In ‘The Water Dancer,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Debut Novel, a Slave Tries to Control His Special Powers

In ‘The Water Dancer,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Debut Novel, a Slave Tries to Control His Special Powers

Coates doesn’t linger on the gruesome realities of slavery. There are no extended scenes of abuse. His novel increasingly begins to bend toward the motifs and impulses of the comic book and superhero world. “A power was within me,” Hiram says, “but with no thought of how to access it or control it, I was lost.” He seeks a mentor. She is called Moses. Others know her by the name Harriet Tubman, who in this novel is not merely the abolitionist who made daring missions to rescue enslaved people but a woman known to some as “the living master of Conduction.”

Hiram and Tubman go for a walk in Philadelphia. Tubman begins to glow a “pale spectral green” and together they hover above the Delaware River. Tubman teaches him that a great ability is within him, that “memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” This book is quite literally about the power of stories. Hiram will perhaps, with practice, be able to beam enslaved men and women from South to North. Just in case, Tubman also hands him a pistol.

As in Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” in which there was a literal underground railroad, there is a tear here in the fabric of reality. Coates’s pulling at that tear is less deadpan than Whitehead’s, and more constant. The most urgent sections of this ambitious novel are, for this reader, its more grounded ones. Speaking about the woman Hiram loves but has lost, one character evokes “a whole country looking up wondering for their fathers and sons, for their mothers and daughters, cousins, nephews, friends, lovers.” He describes slave owners at elegant parties, how “the drinking would start and the festive spirit would darken, and all the masks of fashion and breeding would fall away, until the oozing, pocked face of Elm County would lie revealed.” Coates evokes a sense that an abyss might open at any moment below his characters’ feet.

Coates’s novel sometimes feels as if it were written quickly, and it has the virtues and defects of that apparent spontaneity. Where his nonfiction runs narrow and quite deep, “The Water Dancer” mostly runs wide and fairly shallow. It’s more interested in movement than in the intensities of sustained perception.

Hiram comes to see conduction as “a relay of feeling, assembled from moments so striking that they become real as stone and steel, real as an iron cat roaring down the tracks.” At its best moments, this novel’s steel wheels hum.

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