There are few things the literary community relishes more than the appearance of a polarizing high-profile book. Sure, any author about to release their baby into the wild will be hoping for unqualified praise from all corners, but what the lovers of literary criticism and book twitter aficionados amongst us are generally more interested in is seeing a title (intelligently) savaged and exalted in equal measure. It’s just more fun, dammit, and, ahem, furthermore, it tends to generate a more wide-ranging and interesting discussion around the title in question. With that in mind, welcome to a new series we’re calling Point/Counterpoint, in which we pit two wildly different reviews of the same book—one positive, one negative—against one another and let you decide which makes the stronger case.
You might know Ta-Nehisi Coates by his column in The Atlantic. Or perhaps you know him because of his bestselling nonfiction works The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. In case that wasn’t enough, he’s currently the author of Marvel’s Black Panther and Captain America.
The Water Dancer is his first foray into fiction and follows Hiram, a young man born into bondage. When his mother is sold and sent away, he loses all memory of her but gains a mysterious power that saves his life and gives him the courage to escape. So far, Ta Nehisi Coates’ novel has been met with very positive reviews. In Rolling Stone, David Fear writes, “His debut novel comes with slightly unrealistic expectations—and then proceeds to exceed them.” The New York Times‘ Dwight Garner says, “One of [Coates’s] achievements in this novel is to closely underscore the human particularity of a range of enslaved men and women.” Renée Graham, in The Boston Globe, praises the novel, claiming “[Coates] loses none of his mastery for conveying complex ideas and blending a deep knowledge of American history with scintillating wordsmanship.” On the more mixed side, we’ve got The Wall Street Journal‘s Sam Sacks saying, “Often when public intellectuals turn to fiction, their storytelling tends to be just another means of working out arguments and ideas: Its allegorical trappings make it seem artificial.”
Today we’re looking at Chris Barton’s review in The Los Angeles Times that calls The Water Dancer, “a spellbinding look at the impact of slavery.” On the other hand, Vox‘s Constance Grady critiques the new novelist, saying “[Coates] doesn’t have the kind of command over the novel as a medium that will let him meld disparate genres together.”
So what do you say, reader? Do you want to dive in?
There I was, my own life dangling over the black pit, and now being called to save another.
“… a spellbinding look at the impact of slavery that uses meticulously researched history and hard-won magic to further illuminate this country’s original sin … In capturing Hiram’s voice, Coates uses an elaborate, richly drawn impression of the language of the time … shine[s] a light from the past through the present. The book, however, offers much more than a relatively easy indictment of history. Exploring the loaded issues of race and slavery have became yet more fuel for today’s culture wars, but an underlying message of liberation through the embrace of history forms the true subject of The Water Dancer … richly drawn details that showcase Coates’ meticulous, journalism-forged hand with research … at times feels like a spiritual companion to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. But instead of imagining a literal railroad in place of a treacherous, multi-stop effort to pull innocent people from the depths of slavery, Coates envisions the transcendent potential in acknowledging and retelling stories of trauma from the past as a means out of darkness. With recent family separations at the U.S. border, this message feels all the more timely.”
–Chris Barton, The Los Angeles Times
“Ta-Nehisi Coates is not yet a great novelist. He’s an okay novelist who can write the hell out of a sentence … 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!) … studded with passages that shimmer with lyricism … 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 … 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 … [Coates] 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.”
–Constance Grady, Vox