[I read this novel in three sections, writing about each section before reading the next. As I wrote, I never knew what was going to come next.]
4 April 2018
First three chapters: Ajarry—Georgia—Ridgeway
After some context-setting in the first chapter—Ajarry is the main character’s grandmother, captured by slavers in Africa—we’re mainly on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, some time in the first half of the 19th Century. Old Randall, now dead, had been the first in the local region to move from sugar production to cotton and, with his sons now running the place, new cotton gins and other innovations mean that King Cotton’s appetite for more and more slaves is insatiable. In Ajarry’s time, unlike later, slaves were likely to change hands many times in their short lifetimes—if they managed to make it from their villages to the African coast and into the hideously overcrowded slave ships. The old and weak were either left to fend for themselves in the mostly depopulated villages, or to die en route. Ajarry’s effort to jump overboard to her own death is easily thwarted, her punishment is harsh and, in America at last, she doesn’t try again. Eventually, she dies on the Randall plantation.
And both her daughter and granddaughter would normally expect to spend their whole lives there. Which isn’t necessarily very long. Jockey, the only man on the plantation who celebrates his birthday—at some random time after a few months have elapsed since the last one—is far more ancient than anybody else. People speak in hushed tones about how he might even be fifty years old. A few stud-like bucks and women regarded as reliable brood-mares might be sold at a profit, but that’s rare. Occasionally, a slave runs away, but they almost never get very far. Ridgeway, the local slave-catcher who gets a short chapter to himself later, is famous for his success rate. But…
…he’s not infallible, and Ajarry’s daughter, having inherited her mother’s early spark, is one of the very few ever to make a successful escape. She leaves her own daughter Cora, the one whose point of view we’re getting most of the time, and the girl is astonished that there was never any goodbye. (Much later, she realises why. I’ll come back to that.) Left alone at the age of about eight—slaves are never sure of their own age—she has inherited something of that unnamed family trait. She’s also inherited, kind of, the three square yards of dirt her mother had fought for and kept as her own. It’s enough to grow a few yams and greens, and when one of the new bucks clears it to build his dog a doghouse that puts the slaves’ huts to shame, Cora takes an axe to it. Whatever it is that powers this young girl’s anger, it’s enough to deter the interloper from trying to take back the space. In fact, all the slaves are a little disturbed by it, and soon Cora finds herself consigned to Hob, the house where people who don’t conform to the slaves’ obscure codes are exiled.
But before we hear about any of Cora’s life as a near-outcast, we’ve been witness to a moment that actually comes five or six years later. ‘The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.’ This is the novel’s opening sentence. The second sentence is: ‘This was her grandmother talking.’ At the end of this first chapter, which offers us an outline of the horrors of Ajarry’s life, comes this: ‘Three weeks later she said yes. / This time it was her mother talking.’ Ajarry’s spark was long gone by the time she reached the Randall plantation, and after pages of her story, we can see why. We don’t know yet why her mother is any different, but we get glimpses, mainly in little details Cora remembers—and that all-important escape. This is one of the threads in the long second chapter, ‘Georgia’, which is where we also find out about the horrors that take place between the first time Caesar mentions his escape plan and the second.
This is when Colson Whitehead really gets down to what white Southerners regarded as the acceptable face of slave ownership. Randall’s two sons are both perfectly at ease with the status quo, regarding the slaves as no better than animals. ‘Ownership’ and ‘chattels’, words we’ve become familiar with in Ajarry’s chapter, are a part of their mindset—slaves are their property, to be exploited for economic gain and not considered human in any way. We would expect this, but Whitehead’s simultaneous presentation of the everyday lives of the slaves, their quarrels and ways of dealing with the white men’s horrifying treatment of them—including playing the simple fool if it works—forms an an ironic counterpoint. White men have short-term slave ‘wives’ if they want and, despite what we might expect, this confers a kind of status for the women within the slave community. But it only lasts as long as the squalid liaison. Whitehead doesn’t pretend that uneducated, brutalised slaves could be expected to behave any differently. And while one of the Randall brothers allows a certain amount of leeway, within strict limits—what harm could it do?—the other runs his half of the plantation with an iron fist. The death of James, the marginally less cruel one, means that his brother Terrance can make some changes. There’ll be no more birthday celebrations for Jockey, or anybody else.
