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  • Title: The Water Dancer
  • Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House

Throughout Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, whether in the pages of The Atlantic magazine, his bestselling nonfiction books, or in the pages of the Black Panther comic book imprint he helped revive, there is a strain of deep sorrow verging on biblical lamentation. His writing often sketches the contours not only of the profound racialized trauma that empires of white supremacy inflict on their subordinated victims – particularly Black Americans – but of the brutalization and degeneracy the ideology inflicts on white people themselves.

This tendency often seems to position white supremacy as a sort of capricious and unconquerable demigod, operating above the workings of other oppressive ideologies, particularly capitalism and class warfare. For that, Coates has been criticized by the likes of political scientist Adolph Reed and philosopher Dr. Cornel West, the latter accusing Coates of “fetishizing” white supremacy.

However Coates’s critiques are received in our own world, though, the apocalyptic lens through which Coates views white supremacy serves as an excellent backdrop for The Water Dancer, his debut fiction novel. In Coates’s fictional Virginia, not long before the American Civil War, white supremacy infects and spoils everything it touches. From the slowly desiccating soil of tobacco plantations, to the rotting souls of decadent white gentry, to the stunted racial beliefs of abolitionists and even facilitators of the Underground Railroad, this is a story of sin and corruption, a prelude to the fall of Babylon.

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The story surrounds Hiram Walker, a house slave and son of the master of the fictional Lockless plantation in Elm County, Va. Hiram’s mother was sold away when he was young, and though he possesses an eidetic memory and bottomless capacity for ingenuity, he carries barely any memory of her. As he grows older, Hiram is appointed the body man to his oafish white half-brother, who stands to inherit Lockless and doubtless bring the estate to its final ruin. But during a riding mishap that kills Maynard and almost ends in his own drowning, Hiram discovers he possesses a mythical talent that others describe as “Conduction,” which naturally makes him a recruitment target for agents of the Underground Railroad.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates on July 16, 2015.

GABRIELLA DEMCZUK /The New York Times News Service

Coates’s ability for world-building, first demonstrated during his Black Panther run, is nothing short of excellent. In this novel, Coates deploys that talent toward scrubbing away the romantic gloss of the antebellum South. The mood of decay is ever present and almost palpably crumbling, in a way that evokes Stephen King’s worlds in The Dark Tower series. “Bored whites were barbarian whites,” Hiram says, reflecting on a dinner party thrown by his father. “While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out.” Later, while attending to his white half-brother after the local horse races, the bottom indeed falls out in spectacular fashion, as genteel landowners cant drunkenly through the streets, visit violence upon lesser whites and pass out in piles of manure.

Hiram’s nickname for that highest of castes, Quality, is drenched with irony.

On the other hand, Coates’s mode of world-building carries over poorly when it comes to bringing his characters alive. The white people of Elm County, for example, seem to exist for the sole purpose of exhibiting low barbarism under the cloak of highfalutin aesthetics. The white slave-catchers seem to exist to show how landless whites were more dangerous than anyone, as the boot on their necks only magnified the depravity they inflicted on the only castes below them – slaves and free Blacks. At times, Coates struggles to convey an actual story for the reader to invest in, and it’s in some of these plodding and exposition-heavy moments that it’s difficult to not hear Adolph Reed’s admonishment (“Coates’s message is that white supremacy is transhistorical, trancontextual and always there, with whites committed to it ontologically, then the only thing you can hope for is repenting and individual atonement. Which is cheap and easy”).

Even the other enslaved Black people, abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents Hiram later encounters (including Moses herself, Harriet Tubman) show up to either train him to free slaves, to train him in the way of Conduction or to engage in lengthy stemwinders about their own backgrounds. And here is where Coates runs into another problem – too many of his characters have borrowed his own habit of biblical language, leading to drawn-out philosophical expositions. This makes sense for characters such as the highborn Corinne Quinn, the richest woman in Elm County, as she references fools despising wisdom and Cain slaying his brother for envy. But the Shakespearean soliloquys delivered by other characters, including freed people and re-captured slaves, gives them the feeling of mouthpieces rather than real inhabitants of Hiram’s world.

A few years ago, as a guest for the On Being podcast, Coates talked with host Krista Tippett about his discomfort with the notion of being tied into ground-level activism. “I’m a writer,” Coates said. “I prefer solitude.” It is apparent in Coates’s writing that he is in love with the act of writing, which also requires a love of consumption of literature. And indeed, there are innumerable references in this book to Coates’s literary predecessors, including the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

But it is also apparent that Coates’s love of solitude has led to a mode of writing that, lately, feels isolated from the genres and traditions he writes in. While The Water Dancer is impressive as Coates’s debut novel, its problems could likely be remedied if Coates got his head out of the books and spent more time around living, breathing people.

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