September 16th 2021

On Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead's latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, was always going to be widely reviewed, if only because his last two books won Pulitzer prizes. Still, after enjoying both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, I was certainly going to read his next book, regardless of what the critics were saying — indeed, it was actually quite agreeable to float above the manufactured energy of the book's launch.

Saying that, I was encouraged to listen to an interview with the author by Ezra Klein. Now I had heard Whitehead speak once before when he accepted the Orwell Prize in 2020, and once again he came across as a pretty down-to-earth guy. Or if I were to emulate the detached and cynical tone Whitehead embodied in The Nickel Boys, after winning so many literary prizes in the past few years, he has clearly rehearsed how to respond to the cliched questions authors must be asked in every interview. With the obligatory throat-clearing of 'so, how did you get into writing?', for instance, Whitehead replies with his part of the catechism that 'It seemed like being a writer could be a cool job. You could work from home and not talk to people.' The response is the right combination of cute and self-effacing... and with its slight tone-deafness towards enforced isolation, it was no doubt honed before Covid-19.


Harlem Shuffle tells three separate stories about Ray Carney, a furniture salesman and 'fence' for stolen goods in New York in the 1960s. Carney doesn't consider himself a genuine criminal though, and there's a certain logic to his relativistic morality. After all, everyone in New York City is on the take in some way, and if some 'lightly used items' in Carney's shop happened to have had 'previous owners', well, that's not quite his problem. 'Nothing solid in the city but the bedrock,' as one character dryly observes. Yet as Ezra pounces on in his NYT interview mentioned abov, the focus on the Harlem underworld means there are very few women in the book, and Whitehead's circular response — ah well, it's a book about the criminals at that time! — was a little unsatisfying. Not only did it feel uncharacteristically slippery of someone justly lauded for his unflinching power of observation (after all, it was the author who decided what to write about in the first place), it foreclosed on the opportunity to delve into why the heist and caper genres (from The Killing, The Feather Thief, Ocean's 11, etc.) have historically been a 'male' mode of storytelling.

Perhaps knowing this to be the case, the conversation quickly steered towards Ray Carney's wife, Elizabeth, the only woman in the book who could be said possesses some plausible interiority. The following off-hand remark from Whitehead caught my attention:

My wife is convinced that [Elizabeth] knows everything about Carney's criminal life, and is sort of giving him a pass. And I'm not sure if that's true. I have to have to figure out exactly what she knows and when she knows it and how she feels about it.

I was quite taken by this, although not simply due to its effect on the story it self. As in, it immediately conjured up a charming picture of Whitehead's domestic arrangements: not only does Whitehead's wife feel free to disagree with what one of Whitehead's 'own' characters knows or believes, but that Colson has no problem whatsoever sharing that disagreement with the public at large. (It feels somehow natural that Whitehead's wife believes her counterpart knows more than she lets on, whilst Whitehead himself imbues the protagonist's wife with a kind of neo-Victorian innocence.) I'm minded to agree with Whitehead's partner myself, if only due to the passages where Elizabeth is studiously ignoring Carney's otherwise unexplained freak-outs.

But all of these meta-thoughts simply underline just how emancipatory the Death of the Author can be. This product of academic literary criticism (the term was coined by Roland Barthes' 1967 essay of the same name) holds that the original author's intentions, ideas or biographical background carry no especial weight in determining how others should interpret their work. It is usually understood as meaning that a writer's own views are no more valid or 'correct' than the views held by someone else. (As an aside, I've found that most readers who encounter this concept for the first time have been reading books in this way since they were young. But the opposite is invariably true with cinephiles, who often have a bizarre obsession with researching or deciphering the 'true' interpretation of a film.) And with all that in mind, can you think of a more wry example of how freeing (and fun) nature of the Death of the Author than an author's own partner dissenting with their (Pulitzer Prize-winning) husband on the position of a lynchpin character?


The 1964 Harlem riot began after James Powell, a 15-year-old African American, was shot and killed by Thomas Gilligan, an NYPD police officer in front of 10s of witnesses. Gilligan was subsequently cleared by a grand jury.

As it turns out, the reviews for Harlem Shuffle have been almost universally positive, and after reading it in the two days after its release, I would certainly agree it is an above-average book. But it didn't quite take hold of me in the way that The Underground Railroad or The Nickel Boys did, especially the later chapters of The Nickel Boys that were set in contemporary New York and could thus make some (admittedly fairly explicit) connections from the 1960s to the present day — that kind of connection is not there in Harlem Shuffle, or at least I did not pick up on it during my reading.

