Book Review

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

a solid, if unambitious, novel from a major contemporary voice

Colson Whitehead’s new book, The Nickel Boys, is a gorgeous, moving novel, though nowhere near as experimental or inventive as the other books of his that I’ve read: it is a simple novel. Yes, Whitehead’s writing is impressive and the characters and setting are well-drawn and engaging and the politics and the creativity it demonstrates are both important, but the piece is much less original than other Whitehead. This is a standard piece of literary fiction: there is no world-building and there doesn’t need to be, because this is set in the real world. And – perhaps – it is this text’s unfamiliar simplicity (for Whitehead) that makes it a significant text.

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Ok, a week has passed since I wrote the above, but the idea[s] of this novel have stayed with me a lot over that interval.

The Nickel Boys is sad: it is about racism in America, and though it is historical fiction, like Whitehead’s multi-award-winning The Underground Railroad, the historical setting is this time played straight: there are none of the magical realist elements of that text. This means that even though the use of allegory and complex metaphor (see also The Intuitionist) is absent, Whitehead still avoids fictionalising the present. Rather than racism in contemporary America, The Nickel Boys dramatises the racism of America in the 1960s, the Jim Crow era, which remains, of course, under-explored, but by writing about this it is avoiding direct discussion of the shitshow of the current era.

In the week since I read this, protest-vote-president Donald Trump declared himself “King of the Jews”, like the crucified Christ: America (and everywhere else) is a fucking mess atm. Is writing about serious contemporary problems at a gentle remove (i.e. realist historical fiction set in the 1960s) a form of confrontation or a form of avoidance? This is something that I can’t decide, but I do acknowledge that my opinion here means fuck all.

The Underground Railroad worked so well because its experimental slash non-naturalistic elements drew attention to the broader purposes of the book: a comment on the historical sources of a sick bigotry… no, not sources, more examples of: slavery didn’t cause racism, racism was a cause and a justification of slavery and the continuation of slavery led to the need for a widespread, poisonous, insidious and universal racism because otherwise NO ONE could have countenanced it for as long as they did: I feel uncomfortable using language of ownership about my dog, because I don’t feel inherently superior to him. He is a dog, not a person: the moral amnesia required to deny another human’s humanity is a bigger, nastier, leap. For centuries, awful people “legally” owned others. It’s a disgrace and a stain on humanity. But it still happens: illegally now, and it’s much less ubiquitous, but the damage of its normalcy still exists: the world is openly racist. Society is hostile, cruel, violent and awful. So many people have such a terrible time. And we all carry on, telling people who aren’t happy with the world as it exists that they are sick.

You know what’s fucking sick? The normalcy of gun deaths. The normalcy of the mechanised meat and dairy industries. Cruelty. The burning of the Amazon. The destruction of the planet. Looking at social media or the news and feeling like dying shouldn’t make me think “I should really find a therapist”, it should make me think “I should really try and help people.” I’m probably going to do neither.

Instead, I’m going to continue reading sad books and writing sad things and sometimes reading silly books and writing silly things. I will never change the world. I can change my own world, to some extent: I can change my circumstances, but what I cannot do is change myself. I am sad and bored and bored and sad, and I do prefer reading and writing more than just about anything, and the only thing I like as much is drinking and then after that cuddling my dog.

The Nickel Boys is good, but its a very trad and a very simple literary novel. The writing is clear and direct, but the story isn’t fresh: it is about abused boys, victims of classist and racist abuse in a deeply corrupt reform school, but its protagonist is a “gifted child”, it’s set in the past and it switches between flashbacks and a present day narrative.

YES, it’s definitely a great example of literary fiction dealing with racism, but it’s an easier book to read than The Underground Railroad and I imagine it was an easier one to write. Very much a low-risk follow up to a smash hit, so for that reason one can hardly blame Whitehead for ensuring he did something definitely “good” after all those awards. The problem, though, is that the reason why Whitehead has the reputation he has is because his work – at least what I’ve read – is the opposite of this. It is risk-taking and allegorical and unexpected and fresh. Maybe this change, then, is Whitehead’s response to contemporary horrors: it is a move towards the direct. Here, Whitehead may not be setting his fiction in the present, but he is setting it in the real world, so maybe I am wrong in even raising the question of novelistic avoidance.

It’s great, but it’s not world-changing. You should probably give The Nickel Boys a read though, it’s a big (not in terms of length) summer book. It’s a solid novel.


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