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The New Republic Online
Thursday, December 4th, 2003


 

The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts

by Colson Whitehead

Gravity

A review by Wyatt Mason

Is there a style in which the truth cannot be told? Two sentences that appeared in a brief article by the celebrated young novelist Colson Whitehead prompt the question. Titled "The Image," the piece appeared in the September 23, 2001 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Whitehead described the morning of September 11 in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. In the company of his wife and surrounded by strangers, he was staring at the burning World Trade Center towers. Whitehead reports that he suggested his wife take a photograph:

Because it was a very nice shot, well composed. The three men in the foreground were obviously strangers, standing together, but not so close as to violate any rules about personal space. They were of different races; one had a dog that looked away from the scene at a bird or something, one had abandoned a bicycle on the ground. The bicycle was a nice touch — couldn't have placed it better myself. In the sky before the men, the towers burned. The right part of the frame was unblemished blue sky, the left a great wash of brown and black smoke. The dynamic event, the small human figures. It was a nice shot. Call it "The Watchers" or "The Spectators."

Whitehead's account of his impulse to seize the image of the horror is not without self-mockery ("The bicycle was a nice touch — couldn't have placed it better myself"). For by the time he has come to set these lines down, he has become killingly aware that the very last thing he and his wife had before them was a "nice shot." How could he have thought it had been a nice shot at all? "[I]t had been easier to shape the horror into an aesthetic experience and deny the human reality. There was safety in that distance." Whitehead realized that however readily those idyllic foreground "touches" leaped into the frame, they ultimately distracted from the background horror that was unfolding. The pastoral image that Whitehead thought to freeze — all blue skies and bicycles, racial harmony and distracted dogs — was grotesquely misleading: it masked the truth that the image should have been unveiling.

Whitehead is careful and clear in his acknowledgment of this failure, this risk of aesthetic distance. But it is precisely this clarity and comprehension that make all the more unsettling the two lines that Whitehead pens to describe the very collapse that he holds responsible for his realization: "And then Tower 2 sighed. The top floors buckled out, spraying tiny white shards, and the building sank down into itself, crouching beneath the trees and out of frame." A sigh, that gentlest and most trivial of exhalations, reserved for moments when we are placidly tired or mildly disappointed, turns the collapse of one hundred thousand tons of steel and glass — which made a cloud visible from space and a sound audible forty miles away — into a mild human wind.

As a "nice touch," however idyllic, Whitehead's use of the word "sighed" is as clear an instance as I have encountered of a stylistic choice, an aesthetic shaping, that distracts us from the thing described and attracts us instead to the description. Not, of course, that "crouching" is any better. It is a hopelessly weak word, for no one ever died of a crouch; but Whitehead here has folded the death of thousands by the most ghastly means — dismemberment, immolation, suffocation, impact — into a metaphorical bending of knees. One might argue, given that readers already understood the weight of the event that Whitehead was describing, that his responsibility was not reportorial. Perhaps Whitehead was merely trying to alleviate our distress by transforming a thing of great ugliness into a thing of some beauty. Yet this verbal image is no less graphically misleading than the photographic image that Whitehead upbraided himself for considering. Death has been aesthetized entirely out of view, horror hidden in the background by a foreground of writerly effects. Whitehead's two sentences provide not an image of what was happening — people dying — but a picture of a man writing. A moment of the greatest weight — physical, emotional, spiritual — is rendered in language that denies every kind of gravity. With objectivity, call this writing false.

Such falseness is disappointing in a writer of talent. Whitehead's two novels, The Intuitionist (1998) and John Henry Days (2001), exhibit a metaphorical reach and a structural sophistication that distinguish him among less ambitious peers. Under the umbrella of large organizing metaphors — elevators in The Intuitionist, the mythical steel-driving man in John Henry Days — he has explored the dynamics of race and modern life. The language of his novels is frequently memorable and distinctive, and the depth of his reading is apparent in that prose. It brims with echoes of techniques and tones drawn from predecessors both American and continental, whether elders (Joyce, Woolf, Gaddis) or nearer contemporaries (Barthelme, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Moody). He has been praised for "his willingness to take the intellectual risks necessary to expand the boundaries of contemporary writing."