Another thread is the barbarism of the whites’ behaviour. We know about the routine impregnation of slave women, hearing for instance of how one red-headed overseer puts his mixed-race child with its tell-tale hair up for sale when he can’t stand looking at it any more. This is small beer. Girls and women have no ownership of their own bodies, and Cora’s sexual education—which might be the grim euphemism Whitehead uses—is as brutal as every other girl’s. And then there’s the routine sadism of the punishments. I’ve heard slave-ownership described as terrorism, and that’s definitely true of Terrance’s methods. One almost simple-minded slave runs away, and when he’s returned after covering little more than twenty miles, his slow torture and painful death is as bad as anything in the Middle Ages. Does Whitehead go too far? After he has been in the purposely-built stocks for three days, his genitals cut off and sewn into his mouth, and whipped with the cat-o’-nine-tails that is the standard punishment for wrongdoers… what? As the specially invited guests eat a delicious lunch—prepared, uncredited, by the slave-cook—he is covered in oil and burnt alive. OK.
Cora herself is punished for a non-misdemeanour at this time. Following some perceived insolence, Terrance is raining down blows on some slave with his favourite cane, the one tipped with the sharp-edged silver animal head. Cora, unable to help herself—it’s a reminder of the unstoppable emotion that led her to smash up the doghouse—tries to intervene. Bad move. First, she gets a mighty gash across her forehead which, after knocking her cold, leaves her weak and subject to blackouts for days. But worse, it’s drawn her to Terrance’s notice—and the way he looks at her means only one thing: she will be his next slave-wife. And it’s now that Caesar—who has been careful to behave impeccably as the passive slave during all these atrocities, looking on with no apparent emotion—asks her again to join him in his escape. Who wouldn’t say yes this time?
Caesar has a plan, devised with the help of a local shop-owner who keeps his Abolitionist views to himself. He had noticed Caesar at the market, selling things he had made from wood. He had been brought up under a more liberal-minded owner, was given a basic education as well as a useful trade, and had been disappointed that the owner’s will was not carried out when he died. Caesar and his other slaves were sold, not freed. When he and Cora leave under cover of darkness, one of the other occupants of Hob’s insists on coming too, but she is quickly caught by white men turned bounty-hunters. Cora had managed to turn one of the men’s weapons on himself, and he dies from his injuries. Which makes Cora one of the most infamous runaways of recent times…. But they have had a lucky escape. The girl who had left with Cora had not been secretive enough about her plan, and the slave-hunters had been alerted very quickly. The Abolitionist is surprised to see Cora with Caesar, but he’s fine with it. And they are able to take their planned route north without any further difficulties. They reach another safe house, and then…
…we realise we’re no longer in the well-documented world of real-life runaways. The next helper guides them down to a tunnel—where there’s a station platform, and a train due soon. Colson Whitehead, who has spoken in interviews of the disappointment he felt when he discovered that the ‘Underground Railroad’ was not a literal fact, has decided that in a novel it can be just that. When the two slaves are welcomed aboard, I’m reminded of the train in The Polar Express, a children’s Christmas book made into a film starring a CGI version of Tom Hanks. And when the train emerges into the light, Cora begins to see more of America than she’s ever seen before.
This new surrealist element makes me look back to the atrocity of the slave who was tortured and burnt alive. Would a party of white people really eat a pleasant lunch with the smell of roasting human flesh in their nostrils? It’s as though Whitehead wants to make the question irrelevant. Everybody knows that white men carried out appalling acts of cruelty. Why not an atrocity like this one? No doubt, in the squalid annals of the history of slavery, men were put into stocks and whipped, others might, perhaps, have suffered the excruciating indignity of having their genitals sewn into their mouths…. How would I know? Would an owner really devise a set of Mediaeval tortures and bathe in the glory as his guests smile in approval? I have real misgivings. America has plenty of white people who would be happy to call any novel about the cruelties of slavery no more than fake history. I worry that Whitehead might be making it easy for them.
Whatever. The third chapter is the one about Ridgeway. Its description of how an opportunist bounty-hunter develops into a professional slave-catcher is very plausible, as are the liberal lawyers working against people like him in New York. Ridgeway, a quick learner, now does his best to spirit prisoners away before they get to court…. By focusing on him, Whitehead is able to take us into the mindset of a man for whom slaves are just property, and he’s a man doing a useful job. It makes him far more interesting than Terrence, little better than a psychopathic bully by comparison.
