Monday, February 27, 2012

Colson Whitehead: The Novelist as Idea Factory

With books about elevators, John Henry and modern-day freelance journalists, a nomenclature consultant, black boys with beach houses, and now zombies, we could refer to Colson Whitehead as a novelist. But really, why not just call him what he truly is? An idea factory.

He manufactures, with each book, a tale filled with quirky and fascinating concepts that stretch conventional views of contemporary novels and African American literature. Relatively few recognized contemporary novelists delve into black culture the way Whitehead does, and not many major black novelists have taken on pop culture with the kind of enthusiasm and rigor that he has.    

We should have known early on (and some did) that we were dealing with a special creative mind when that novel about elevator inspectors who intuit problems with the machines appeared. Only an idea factory, not a mortal novelist, could write a book like that. Maybe it was a fluke? Perhaps, he just lucked up on the concept?

But then next up was this expansive tale connecting the famous steel-driver John Henry to these journalists known as junketeers. Not long after, we read about a nomenclature consultant. A what? Yeah, a nomenclature consultant. Then, it was on to those black boys with the beach houses. And then for now, a story of skels and stragglers, or what some might call zombies.

When we take a look at his overall body of work--not simply individual novels--the nature of creativity is clearer. It's too bad, by the way, that we don't have more conversations in African American literature and black studies about original thinking and imaginative products of literary artists like Elizabeth Alexander, Tyehimba Jess, Evie Shockley, and Kevin Young.

A more thoroughgoing conversation about the nature of inventiveness among our artists would equip us with the knowledge to read Colson Whitehead for what he really is: an idea factory.    

Tyehimba Jess: The Poet as Human iPod
Kevin Young: The Poet as Creativity Machine

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