And so, within that program of risk-taking, comes Whitehead's new book about New York. Engendered by the terrorist attacks on the city, the book is his first work of non-fiction, a baker's dozen of short pieces devoted to different views of the city. When Whitehead writes, "What follows is my city. Making this a guide book, with handy color-coded maps and minuscule fine print you should read very closely so you won't be surprised," he is of course being ironic: the book, as you might guess, has no such maps or print. His ambition is neither to offer details that you could find in a guidebook nor to provide sociological or historical perspective. His thirteen sections — with titles ranging from "Broadway" to "Brooklyn Bridge," from "Rush Hour" to "Rain" — are meant to be evocative, not argumentative. Formally, the pieces are not essays at all. They are prose poems, at times reminiscent in style of Rimbaud's Illuminations. Whitehead frequently abandons conventions of English grammar, focusing instead on the creation of mood and the insinuation of tone. His method is impressionistic, imagistic, for Whitehead is not presenting the city as it stands, but as it sits within him.

The Colossus of New York must therefore be read as a devotional text, written by a congregant from his pew. The first section, "City Limits," begins: "I'm here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don't know about you." If, at first blush, this might seem like the typical arrogance of a New Yorker and therefore be dismissed out of hand for its parochialism, upon reflection it is less an attitude unique to New York than the ubiquitous chauvinism of natives everywhere. As Gertrude Stein noted, in her version of the urban ode, Paris, France:

Familiarity does not breed contempt. On the contrary the more familiar it is the more rare and beautiful it is. Take the quarter in which one lives, it is lovely, it is a place rare and beautiful and to leave it is awful. I remember once hearing a conversation on the street in Paris ... they had to leave the quarter ... they had to leave the most wonderful place in the world, wonderful because it was there where they had always lived.

Whitehead finds New York similarly familiar, and therefore similarly wonderful. And so it is easy to become infected by Whitehead's sense of wonder, by his love for the city, when he writes:

I never got a chance to say good-bye to some of my old buildings. Some I lived in, others were part of a skyline I thought would always be there. And they never got a chance to say good-bye to me. I think they would have liked to — I refuse to believe in their indifference.... Our old buildings still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time. They are a part of the city we carry around.

In this way the loss of the twin towers has been gently absorbed into the city's history of losses. A facet of being a New Yorker, Whitehead offers, is to be aware of those sudden voids, to be as aware of them as of the actual presences before us. That observation is something of a commonplace. It is called memory. It happens everywhere: "The Meyersons' barn used to be over there and the old oak tree with the rope swing was by the creek until it got hit by lighting." The difference in New York, if one must insist upon a difference, might be the speed with which such changes take place, the destabilizing nature of urban change.

Whitehead richly and simply evokes the melancholy of such a condition:

We can never make the proper goodbyes. It was your last ride in a Checker cab and you had no warning.... There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn't even know it. You didn't know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying good-bye.

He is at his most moving at the moments of restraint and directness visible in these final sentences. The elegiac tone that insinuates a sorrow into our least daily movements, that implicates us all in this process of forgetting, is convincing. Whitehead's shifts from the first-person plural "we" to the second-person singular "you" inject a soft solidarity into the prose that drops our defenses. I wish, though, that Whitehead were similarly attentive to his affection for Checker cabs. They are a telling detail, richly evocative of New York in the 1970s, but surely the reference is lost on anyone who did not live in the city before the decommissioning of these monsters in the early 1980s. It would be more generous and useful were Whitehead to pinpoint something specific about a Checker cab that one would miss. New Yorkers of Whitehead's generation recall the joy of stepping into the enormous, limousine-like passenger compartment. Children in particular were fond of the fold-down, backward-facing seats, some of which swiveled magically into place. To present these cabs so blankly, omitting the particulars that make them memorable, is a small missed opportunity.