South Carolina—Stevens—North Carolina—Ethel
In a way, this might be seen as a ground-breaking novel: Colson Whitehead is attempting to redefine what is permissible in historical fiction. Truths in this novel are not always historical truths… but I began to wonder why a serious writer might do it in this way. For most of the ‘South Carolina’ section, I was feeling merely exasperated. Why should I have any interest in what is clearly an alternative history presented, unannounced, as conventional historical fiction? Nothing in the narrative defines where plausible truths—the harsh life of slaves, which any reader will already be aware of to some extent—give way to some kind of allegorical or metaphorical version. The first time this is patently the case is when the underground railroad is presented as an actual railway. But there are hints of it before, like when I was finding it hard to believe white people would be happy to eat lunch while a man, already scourged and hideously mutilated, is burnt alive. I should have remembered—it’s a novel, stupid. An author can represent a truth without being tied to historical veracity.
I find this highly unsatisfactory. Tired, disorientated slaves on the run escape from bounty hunters who outnumber them. They travel between states on a real underground railway, having negotiated perils successfully as in all the best adventures. In South Carolina, we find them secure in jobs that most workers in America, white or black, would have been very happy indeed to have. Sure, the last of these should have given Cora and Caesar pause—why are the whites making it so easy for us?—and we discover why later. But, for me, it all feels too convenient, too schematic. The reader might (or might not) be wondering why the escapers’ experience in South Carolina appears far too good to be true, but it makes the pay-off seem predictable when it arrives.
This too-easy transition, unannounced, from plausible history to a symbolic higher truth doesn’t work for me. When I learnt the reason why slaves are treated so generously in South Carolina—it’s a white conspiracy first to lull them into a false sense of security, then sterilise them, thereby reducing the threat that Blacks will soon outnumber whites—I felt I had to check online whether such a programme of eugenics was ever contemplated at the time. It wasn’t, and therefore neither was the elaborate and expensive charade of kindness that forms such a big part of the South Carolina chapter. Sure, there were some attempts to make modifications to the Black demographic through selective sterilisation, but these were many decades later and on a smaller scale.
Is a symbolic truth being served here? You decide. As for a parallel experiment, equally heinous, to tempt Black men to have sex with syphilitic prostitutes…. It casts white Americans as Nazis, routinely risking the lives of innocent members of a hated ethnic group on an industrial scale. White Southerners were guilty of many crimes… but this? I won’t go on about it—but from this chapter onwards, despite the vividness of Whitehead’s writing, I don’t really believe a word of it. I know I’m not alone in this. I like to think of myself as a sophisticated reader, and I know that there are plenty of readers who are fine with Whitehead’s self-defined convention, that historical truth is not a key criterion. But, so far, I consider the mix that Whitehead has gone for to be a failed experiment. OK.
It’s after some months, when Cora and Caesar feel just about settled enough to stay for good, that Cora pieces together the truth about the eugenics programme. She is puzzled at first, then outraged. She realises that the hysterical Black woman she had seen some days earlier, shrieking in the street about how her babies were being stolen, had not been re-living the horror of her children being sold off by some previous plantation owner. Later, after the woman has been kept in a kind of safe house for recuperation she, and others in the house, mysteriously disappear. Cora, having decided that the house as another Hob for outcasts, assumes that wherever the women are sent to, it won’t be a good place. And the syphilis experiment… whites, it transpires, are the same here as anywhere, though the chains they use might be different. The kindly, concerned Miss Lucy is a fraud.
One last thing before the main plot gets kick-started again near the end of the South Carolina chapter. After Cora, with a new name—‘Bessie spent most of her time on that first floor’—has been performing the role of nanny, she gets a new role. Or three roles. A local museum wants to portray the lives of slaves, and this is done through three living tableaus: an African village, a slave-ship, and a plantation. Cora hates it, especially the faces people pull at her as she gives her silly little performances behind a glass screen. The stage sets are laughably inaccurate, and she hates the way the truth of slavery is kept firmly hidden. I’m reminded of another feature of Nazi Germany: the human zoo, portraying the second-rate lifestyles of inferior races. In fact, such zoos could be found in many cities in Europe and America in the latter part of the 19th Century, so Whitehead’s point is clear. Blacks are always seen as other, and as inferior as animals. This fictional museum is a symbolic representation of white liberals’ pretended sympathy for the Blacks.
