READING PATHWAYS: Colson Whitehead

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Reading Pathways is a regular Book Riot feature in which we suggest a three-book reading sequence for becoming acquainted with certain authors. Check out previous entries on Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck John Irving, David Foster Wallace, and others.


There are many ways in which being a book nerd is different than being a rock nerd, but this is the most significant; book nerds love it when someone they were in on early becomes more widely known. For some reason, reading taste is validated by this where music taste is somehow threatened by it. (I feel a future post burbling…)

Anyway, I was on the Colson Whitehead bandwagon from the beginning. I read The Intuitionist shortly after it came out in 1999 and wolfed down each subsequent novel immediately after release. So it is with the unearned pride of a fan that I’ve watched Zone One become something of an event this fall. But, the zealous early convert has a particular reaction to eventual success; we want all the late-comers to go back and read “our” author’s backlist. (Truth be told, we’d prefer it if you would read the extant body of work before “earning” the right to read the buzz book.)

Luckily, the Whitehead corpus is a manageable six novels, so you can earn your bone fides relatively easily. In a bit of a departure for Reading Pathways, here is a recommended sequence for all six.


Sag Harbor (2009)

Whitehead’s fifth novel is his most biographical by far and on the surface the least demanding. On one level this is a relatively straight-forward coming of age novel, but you can see some of Whitehead’s central concerns throughout: popular culture, alienation, self-creation, myth, and race. The protagonist, a teenage son of an upper-middle class black family that summers on Long Island, is an embryonic version of the rest of Whitehead’s protagonists–observant, lonely, yearning, and unsure of his place in the wider world.


Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)

From what I can tell, Apex Hides the Hurt was Whitehead’s least commercially successful novel, or at least it’s the one least-mentioned these days. Where Sag Harbor clearly takes place in our world and The Intuitionist and Zone One clearly take place in alternate versions of our world, it’s hard to know what world we are in here. The nameless protagonist is a branding expert hired by a small town to help them rename and re-image their flagging community. It’s just askew enough that it feels like it is not our world, but at the same time too close to be something else; it’s a kind of uncanny valley of literary realism. One of the other characteristics of the early convert is that we want to reclaim neglected works, trumpeting their over-looked value or misunderstood projects. I definitely feel this way about Apex Hides the Hurt.


John Henry Days (2001)

John Henry Days is a natural choice to be the middle term in this sequence. First, it has a storyline set in both the real world and one set in the mythic past (a re-telling of the John Henry story). Second, it is overtly about memory, cultural representation, media, and identity. The protagonist of the “real” storyline is a junket-cruising hack journalist who begins to feel some existential vertigo while covering the unveiling of a commemorative John Henry stamp. The trajectory of the novel moves from being grounded in a mediated, compromised, vacuous reality to a rich, mythic, and a somewhat paradoxically more authentic counter-reality. This real/unreal duality is a hallmark of Whitehead’s work, and John Henry Days gives us the clearest image of it. From here, we move away from reality-centered novels to those that exists primarily in fantasy worlds.


The Intuitionist (1999)

I have a hard time avoiding a first-mover bias with The Intuitionist; I’ve read every subsequent Whitehead novel with the memory of the first foremost in my mind. Lila Mae Watson is an “intuitionist,” a practitioner of a school of elevator inspection that relies on feel and gut-instinct to diagnose faulty elevators. Already  a suspect practice, intuitionism comes under fresh attack after an elevator that Watson inspected fails in spectacular fashion. As she begins to investigate the origins of her beliefs, she uncovers a secret that could change the world. I know this seems really plot-heavy, but what I love about The Intuitionist is that the premise seems like ready-made metaphor, but it’s puzzlingly unclear what it might be a metaphor. This also makes it possible that is is not a metaphor for anything and all. The engaged reader has to chose a side, either empiricism or intuitionism, on the novel itself. Whitehead, in what is a thorough-going characteristic, is quite content to let the novel be ambiguous and respects the reader enough to leave well enough alone.


Preamble to The Colossus of New York (2003)

New York City is in the background of the novels to this point, but in Zone One it takes a step forward. So while this essay collection doesn’t really fit into a fiction sequence, a look at at least the preamble of this collection offers a primer for Whitehead’s sense of New York. I don’t know how much of Whitehead’s interest in being a part and yet apart comes from living most of his life in and around New York, but as a New Yorker, I can say that he captures the strange connection/alienation of what it means to live in this place. Is New York a metaphor for life, or could life be a metaphor for New York?


Zone One (2011)

It’s been interesting to watch the conversation around Zone One focus on how a literary writer is turning to genre. These folks clearly haven’t read the Whitehead back catalog; he’s been bobbing and weaving around genre since the beginning. Zone One is the fullest, most integrated expression of Whitehead’s artistic concerns: Is the survivor-protagonist of a zombie infestation ordinary or extraordinary? Is the loss of our familiar world to be mourned or welcomed? Is fiction about plot or observation? Must one chose either the upper or lower brow? Is the imaginary a viable alternative to the real?


It occurs to me know that you could just as easily read this sequence in reverse, disassembling the totality of his vision in Zone One. Either way, welcome aboard the Whitehead bandwagon.


Jeff O’Neal is the editor of Book Riot. Follow him on Twitter: @readingape