, was just such an astonishment. With its freaks and geeks and traveling curiosity show it seemed a throwback to the 1960s, and yet also, somehow, a doorway into the future.
In Dunn’s title the words “geek” and “love” are co-equal – flip sides of the same equation, shaping each other in their own terrible and wonderful images. The novel introduces a family of side-show entertainers, genetic mutants created deliberately by their parents to be “exotic” enough to fascinate the paying rubes as Binewski’s Carvival Fabulon rolls from town to town and keeps the family fortunes flowing. The shock – the atrocity – of the thing is captivating and overwhelming; a genetic engineering as coldly calculating as anything by Joseph Mengele, yet also, unlike Mengele’s horrors, suffused somehow with a kind of strange and bountiful love. A boy with flippers instead of hands and feet; a hunchback albino dwarf; conjoined twins; a telekinetic powerhouse: In a culture that values conformity above all else, every freak, every deviation, is an affront. Yet here, among the deliberately misshapen Binewski clan, it was all in the family, and the idea of normalcy was flipped on its head.
You can’t mess around with nature and expect nature not to slap you back, of course, and fear and retribution abound in “Geek Love”: One pays for one’s sins, even sins undertaken out of economic necessity and love. The universe of “Geek Love” seems a peculiarly American sort of place, cluttered with cults and charismatic quacks, desperate measures and deep desires, sensationalism and betrayals, a kind of sinking into a well of self-loathing tempered by longing, loyalty, acts of empathy. Dunn pushes against the borders of civilization and the very concept of humanity, delivering this human astonishment in a lush clear language like a Rousseau jungle where the wild beasts lurk, waiting to pounce. Surely heartbreak and sorrow and justice and mercy will follow these strangely conceived people all the days of their lives.
Dunn was an original. So is her greatest literary achievement, “Geek Love.” I knew her a tiny bit, in her later years, introduced by her great friend Rene Denfeld, and Katherine was warm and funny and intelligent and generous, talking with enthusiasm about her writing students and engaging the world straight-on in her cockeyed, original way, punctuating her observations with a deep, delightful, bullfrog of a laugh. She also loved the boxing world and wrote about it beautifully, enticing me to fall just a little in love, too, with a sport I cared nothing about. She was, I think, utterly herself, as distinctive as any of her characters, and when she died, too early, two years ago a kind of light went out. Yet her work shines on, showing a possible path through our xenophobic, suspicious, bullying, color-conscious, other-despising times in which we seem to have turned our collective back against the inclusive promise to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning simply to breathe: We are all freaks, we are all normal, we are all worthy of love.
The Rediscovery of North America, by Barry Lopez
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami
If I were to recommend a book to those anti-immigrant America Firsters actually willing to listen to another view, it might well be Barry Lopez’s 1990 “The Rediscovery of North America,” written on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s maiden voyage to the Americas. It’s a short book – a long essay, really – relating in crisp, compelling language the cataclysmic effects of the European incursion, both on the people who already lived here and the land the Europeans felt compelled to conquer. Lopez calls frequently on the eyewitness accounts of Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502 and later became a priest. Lopez: “One day, in front of Las Casas, the Spanish dismembered, beheaded or raped three thousand people. ‘Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight,’ he says, ‘as no age can parallel.’”
Lopez’s book, as tough as it is, is much more than an indictment. “I single out these episodes of depravity not so much to indict the Spanish as to make two points,” he writes. “First, this incursion, this harmful road into the ‘New World,’ quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. … The second point I wish to make is that this violent corruption needn’t define us. Looking back on the Spanish incursion, we can take the measure of the horror and assert that we will not be bound by it. We can say, yes, this happened, and we are ashamed. We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else to the world.”
For Lopez, perhaps best-known as the author of the passionate naturalist’s book “Arctic Dreams,” that something else has at least something to do with the nurturing and care of the land itself. It’s not accidental that this short book is dedicated to the memory of Rachel Carson.
“The Rediscovery of America” is an excellent table-setter for “The Moor’s Account,” the Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami’s rich and lushly imagined personal journey into the landscape that Lopez and Las Casas describe. In Lalami’s novel, the journey is undertaken by an actual historical person, the slave Estevanico, whose “true” story is known only through a single line in the later account by the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca of an ill-fated expedition into Florida in 1527: “The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.”
Lalami imagines Estevanico’s life (or Mustafa’s, as he is properly named) from his childhood in Morocco to his days in Spain as a valued slave to a young nobleman to his journey to Florida and his encounter with the native peoples in the lush inland, where the rules of slave and master are upended and Mustafa, in whose voice the tale is told, achieves a kind of freedom as the Spaniards around him sink into depravity and distress. Lalami beautifully balances a 16th century perspective with 21st century hindsight, and discovers a sad yet promising beauty in the life of this long-ago adventurer who flourishes in a land where so many, so soon, would be enslaved. Along the way she creates a vivid recollection of the people and ways of the continent before 1492, and a suggestion of how the meeting of two cultures might have gone, had the invading culture been less acquisitive and violent. Her comparisons of native and Spanish cultures cut like a knife and heal like a balm. Like Lopez’s, it’s a beautiful book that looks as much to the future as the past.
Westward to Laughter, by Colin MacInness
Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
I’m continually astonished by the power of words to create beauty out of the ugliest of human impulses. These three superb historical adventure novels tell intensely personal tales of lives caught in the snare of one of our most despicable cultural inventions. The stories are bold and harrowing and disturbing and, perhaps surprisingly, leavened with wit – literary pleasures forged from realities of moral failure and pain.