But it is a revealing one. Early in his book Whitehead lays out his ground rules: his concern is not with particulars. "Never listen to what people tell you about old New York," he writes, "because if you didn't witness it, it is not a part of your New York." Whitehead is not telling us about "New York." He is telling us about how New York has made him feel. Tone and image are his preoccupation, not historical detail. The technique that he puts in service of that impressionism is rapid- fire imagery. Often he cuts like a documentary film from one shot to the next, as in this picture of Central Park:

It's a little-known fact that people are buried here but only the murderers know the exact locations. Invisible wet stuff on the ground and here's a dead squirrel. So much for the picnic. Cross-legged summits. Welcome to the Riviera. Mistakes have been made in the area of shorts. This guy's nuts hang out as he sits Indian-style and she should really consider waxing if she's going to leave the house like that. Bushes, hedges, dark thickets. Don't go too far, kids, there are areas used for anonymous sex. Let's have anonymous sex, what do you say. Don't touch it, you'll get rabies. Prod it with a stick instead.

An ear hears words of parental caution; an eye picks up nuts; a mind processes a view of sunbathers on towels into a wry Riviera. Whitehead sets a woman who has "left the house like that" next to "bushes" so that the word applies equally to the woman's inner thighs and the landscape. It is a risky but, in this instance, successful stylistic compression. It creates a vivid, bustling mood.

The problem is that throughout the book, Whitehead's technique is wildly hit or miss. When he tells us that "from the river you can see the clouds haunch over the adjacent boroughs," we have no choice but to stop and think about Whitehead's "haunch." It might be that he means "hunch" here, but it might be also that he is taking a technical architectural term — a "haunch" is the upper curving part of an arch — and coining it as a verb that would mean the clouds are arching over the boroughs. In either case, we begin to be distracted by Whitehead's clouds of language.

And the clouds gather as we read deeper. "Fetuses fret about what zip code they'll end up in, tapping against membrane in morse code: renting is for suckers. Too young to know that the womb schools the dimensions of a studio apartment." All that fancy footwork — prenatal kicks as code, wombs as big or small as studios — cannot hide Whitehead's cliché. And then there is his Coney Island postcard:

All tomorrow's sunburns gather in wait. Heads dart to and fro as they seek the right spot. Homestead and land grab. This must be the place. Try to remember your personal formula for comfort on a beach, the whole towel thing. Sizzle on the griddle. How to serve man. Gritty evidence of the last visit to the beach clings to the neck of the bottle of suntan lotion.

While the detail in the last line, the "gritty evidence" clinging to the neck of the bottle of lotion, is tactile and true, the rest is just clever noise, hip references to unilluminating things. "All tomorrow's sunburns" signals us to Whitehead's appreciation of the Velvet Underground; "How to serve man" lets us know Whitehead has watched "The Twilight Zone"; neither illuminates their presumptive subject, Coney Island: both call attention to Whitehead. This alternation between "gritty evidence" and grating cleverness becomes immensely frustrating. When, in John Henry Days, Whitehead wrote that "tone is the means, not the purpose," he could have been talking about the failed dynamic that begins to figure on too many pages of The Colossus of New York. For it cannot be Whitehead's purpose to have his readers leave his Coney Island believing that it is no different from any beach in the world.

But on that beach we are at least in a recognizably human world. Too often, Whitehead's urban portraiture begins in vivid description that devolves into false wise-man pronouncements:

The gust gains the upper hand as he waits for the light to change and the umbrella is ripped inverse. Many are lost. The wounded, the fallen in this struggle, poke out of trash cans, abandoned, black fabric rippling against split chrome ribs. This is their lot. Either in the trash can or forgotten in the restaurant, the movie theater, the friend's foyer, spreading their slow puddles across floors. Forming an attachment to an umbrella is the shortest route to heartbreak in this town. Any true accounting would reveal that there are only twenty umbrellas in this city, in constant movement from palm to palm. Bunch of Lotharios. So do we learn loss from umbrellas.

