Snakes on a Train: Can You Imagine?

The Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Reptilian Horror Story. Photo via Pixabay [CC0].

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read Juan Gabriel Vásquez's New York Times review of this book and bought the book immediately. An actual railroad? What a re-imagining! Yet the story works. Never mind that even today, with Chinese technology capable of tunnelling vast distances at lower costs, it seemed as improbable as it was then impossible. Yet Whitehead doesn't miss a beat. Who built it? How did they build it? How did they keep it a secret? As far as the story goes, it doesn't matter. You often wish the runaways would just get back on the damn train and keep going all the way to Canada. I recall Hemingway writing about truth and good books (By-Line: Selected Journalism, pp. 188-9 but originally "Old Newsman Writes" in Esquire December 1934):
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can give that to people, then you are a writer.
Clearly, Colson Whitehead is and has done just that.

I don't want to harp on about the plot, but rather about the use of imagination in Whitehead's writing. I have a little story I have been thinking about writing; something I saw during a previous winter that haunts me to this day. In fact, just thinking about it makes me shudder.

I put a small round log with a narrow hollow through the middle on the fire. I closed the glass door and sat watching the flames as they worked on the log. Shortly after, a small snake emerged from the hollow of the log. It extended some four inches out of the log, then shrunk back into the hollow and disappeared as if it had been pulled back in by the tail just as the log burst into flame. I imagine it was me. I am comfortable in my space, and then it gets hot. Unbearably hot. I decide to get out, but it is even hotter outside and I am trapped by glass and flames and heat and the air is sucked out of my lungs and I try to retreat and then nothing. What did the snake think? Did it feel helpless? Did it have time to think or feel? Would I?

The scene repeats over and over and I try to imagine the scenario and it makes me shudder. Could I write such a thing? Is it even a story? Maybe The Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Reptilian Horror Story.

I daresay I do not have Whitehead's gift of imagination, yet he makes a story that is not only believable, but despite its implausibility, the railroad exists as if it were true. Could I be that snake? And what the hell does that have to do with this book? But that is the point of a novel like this. What would it be like to be a slave and to exist in an implausible yet believable reality?

And that is why I like to read broadly, and sometimes without reason, or as Emerson or Oscar Wilde's Vivian (of The Decay of Lying), on a Whim. It challenges us to imagine, it makes us fill in the blanks and develop an imagery that makes the unreal real. Surely this is what Hemingway meant, and Colson Whitehead does in this haunting yet wonderful novel.

View all my reviews