You don’t need me to tell you that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America’s greatest living writers. That’s common knowledge by now.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a great essayist that he more or less single-handedly resurrected the conversation about reparations for black Americans. He’s the kind of essayist who knows both how to use data to ground an argument and how to use poetry to lift it up and make it sing. He’s a verified MacArthur genius. He’s a genuinely great writer and everyone knows it; he doesn’t have to prove that to anyone.
But with Coates’s first novel, The Water Dancer, out this week, it’s clear that Ta-Nehisi Coates is not yet a great novelist. He’s an okay novelist who can write the hell out of a sentence.
The Water Dancer showcases the clarity of Coates’s ideas and the poetry of his language
The Water Dancer centers on a young man named Hiram living in antebellum Virginia. Hiram is one of the Tasked (Coates, with his characteristically careful eye for language, almost never refers to slavery as anything but the Task in this book) on the plantation of Lockless, and he has a bottomless, hungry memory. He can hold almost anything in his mind — except for his mother, who was sold away from Lockless when Hiram was young and of whom he has allowed himself to remember almost nothing.
But Hiram’s memory and his intelligence aren’t his only gifts. Hiram also has the supernatural power of Conduction, the ability to travel from one place to another — from Virginia to Philadelphia, say — in mere instants. That makes him a valuable asset to the Underground, if only he can learn how to harness his gifts. But to do so he’ll have to allow himself to remember his mother.
The hole in Hiram’s memory where his mother used to be forms the central metaphor of The Water Dancer. Coates has long argued that one of America’s great sins is not just slavery, but our refusal to look the fact of slavery in the face, to grapple honestly with the fact that slavery was foundational to our country and that its aftereffects are still with us. That’s why Hiram must allow himself to fully experience the worst thing that slavery brought upon him — the ripping away of his mother — in order to come fully into his powers.
It’s a rich, intellectually interesting metaphor, if nowhere near as elegantly deployed as the similar metaphor in Beloved that Coates is cribbing from. (It’s a high bar!) And the honesty Coates is striving for thematically is fully supported by Hiram’s relationship with the rest of his family: his father, who is also the master of Lockless, and his brother, who Hiram is Tasked with serving. Slave narratives often muddy the relationships between enslaved people and their white fathers — “The opinion was ... whispered that my master was my father,” is all Frederick Douglass says on the subject — but Hiram always refers to Mr. Walker as “my father,” never as “my master.” He is always aware that he is descended both from the men for whom Lockless was built and the enslaved people who were forced to build it.
As the novel goes on, Coates constructs his metaphor with exquisite attention to language — The Water Dancer is studded with passages that shimmer with lyricism. Take a look at the opening sentence, where we meet Hiram encountering the long-suppressed memory of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head:
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.
Look at the way the clauses pile on top of each other, sending the sentence spiralling in on itself as it goes, burrowing in toward some unspeakable loss. Look at the way it links the broken innocence of Hiram’s childhood to the youth of the land itself, before plantation farming robbed the soil of its richness. It’s a stunning opening, and as soon as I read it, I was absolutely convinced that Coates was going to prove himself to be as brilliant a novelist as he is an essayist.
He’s not. That’s okay!
Where Coates falls short is character and plot
The Water Dancer is a novel in which everyone talks in basically the same way, which means everyone talks in essays. And that, in turn, means it is nearly impossible to get a real feel for any of the characters besides Hiram, because all of them are more or less interchangeable: They’re just walking illustrations of various intellectual ideas that Coates would like to parse out.
It all starts to feel a little like how, on Aaron Sorkin shows, everyone speaks with the same voice and the characters will never meet a problem they can’t solve with a great speech. Except that on Aaron Sorkin shows at least you get the added interest of everyone walking really fast while they talk to break up the monotony of all the speeches.
In The Water Dancer, there is nothing to break up that monotony. The middle section of the book, in which Hiram meets a series of former Tasked people who are now working in the Underground, is honestly just a series of monologues. Every few pages the plot will stop cold while each new character delivers a speech explaining why slavery is an untenable evil, with examples pulled from their own lives. And then everyone else will agree with them and then we’ll meet a new character who will shortly get their own monologue.
In a less plot-driven book, this kind of allegorical storytelling would just be part of the genre and it wouldn’t have to justify itself. But The Water Dancer builds itself around the tension of Hiram learning how to Conduct, and it imbues that problem with a kind of comic book pulpiness: There are glowing lights and training montages, and also Harriet Tubman shows up to do a little glowing of her own. And then, having given itself over to the goofiness of its own mythology, the book stops in its tracks to let its characters have a Parliamentary debate over the best way to resist white supremacy. The movement between these two storytelling modes is whiplash-inducing.
It is possible to craft a story that uses supernatural elements to think about slavery effectively. Toni Morrison did it with Beloved. Colson Whitehead did it with Underground Railroad. Octavia Butler did it with Kindred.
But to pull off that trick, you need to have complete control over your genre. You need to be able to blend the supernatural with the real so completely that the reader experiences no dividing line between the two, to create a world in which we see that slavery is such a monstrous evil that in order to understand it fully we need the supernatural to explain it to us. On a very basic level, you need to be able to craft characters a reader can care about and a plot that can propel a reader forward.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not quite there yet. He doesn’t have the kind of command over the novel as a medium that will let him meld disparate genres together; he doesn’t seem to care about his characters as people rather than as devices he can use to convey ideas; he doesn’t really understand how to keep a plot moving.
What Coates can do — and what he does better than nearly anyone — is build an argument that resounds with clarity and moral urgency, and craft a sentence beautiful enough to take your breath away. It will be incredible to see what he can do with those tools a few books from now.