But the plot. Since Cora had told Caesar she wasn’t ready for a sexual relationship yet, he had been seen at the prostitutes’ pick-up joint…. Now she needs to get an urgent message to him, and not only about the risks of venereal disease. The local bar-owner, a trusted Underground Railroad helper, has spotted slave-catchers—it seems that Ridgeway has finally caught up with them—and the last three or four pages are pure melodrama. Caesar is on the late shift—can he be saved? No he can’t… so Cora is alone as she reaches the safe-house with its implausibly well-hidden trapdoor down to the station. Will she be able to reach it and close it behind her in time? Of course she will but, literally, not a moment too soon. As she waits at the station she can hear the sound of a noisy struggle above—and when she later puts her hand to the trapdoor, she can feel the heat of the fire that must have reduced the house to ashes.
She only has one candle, and she manages to drop it. So she is waiting in darkness for—how long? She doesn’t know, but it feels like at least a day, maybe two or more. She had been warned that the line was about to be closed as the Georgia ‘spur’ has become too dangerous to manage. Now she worries that this is where she will end her flight—but then she can hear a train. She leaps up to flag it down, but it carries on straight through the station…. Oh, no. But it’s all right. In this narrative that has become uncomfortably like a children’s book, the train can be heard grinding to a halt and, painfully, reversing all the way back. The young engineer had been told there would be nobody waiting, and had been taking the train north where it can be useful. She had got the last train out of South Carolina. That was lucky—not that she’s used up all of her lives yet. When she gets to the station in North Carolina, it looks completely disused, and a rock-fall has blocked off any exit except for the rail tunnels heading north and south. Is she going to have to walk? She knows she’ll never make it. Luckily… a worried-looking man—a helper on the line who, it transpires, has never wanted any part of it—is checking up for no accountable reason I can remember. This is Martin, and the first Cora knows of him is a sound from the top of the rock-fall, a head appearing… etc.
After a horrifying journey under cover into the town, with dozens of black bodies in various states of decomposition hanging from trees along the road, Cora is made to feel like the most unwelcome guest of all time. Martin’s wife can’t even look at her as he makes arrangements for her to hide in a space at the very top of the attic. A false ceiling two or three feet below the apex of the roof has created a space that’s big enough to lie or sit in, but little else. And, essential for Whitehead’s new purpose, there’s a convenient window looking out to the town park. If the ghastly display of hanged bodies hasn’t told us all we need to know, the Friday evening execution-fests ought to do it. Runaway slaves—or whoever, it doesn’t really matter so long as they are Black—are made to stand on a moving platform, given a quick show trial, wheeled over to the town hanging-tree to the side, and strung up. It’s a festive treat to have the privilege of geeing-up the horses to drag the platform away. The whole evening, complete with jugglers and minstrel band and the rest, is a festive treat.
The first Friday, Cora watches the ghastly performance. That’s enough to show her that this place, unlike South Carolina, is white oppression without a mask. The local senator is another Terrance Randall, revelling in the licence he has to be as vile as he likes. Cora hears about the Freedom Trail, the town’s droll name for the road lined with Blacks who haven’t got the message yet that they aren’t wanted around here. The town has a policy of replacing Blacks with white immigrants, usually Irish, who won’t taint the gene-pool, so any Blacks careless enough to be caught become fodder for the weekly lynching party. If nobody’s been found in any one week, well, there are enough kept on hold for the purpose in the local jail. OK, Colson, we get it. It’s white oppression as collective psychopathy—and we can see why Martin’s wife Ethel, reluctantly forced to harbour a runaway, is hating the idea. The penalty for doing such a thing is—guess.