Yes, we lose umbrellas. But no, we do not learn loss from them. Whitehead knows this, surely, but he has retained the line because he has been seduced by its surface appeal: it sounds good. Of course, an umbrella is the very thing from which you do not learn loss. Once gone, it is never thought of again. "Loss," by contrast, is unforgettable, something one learns sitting with one's father after bypass surgery or entering a bathroom to find one's friend in a tub of his own blood. And when Whitehead does mention suicide, it is as bloodless as a sigh: "His conspicuous long sleeves hide hesitation marks, souvenirs of that bad summer." Scars on a suicide's wrists are souvenirs of summer. How nice to alliterate over a human wreck: dance on that grave.

Whitehead seems to resort to the language of death only when there is something genuinely pretty to look at. "Check the window to discover yourself in a morgue, a white sheet covering your unfortunate acquaintance. So it snowed last night." Whitehead is wise to tell us that it snowed last night: otherwise, one might think someone actually died.

Conspicuous effects like these alternate maddeningly with writing absent any effect at all. Take the section called "JFK," presented here in its entirety:

It's time to go.

Everything's packed. All the necessary documentation is secure in pockets and pouches. The time passed so quickly. Take a moment to look back and regret all the things you didn't get to do, the places you didn't get to visit. What you did not see. Promise yourself, Maybe next time.

Assuming it will still be here when you finally return.

Sometimes things disappear.

The airport is one of many conveniently located exits. In the beautiful terminals you can get to anywhere in the world. The names of carriers sort them by destination. Shuffle along and do as you're told. Just a matter of time until you are home.

Take your seat.

When you talk about this trip, and you will, because it was quite a journey and you witnessed many things, there were ups and downs, sudden reversals of fortune and last-minute escapes, it was really something, you will see your friends nod in recognition. They will say, That reminds me of, and they will say, I know exactly what you mean. They know what you are talking about before the words are out of your mouth.

Talking about New York is a way of talking about the world.

Wake up. With a shudder finally kicked out of the dream. Impossibly this gigantic creature has taken off. This unlikely gargoyle with impossible wings. How we flutter sometimes. Settle in for the journey and forget. Please forget. Try to forget bit by bit, it will be easier on you. Leave it behind. Then the plane tilts in its escape and over the gray wing the city explodes into view with all its miles and spires and inscrutable hustle and as you try to comprehend this sight you realize that you were never really there at all.

Talking about New York may be a way of talking about the world, but if this is an example of talking about New York, I cannot find a single detail of any specificity that would let me know where the hell I am. We could be in any airport in the world. Terminals are "beautiful," planes are "gargoyles," New York was "quite a journey." A better title for this section, one more evocative and accurate, would be "Cliché." There is nothing unfamiliar here, other than the idea that JFK is conveniently located.

This is all a pity, for Whitehead in the past has written marvelously. He can produce aesthetic transformations as true and rich as those in The Colossus of New York are empty and false. In The Intuitionist he described a black man's fraught relationship to his own blackness: "No caramel soda, no prune juice, and definitely no coffee: Pompey won't drink anything darker than his skin, for fear of becoming darker than he already is. As if his skin were a stain that could worsen, steep and saturate into Hell's Black." He noted details of city life, describing an urban traffic jam with great originality, using personification to excellent effect: "The traffic lights are unforgiving at this time of night, mysterious and capricious, as if appalled by this latest indignity of citizens and their vehicles." He had an eye for the odd disjunctions present in urban architecture: "As if to distract from the minuscule and cramped philosophy of what would transpire on the floors above, the city offered visitors the special bounty of the lobby." And in the world of John Henry Days, he painted austere, vivid landscapes in simple strokes: "The shale resisted hammers, steel and blasting but it gave to rain and wind. Water from Heaven melted the rock of the mountain and the rainwater was red on the ground." The bloodsucking nature of a publicist was softly insinuated by a description of him eating ice cream as though licking at a wound: "He unbandages the bottom of the cone and sucks out the melted ice cream through the hole."