America is defined not just by our Enlightenment humanist ideals but also by a foundation of racial subjugation and violence, first by European settlers against the native population, and soon after by the African slave trade. “Our peculiar institution,” its defenders called it, and to understand our 21st century rise of angry white right-wing radicalism hungry for a return to a golden age that never existed, it’s a good thing to gain a clear-eyed view of how things actually began.
Enter the firm of MacInness, Johnson, and Whitehead for the prosecution of human cruelty and the defense of human determination – and, come to that, the defense of the marvelous possibilities of language to create new realizations and realities.
Each of the central characters in these novels is caught up in the trap of slavery by accident, either of situation or of birth. In Colin MacInness’s 1969 “Westward to Laughter,” a young Scotsman named Alexander Nairn is tricked in the 1750s by his uncle, a malevolent molasses merchant, aboard a ship that turns out to be a slaver heading to the West Indies. Things start bad, and get worse, and I won’t tell you bad they get, but along the way amazements happen. “Of my salvage by a boat hook, the fifty lashes from the Quartermaster, and all my vomiting to Liverpool, I shall say nothing,” Nairn relates, “except that I left Scotland a boy, and reached England something of a man.” And that’s on Page 18, before the adventure’s truly begun. Through a complex series of events young Alexander shifts from slaver to slave, for the island of Laughter contains both black and white slaves. He meets up with the native Caribes, and freedom fighters in the hills, and learns from the downside how the upside stays on top. There is debauchery, and brutality, and remorse, and the sinking realization that when one is caught inside a system, the system finds its way to win.
Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning 1990 novel “Middle Passage,” named for the notorious slaver route across the Atlantic from western Africa to the Southern states, also takes its metaphorical voyage of discovery via ship, this time in the 1830s, when a freed slave and petty thief in New Orleans named Rutherford Calhoun seeks to escape an undesired marriage and a pile of debts by stowing away aboard ship. “How I fell into this life of living off others, of being a social parasite, is a long, sordid story best shortened for those who, like the Greeks, prefer to keep their violence offstage,” Calhoun narrates. The ship on which he hides, unfortunately, is a slaver bound for Africa to transport the remnants of a people called the Allmuseri to the United States for sale. Cultures clash, dangers abound, astonishments occur, mystical visions rise from the ship’s hold, where the stinking cargo is trapped but not entirely helpless, and mere individuals find themselves face to face with the remorseless depths of human possibility. We are caught in the tangle of the nets we cast.
Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad” jumps ship in favor of a train car, the fabled underground route to safety for slaves fleeing the South to the North taking literal shape as a train route buried underground and operated under the deepest secrecy. The story begins in Africa, where Cora’s grandmother is captured and transported to America; settles in to the Georgia plantation where Cora is a hard-working outcast; and hits the underground when Cora, in the company of a fellow slave named Caesar, flees the plantation and begins the perilous journey north. Along the way a notorious slave-catcher tracks them, some friends turn out to be foes and others staunch defenders of the faith, unlikely escapes and alliances abound, hopes are dashed and rise again more cautiously. The path to freedom is littered with death and betrayal and bravery and disease, and if the outcome is uncertain, the conditions along the way are built on a solid track of historical fact. Can Whitehead tell a tale? “The Underground Railroad” won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and Whitehead’s earlier “Zone One” is surely the greatest zombie novel that never actually uses the word “zombie” ever published. ’Nuff said.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood
Chances are you know the story, from watching the television adaptation (which I haven’t seen), or hearing people talk about it, or actually reading the novel, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” A bleak and horrifically fascinating future world, in a place called Gilead, where a militaristic male theocracy runs the show and women serve at the men’s will, among them a handmaid named Offred, assigned to a high-ranking commander for sexual purposes.
Provocative and disturbingly timely, Atwood’s tale is first of all just good writing, the first call of any novel and a pleasure because of it, no matter what its other purposes may be. But about those other purposes: although it was published in 1985, “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems more and more culturally necessary with every passing day. One of the great global crises of the 21st century is the rise of rigid and aggressive fundamentalism, from the violent excesses of radical-conservative Muslims to the astonishing alliance of American fundamentalist Christians with what may be the most corrupt, regressive, and abusive administration in the nation’s history, led by a moral lout of a president who flouts every standard of decency while evangelists cheer and embrace him as one of their own. With a cold clear eye, Atwood imagines just what a theocratic dictatorship – which so many in America seem so fervently to desire – might look like. It isn’t pretty. Unless you’re at the top of the heap, you wouldn’t want to live there.
What is “The Handmaid’s Tale,” besides one of the most frequently challenged books in school libraries every year? It’s not science fiction, nor is it strictly fantasy: Its actions are built on Atwood’s observations of social trends at the time she was writing. The late, great Portland writer Ursula Le Guin preferred the term “speculative fiction” for such stories, and that seems about right. What if? What if current trends are carried forward to their logical extremes? (Atwood’s later novel “Oryx and Crake,” with its dystopia of corporate genetic manipulations, might more easily fit into the science-fiction world, but “speculative” seems a better fit for it, too.)
As usual with such dystopian adventure tales, the featured character is just someone trying to survive amid extreme circumstances, which are presented as ordinary for her world and at least recognizable from our own. It’s the struggle for survival, and perhaps escape, that matters, but the shape of the domineering system, and the kinds of corruptions it encourages, determine how the struggle is carried out. Go, Offred. Do what you need to.
Atwood is a distinguished poet, novelist, essayist, and thinker, and her name’s been tossed about a fair amount lately when people start talking about the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m on board with that. And “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the No. 1 argument in its favor.