Harlem Shuffle: A Novel
By Colson Whitehead
The word “panorama” first referred to a device from 1796, a “painting on a revolving cylindrical surface,” to quote Merriam Webster. It was a trick to let you see a scene too wide for your eyes to focus on.
Harlem Shuffle is a panorama. It moves through New York in its short span of years, 1959 through 1964, giving the sense that there is always another anecdote it didn’t report, something else happening down another block behind the ones it turns down.
The choice of a main character, Ray Carney, almost feels like it could have been anyone: anyone black, that is, from generational poverty in Harlem, quietly intent on making the most of opportunities presented to them, and uncovering the ones that aren’t.
Like the customers that buy sofas in his furniture store, Carney pays for his life on an installment plan. His ethical compromises recognize that the law of the post-war American society he lives in was not made with Carney’s benefit in mind. But its values of prosperity and security still hold meaning for him. Though I’m not sure he trusts its definition of “goodness.”
What is underneath Carney’s compromises? Is there a real person down there, being pragmatic about the ends justifying the means? Or is this just a trick, a story for a story’s sake and one we’ve heard before, about a man willing to do anything for a better life in a city that never sleeps?
Read through the discussion questions below with your book club and work your way back to that big one above, if you’d like.
Use these discussion questions to guide your next book club meeting.
1. As a furniture salesman, Carney seems always to be selling couches, as opposed to beds, tables, or other kinds of furniture. Why do you think Whitehead made that choice?
You can consider Carney’s slogans he comes up with during the 1964 riots:
“After a long day of fighting the Man, why not put your feet up--on a new Collins-Hathaway ottoman”
“Presenting the new Collins-Hathaway three-point recliner--finally a sit in we can all agree upon”
“A comfortable sofa outlasts the day’s news--it’s built for a lifetime.”
2. What does this novel want you to feel about the illegal acts Carney, Freddie, and Pepper commit? Are there good guys and bad guys in Harlem Shuffle?
3. Ok let’s ask question 2 a different way: Do phrases like “fleet, balletic slasher” or “audacious sadism” seem positive or negative?