Colson Whitehead is a playfully referential practitioner of genre pastiche. Like any good pasticheur, he is really something of a prose virtuoso. His books are packed with densely worked phrases. His control over assonance and his feeling for the internal structure of a paragraph bespeak both a finely tuned literary ear and a profound self-consciousness about the technical aspects of writing: imagery, pacing, telling detail. ‘Admire me!’ his sentences say. And they are often easy to admire. But they don’t make for easy involvement in the story. Plenty of writers want to stun you into admiration, of course, and don’t especially care about the story. And there are sound aesthetic reasons to write the sort of prose that enforces critical distance from the story being told. But this isn’t really what Whitehead is doing. His stories are meant to involve you, to evoke pathos and narrative tension, to present memorable characters. But his books don’t really do pathos; they do ‘pathos’ (more marvellous sentences).
Whitehead’s breakthrough hit, The Underground Railroad (2016), offers a case in point. Page by page, the prose is beautifully engineered. The central conceit is one of those ideas so good it seems blindingly obvious in retrospect: what if the Underground Railroad conducting escaped slaves northward had been an