For the past three years, I have taught creative-writing courses at Georgetown University, and in that time, I have come to accept something I initially found strange: The majority of my students prefer reading and writing genre fiction—sci-fi, mystery, romance—to literary fiction. (A loose explanation of the difference: Literary fiction generally resembles real life and focuses on characters, whereas genre fiction tends to rely on familiar themes and prioritizes plot.) I’d initially constructed a syllabus that was stocked with a variety of classic and contemporary literary short stories, but I soon learned that my students were keen to produce work that resembled what they were consuming outside of class: fantasy epics, apocalyptic science-fiction tales, fearless and risqué romances.
I am by no means immune to the charms of sci-fi and fantasy, though I’ve long preferred to read literary fiction because of its general commitment to exploring why humans act and think the way we do. But my students spoke passionately about why they found their favorite stories so appealing: They asserted that these works provided a sturdy vessel for their supercharged feelings, emotions that ranged far beyond the realist confines of the work I’d been assigning. They also argued that genre fiction was better equipped to capture the heightened unreality of the current moment, with its abundance of news and information, which can often feel like daily plot twists.
I began to search for a bridge, an artist who was adept at incorporating genre elements into their writing while maintaining the quality of craft required of superb literary works. I promptly thought of Colson Whitehead. Since the beginning of his career, Whitehead has brilliantly achieved this merger of modes, beginning with his potent debut, The Intuitionist. But working in these two registers simultaneously is not without its pitfalls, a lesson my students could learn from Whitehead as well. His latest novel, Crook Manifesto, displays his singular ability to write adroitly in multiple styles, his facility with language, and his customarily sharp and expansive sentences. Yet this novel does not accomplish what he has managed in his previous works. Its characters don’t feel fully fleshed out, and its plot doesn’t capture the extreme feelings and circumstances that readers might expect from what is essentially a crime novel. Because these elements don’t quite gel, this book is both powered and limited by its most absorbing characteristic: Whitehead’s voice.
By Colson Whitehead
Genre novels function a bit like popular culinary dishes: There are generally two paths to success. The first is to follow the recipe precisely and with finesse, so that when someone tastes a bite of your carrot cake, there is no doubt you have delivered a sterling version of a cherished delicacy. The second path is to depart from the recipe and reinvent the dish in a manner that simultaneously references and elevates it. Whitehead has found success with this second approach throughout his career. In his first Pulitzer winner, The Underground Railroad, for instance, he transformed the titular network of Good Samaritans who sheltered runaway slaves into a network of actual train stations. Ingeniously combining genre and literary ingredients—here, a propulsive, picaresque plot that was also populated with achingly real characters—he challenged and unsettled a history many readers thought they knew.
Crook Manifesto is a sequel to Whitehead’s previous novel, Harlem Shuffle, a crime story about a man named Ray Carney, who earns a living acquiring stolen goods and selling them for profit. Crook Manifesto also revolves around Carney, but in this novel, we’ve advanced several years, and he’s recently retired from illicit activities to focus on running his thriving furniture store in Harlem. The backdrop is a decaying 1970s New York City where, as Whitehead puts it, “you knew the city was going to hell if the Upper East Side was starting to look like crap, too.” Carney’s teenage daughter, May, is eager to attend the Jackson 5’s upcoming concert at Madison Square Garden. Unable to acquire tickets through conventional means, Carney decides to participate in one last illegal scheme to obtain them. Things go haywire, and he soon finds himself involved in a harrowing crime spree.
The trouble with the novel starts in the second section, which takes place a couple of years later and mostly concerns the attempts of a character named Zippo to film a blaxploitation picture in Harlem (Carney’s store serves as a set for one of the scenes). Carney is now a minor figure, and the narrative threads that Whitehead established in the prior section are mostly abandoned; as a result, Crook Manifesto begins to read less like a novel and more like an anthology of glancingly related anecdotes. This development draws more attention to the third-person narrator, who assumes an outsize presence. The story, such as it is, recedes; the narrator becomes the only meaningful link between the various sections of this book. Whitehead’s chatty prose reliably carries the reader along, sometimes advancing the plot and sometimes appearing to be taken with its own fluency, its startling virtuosity. This is a boon for a novel in which determining why we’re taking this journey grows more and more difficult.
Whitehead continues to write some of the best sentences in the business. They’re erudite yet quotidian, infused with a sophisticated rhythmic sensibility and sparkling with charisma. For example, here he is describing Zippo’s experience as a budding artist in New York:
Like many artists Zippo had been starved of attention in his younger days, and like many artists he channeled a modicum of praise into a contempt-of-audience phase: Invincible! He took to dressing like a Negro Salvador Dalí and penciled in a handlebar mustache. Shambling in velour, he pushed a watermelon in a baby carriage down DeKalb Avenue and harrassed strangers, demanding to know if they “liked his baby chile.” Everybody assumed he was high most of the time. He wasn’t.
Sometimes, Whitehead’s sentences will feint in one direction before arriving abruptly at an unexpected destination. A few pages later, once Zippo finds himself in Los Angeles, he writes:
Christmas in LA was a disorienting affair: the Santas wore shorts and the workshop elves were past-prime centerfolds and future Waitress #2s. The city was like an Antonioni film. The first time you see it, it sucks, and then you see it a second time and it’s incredible. It was like that, except the second time it still sucks.
These passages are typical of the linguistic delights on offer throughout the book. However, as the novel continues, flickering among different perspectives, the language attracts attention to itself at the expense of plot. Whitehead, and not the various colorful characters in this book, emerges as the star.
Early on, Whitehead introduces several tropes that seem to hint at a particular kind of story. We have the reformed outlaw who reluctantly reenters the crime world, the devoted-but-ignorant wife, the corrupt police officers who are working on both sides of the law, and so on. But rather than using these elements to build momentum, Whitehead layers literary pyrotechnics over them: his ambitious, involved sentences; the seemingly random shifts in point of view; his frequent insertion of long-winded descriptions whenever his story seems to be gathering steam; and—perhaps most jarringly—a narrative structure that prevents the novel from cohering.
Although he doesn’t get the recipe right, there are many reasons to read this book. Whitehead writes about New York with verve, and the novel is studded with fascinating social commentary about the lives of African Americans in the city during the disco decade. Yet as I read, I could not stop thinking about my conversations with my students. It occurred to me that they are advancing a simple and revolutionary idea—that genre fiction is a better reflection of real life than literary fiction. I believe both kinds of literature can offer a bracing view of reality; the key, of course, is how well the stories are executed. Sometimes our lives seem to be dictated by plots that carry us along without our permission; other times, we derive comfort and meaning from insights about ourselves and the characters who populate our days. The best fiction highlights at least one—and occasionally both—of these realities. Crook Manifesto, unfortunately, doesn’t satisfy either remit. I learned a great deal from reading it, but it never felt quite real.
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