This goes on for months. The room-space is a furnace during the day, Cora does her best not to look at the weekly shows, Martin doesn’t need to keep reminding her how difficult a position she’s put him in—he’s only doing it because, entirely unknown to him, his father used to do it and he feels an obligation—and there seems no way out. She becomes ill enough to need to be cared for in a proper bed—and this is Whitehead’s cue to reboot the plot again. Firstly, Ethel treats her in an almost motherly way, and the Irish maid is given paid leave of absence—and, shortly after this, Ridgeway is in town. This time having kept his men under better control so not everybody knows about it. Or maybe he’s just got lucky. Whatever, he gate-crashes one of the hanging shows because—wait for it—Ethel’s maid has turned informer. She is able to point to the house from the park, Ridgeway’s men—including the one who wears a string of human ears around his neck—can make their move, and all three of them are caught. (I don’t know why Cora has taken the risk of being downstairs during a show but, whatever the reason, she can’t run up and hide in time.) The show has been taken over, the minstrels in blackface look sheepish… and the chapter can end. Whatever is going to happen to Cora’s rescuers—will they be hanging on the Freedom Trail, the first whites given the honour?—she is heading south. Has she finally run out of lives?
We’ll see. It seems unlikely with over 100 pages yet to go…. But first, those two short chapters, ‘Stevens’ and ‘Ethel’. Stevens is the very young doctor who tries to get Cora to sign up for what he blandly refers to as ‘birth control.’ His chapter is set when he was still a medical student, without the private income of most students and desperate for access to cadavers for dissection. They are far too expensive, so he falls in with the town’s appalling ‘resurrection men.’ Stevens pretends to himself that he really is giving these dead souls a kind of life, the opportunity to do some good. Fine. Ethel’s chapter offers an explanation for the sympathetic care she gives to Cora during her illness. She is a type, having harboured the romantic notion as a child that she would help the poor Blacks in Africa. It comes to nothing, of course—but, at the end of the chapter, her motive becomes clear. To the delirious Cora she gives ‘the Holy Word.’ And the final line nails it: ‘A savage to call her own, at last.’
How do white people always get it wrong? Let me count the ways….
Tennessee—Caesar—Indiana—Mabel—The North: to the end
There’s something programmatic about the way Whitehead, a novelist—this is a work in which everything hangs on his engagement with fictional procedure—also wants to say urgent things about the ongoing realities of the African American experience. Characters—or, in an even more pronounced way, places—are not presented as realistic, but as archetypes. And the journey north via a literal Underground Railroad enables Whitehead to explain the metaphorical significance of the historical term. Before that first stage of her journey, one of the men who help her tells her to look out at the scenery as she travels, because she’ll see the real America. What she sees, of course, is always the darkness of tunnels, the reality of an America that hides the truth of its success deep beneath the ground. Cora, who has become a slave Everywoman by the time we reach these final chapters, reaches insights that Black leaders only came to express fully a century later.
In the unfeasibly idyllic ‘Valentine’s Farm’, a community of freed or escaped Blacks working for the good of all, she—like the reader—can’t believe that it is going to last. A well-meaning presentation praising God and the possibility of trust between Blacks and whites leaves her cold: ‘Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.’ The mechanism, of course, is the careful structure put in place by whites, based on the sincere belief that their rightful destiny is to dominate the land, any land, whoever might need to be killed or enslaved in the process.
It seems that this novel isn’t only the history of slavery in America, but of colonialism presented as the ravening appetite of Europeans for other peoples’ lands and lives. At Valentine’s, there are weekly debates about how best the community can live at peace with whites who are suspicious and jealous of its success. Hah. Whitehead signals some pages in advance how the project will end in destruction and murder. He didn’t need to do that, because we expected it anyway. We’ve had Cora’s insights into historical inevitability, and we’ve had the South Carolina chapter that demonstrates how any apparent tolerance of Blacks by White communities in the former slave states is a charade. It was only ever a matter of time before the shooting would start.
Predictable? Yes—but at least I can see now what a big project Whitehead has in his sights. The massive deception perpetrated in South Carolina, the naked, routine sadism of North Carolina, the placid surface of relations with the wider white community that Valentine’s enjoys for a while, only for it to be destroyed in minutes…. These episodes might not make for great literature—if anything, the storytelling has become even more like young adult fiction as Whitehead has ticked off the necessary boxes—but what’s a novelist to do? You can’t fix 300 years of white men’s lies without having to make some fairly broad strokes. As the survivors realise, ‘the whites meant to rout the entirety of colored settlers.’