Whitehead's verbal transformations can produce the welcome effect of reinvention that he describes in The Colossus of New York as a hallmark of successful art: "It was right in front of you all along but now you see it for the first time." But great writing must do more than refresh and reveal. It must move us as well, and Whitehead has managed this, too, in the past. In the earliest pages of John Henry Days, we learn that an event to which the story tends — a festival celebrating the release of a commemorative stamp in honor of folk hero John Henry — will involve a shooting that will take the lives of four people. Over the next three hundred fifty pages, Whitehead introduces us to a dozen principal characters heading inexorably for that fateful moment, any of whom may be the shooter or one of his victims. In scores of brief unnumbered chapters that follow, we move forward and backward in time, meeting many people whose stories in some way intersect that of John Henry. Despite this collage, Whitehead is careful to keep our attention focused on his protagonist, a modern stand-in for John Henry, a young, disaffected, road-worn, junketeering black journalist called J. Sutter. As John Henry fought his contest against the steam engine, Sutter is fighting his own, less song-worthy battle: he is trying to break the record for the longest uninterrupted run of junkets without a break. With the fact of a postal bloodbath looming over Sutter's empty striving, as well as the myth of John Henry's death by contest, Whitehead successfully causes readers to worry over Sutter's welfare, to root for his well-being. By the time we reach the book's end, readers are rewarded with the likelihood that Sutter has escaped death and found a meaningful path back to life. It is a moving moment of release.

What is troubling in Whitehead's handling of the violence in John Henry Days is how unaffecting the deaths of those who are not as lucky end up being. Although Whitehead has invested a great many pages, roughly one-third of the book, in scenes involving the men who eventually are slain — Sutter's journalistic colleagues — there is nothing moving about their passing. This is largely a product of Whitehead's writerly hubris. He elects to have us learn of the nature of the deaths in a scene that departs from prose and enters into a technical pastiche of Joyce's "Nighttown" sequence in Ulysses, with dialogue overheard and formatted as a playscript, complete with pointless dramaturgical directions: "(sipping)," "(nodding)," etc.:

POSTAL EMPLOYEE #1:
We peer into the inexplicable.
POSTAL EMPLOYEE #2:
And every day are confronted with the unknowable.

It is a style egregiously incompatible with tragedy. I suspect that Whitehead has done this deliberately, to avoid sentimentality; but it has the effect of annulling feeling altogether, and turns a great many pages in the company of characters we should have cared about into empty exercises. Rather than presenting a moment that could move the reader, Whitehead calls our attention away from death and toward our awareness that he is a clever writer. Whitehead has again skirted the issue of pain to focus on the pleasures of form, shaping pain into an unsatisfying aesthetic experience that shuffles human suffering weightlessly into the background.

And yet pain and loss and human gravity of some unbearable kind are in the foreground of every classic work of literature. Hamlet unpacking his heart with words; the Invisible Man walking lonely streets unseen; Dante losing his way in the dark; Gabriel Conroy learning his wife loves another; Oedipus blinding himself for his blindness; Molloy crawling forward with beautiful futility; Edna Pontellier drowning in an ocean of sorrow — pain and loss are the forces that find their expression and form in all writing that endures. Pain at the loss of fathers, of friendships, of loves, of life, of self. This reckoning with loss, this bold confrontation with what is taken from us, is why writing is written, why it is read.

Whitehead's earlier work exhibited his awareness of these truths. From book to book, he took inspiring leaps forward as a novelist, reaching toward, and beginning to attain, his own means of addressing and dramatizing our losses. But Whitehead's weakness for empty effect that neglects affect — equally a feature of his novels — has been given full flower in The Colossus of New York, a book that indulges Whitehead's worst instincts. It allows him to be swaggering where he should be controlled, vague where he should be specific, homiletic where he should be secular. It is dripping with empty pyrotechnic effect, it is provincial and strangely coldhearted. My hope is that it is quickly forgotten, but my worry is that it will be embraced, in this period of New Yorkophilia, as the classic that it is not. The book is much as Whitehead himself describes Times Square: "Simmer the idea of metropolis until it is reduced to a few blocks, sprinkle in a dash of hype and a tablespoon of woe. Add hubris to taste. Serving size: a lot." For the sake of his soul as a serious writer, may he come to distrust this little book for how far it has taken him from how far he had come.


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