Thursday, September 30, 2021

A few notes on Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle



A couple of weeks ago, I finished Colson Whitehead's novel Harlem Shuffle. Overall, I enjoyed it. 

The novel includes three main sections, which can be thought of as three novellas. I most enjoyed the first major section, which includes a heist at the Hotel Theresa. That section of the book, in my opinion, really surpassed the other two sections. 

The other two sections were good, but the rarity of a heist in African American literature, the excellence of the writing, the jokes, and backstories of various characters showcased Whitehead's superb imagination  and talents as a writer in ways that really captured my attention.

So far, much of the coverage of Whitehead's book has concentrated on that Theresea job section, with a few different reviewers referring to the Harlem Shuffle as a "heist novel."    

The idea that many commentators concentrate on and praise the early part of a novel over the rest reminds me of coverage concerning Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). People most often celebrate the first portion of that famous novel, much more than the other sections. I recall Arnold Rampersad noting in his biography of Ellison that the first section of Inivisible Man "is its finest," while the other portion is "scarcely less brilliant." In the larger scholarly discourse, you hear far more conversation about the early section of Ellison's novel than the later sections. (Part of that reason is because Ellison's short story/excerpt from the novel circulates widely in anthologies). 

So often, it seems that we hear people comment on or recall early aspects of a novel, more so than later portions. 

Alright, but throughout the book, Whitehead's writing is remarkable. He offers these detailed descriptions of 1960s Harlem. He's mentioning dozens of real and fictive places. He's taking us (his readers) up and down the streets, around the corners, all of that. He's introducing us to all these black character types. So many black folks appear in the novel. 

The main character is a fence for stolen goods, but his front job involves running a furniture store. Almost any time he walks into a room, he's observing chairs, couches, rugs, and other items and making observations and asessments of the furnishing. You want to talk about committing to a role. That's what we get from Whitehead as he becomes a furniture expert in this novel. 

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