The impression I was getting of this becoming ever more like a Black Pilgrim’s Progress, with its Vanity Fairs and its Sloughs of Despond—the fire-blackened millions of acres of Tennessee that Cora has to cross, shackled in Ridgeway’s chains, is a good stand-in for Bunyan’s vision of despair—reaches its apotheosis in the final chapter. Cora has been captured by—guess—as she tries to escape the near-massacre at Valentine’s. Ridgeway, diminished by his run-in with Cora’s saviours at the end of the Tennessee chapter, is still a force to be reckoned with, and when he threatens her with a gun to her eye—she’d seen him shoot an escaped slave in the face because he didn’t like his singing—she tells him where there’s a spur of the Underground Railroad that he’s heard about. Except she knows it isn’t a spur, because it doesn’t join the main network. But… it doesn’t matter anyway, because she jumps on him on the almost impossibly steep steps, and he ends up with injuries he isn’t going to recover from this time.
But that isn’t the final chapter, and it isn’t the Pilgrim’s Progress moment I meant. Or maybe it’s more of a Morality Play moment, as Cora emerges from the last tunnel of all. She is exhausted, having had to travel miles by handcar, then walking on the tracks when her arms had no more strength in them. She sees a road, and three wagons heading not north, but west to California. Three is always a good number in tales like this, and the first is no good. White settlers drive on by, and they don’t pay any more attention to them than she does of them. The second is also white, but Irish. He is friendly, but she knows about the Irish. They may be second-class citizens, but they are no friends of Blacks—it was an Irish maid who betrayed her and her helpers in North Carolina. She refuses, twice, to tell him if she needs anything, and he drives on. The third—and we’re on the last page now—is ‘commanded by an older negro man,’ and when he asks her if she’d like to travel through St Louis to California with him, this time she climbs aboard. ‘She wondered where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he travelled before he put it behind him.’ The end.
Is it a message of hope, albeit an almost subliminal one? Will Cora, at some unknown point in the future, be able to what the old Black man has done, and put behind herself what she needs to? Whatever, the only hope real is in fellow-Blacks. Of course, there have been white people without whose help she would have got nowhere—and on the other side there’s been Homer, the young Black boy who helps Ridgeway and betrays Cora and the rest every single time. But, at some deep level, Cora knows what she knows. Three wagons? There’s never any question which she’ll choose. In this 2017 novel, it’s a sign of the times: Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a title that is very much in line with what many people of colour are saying right now.
There are a lot of other things in these chapters. The idea that education is the key is embodied in Valentine’s extensive library, and in one of the debates someone quotes the famous line that the only thing more dangerous than person of colour—a less polite term is used, as throughout the novel—carrying a gun is one reading a book. Whitehead hints at, or describes explicitly, future lives of some of the characters that seem more hopeful than what they have known previously. But he isn’t glossing over any of the struggles to come. One of Valentine’s daughters, her handmade posy having been mangled in the assault on the community, makes the observation near the end of her long life that the only Great War of the 20th Century is the one between whites and Blacks. Again, it’s hard to think of many Black activists in our own time who would disagree. Whitehead is using his own makeover of historical fiction to make points about the present.
Two loose threads to tie up before I finish. Caesar, as Cora always suspected, was brutally beaten to death when, after her escape, it was discovered that he wasn’t just an escaped slave, but involved in a murder that has become a cause celebre. And Cora’s mother… Cora never forgave her for leaving her—and, just before we hear of Cora’s final emergence from the Railroad, we are told the truth that she will never know. Mabel, regretting her decision to flee all those years ago, had turned back before the end of the night, hoping nobody would have noticed her short absence. She realised that to leave her daughter in that way would be unforgivable. The irony—she has this thought just before she is swallowed without trace by the swamp, after she has missed the path. But that’s victimhood for you. You don’t know enough even about your closest relatives to know what you once had—so, in Cora’s case, she will never know that she should have grieved for her mother from the start. And so many stories get buried, or lost in swamps, that the Blacks of America don’t even have the comfort of remembered heritage. However hopeful Cora’s future might (or might not) be, she enters it with bitter resentment and nothing else, not even a past.
And, in the background there’e always been Ridgeway, finally left dying on a station platform. His story has been, in its own way, just as circumscribed as everybody else’s. Slave-catching had given his life some meaning, and Mabel, his only failure, had spurred him on to hone his technique to a kind of machine-like perfection. Except—the irony, again—the taunting figure he imagines, living free somewhere far to the north, was dead at his feet all the time.