I can see why one might take exception to that, though. For instance, it is certainly true that the week-long Harlem Riot forms a significant part of the plot, and some events in particular are entirely contingent on the ramifications of this momentous event. But it's difficult to argue the riot's impact are truly integral to the story, so not only is this uprising against police brutality almost regarded as a background event, any contemporary allusion to the murder of George Floyd is subsequently watered down. It's nowhere near the historical rubbernecking of Forrest Gump (1994), of course, but that's not a battle you should ever be fighting.

Indeed, whilst a certain smoothness of affect is to be priced into the Whitehead reading experience, my initial overall reaction to Harlem Shuffle was fairly flat, despite all the action and intrigue on the page. The book perhaps belies its origins as a work conceived during quarantine — after all, the book is essentially comprised of three loosely connected novellas, almost as if the unreality and mental turbulence of lockdown prevented the author from performing the psychological 'deep work' of producing a novel-length text with his usual depth of craft. A few other elements chimed with this being a 'lockdown novel' as well, particularly the book's preoccupation with the sheer physicality of the city compared to the usual complex interplay between its architecture and its inhabitants. This felt like it had been directly absorbed into the book from the author walking around his deserted city, and thus being able to take in details for the first time:

The doorways were entrances into different cities—no, different entrances into one vast, secret city. Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath. If you know where to look.

And I can't fail to mention that you can almost touch Whitehead's sublimated hunger to eat out again as well:

Stickups were chops—they cook fast and hot, you’re in and out. A stakeout was ribs—fire down low, slow, taking your time.

[…]

Sometimes when Carney jumped into the Hudson when he was a kid, some of that stuff got into his mouth. The Big Apple Diner served it up and called it coffee.

More seriously, however, the relatively thin personalities of minor characters then reminded me of the simulacrum of Zoom-based relationships, and the essentially unsatisfactory endings to the novellas felt reminiscent of lockdown pseudo-events that simply fizzle out without a bang. One of the stories ties up loose ends with: 'These things were usually enough to terminate a mob war, and they appeared to end the hostilities in this case as well.' They did? Well, okay, I guess.


The corner of 125th Street and Morningside Avenue in 2019, the purported location of Carney's fictional furniture store. Signage plays a prominent role in Harlem Shuffle, possibly due to the author's quarantine walks.

Still, it would be unfair to characterise myself as 'disappointed' with the novel, and none of this piece should be taken as really deep criticism. The book certainly was entertaining enough, and pretty funny in places as well:

Carney didn’t have an etiquette book in front of him, but he was sure it was bad manners to sit on a man’s safe.

[…]

The manager of the laundromat was a scrawny man in a saggy undershirt painted with sweat stains. Launderer, heal thyself.

Yet I can't shake the feeling that every book you write is a book that you don't, and so we might need to hold out a little longer for Whitehead's 'George Floyd novel'. (Although it is for others to say how much of this sentiment is the expectations of a White Reader for The Black Author to ventriloquise the pain of 'their' community.)

Some room for personal critique is surely permitted. I dearly missed the junk food energy of the dry and acerbic observations that run through Whitehead's previous work. At one point he had a good line on the model tokenisation that lurks behind 'The First Negro to...' labels, but the callbacks to this idea ceased without any payoff. Similar things happened with the not-so-subtle critiques of the American Dream:

“Entrepreneur?” Pepper said the last part like manure. “That’s just a hustler who pays taxes.”

[…]

One thing I’ve learned in my job is that life is cheap, and when things start getting expensive, it gets cheaper still.

Ultimately, though, I think I just wanted more. I wanted a deeper exploration of how the real power in New York is not wielded by individual street hoodlums or even the cops but in the form of real estate, essentially serving as a synecdoche for Capital as a whole. (A recent take of this can be felt in Jed Rothstein's 2021 documentary, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn… and it is perhaps pertinent to remember that the US President at the time this novel was written was affecting to be a real estate tycoon.). Indeed, just like the concluding scenes of J. J. Connolly's Layer Cake, although you can certainly pull off a cool heist against the Man, power ultimately resides in those who control the means of production... and a homespun furniture salesman on the corner of 125 & Morningside just ain't that. There are some nods to kind of analysis in the conclusion of the final story ('Their heist unwound as if it had never happened, and Van Wyck kept throwing up buildings.'), but, again, I would have simply liked more.

And when I attempted then file this book away into the broader media landscape, given the current cultural visibility of 1960s pop culture (e.g. One Night in Miami (2020), Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), Summer of Soul (2021), etc.), Harlem Shuffle also seemed like a missed opportunity to critically analyse our (highly-qualified) longing for the civil rights era. I can certainly understand why we might look fondly on the cultural products from a period when politics was less alienated, when society was less atomised, and when it was still possible to imagine meaningful change, but in this dimension at least, Harlem Shuffle seems to merely contribute to this nostalgic escapism.




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