The Colossus of New York: A City In Thirteen Parts
review by Norman Douglas
The Colossus of New York: A City In Thirteen Parts
by Colson Whitehead,
published by Doubleday,
A Division of Random House, Inc., 2003, New York. 161 pp.,
"To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom."
— Dedicatory inscription of the Colossus
"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."
— Narrator Mark Hellinger from The Naked City postscript
Thus ended each episode of the ancient ABC-TV series, its "gritty" slice of life tales emulating the location-based 1948 Mark Hellinger production of HUAC-blacklisted film noir auteur Jules Dassin's Hollywood hit of the same name. This resonant tagline became a motto for Eisenhower America's crime docudrama faithful, a genre rife with predictable twists and flimsy subplots that reverberate up to the present day on shows like Law and Order and The Wire.
Since moving to New York City in 1981, I've had a few encounters with the forces of law and order myself. Luckily, none of these run-ins lasted more than twenty-four hours, nor did they approach such media-milled headline fodder as say, the Larry Davis stand-off or the Abner Louima debacle. However, my first-hand experiences with the banality of police bungling revealed for me the quotidian slack displayed by the very men and women whose lack of insight and personal drive (unless we mean driving around and around with a determination not to exit their vehicles before absolutely necessary) in a crisis has become notorious among critics from left, right and center. The boredom of the average beat cop's hurry-up-and-wait work shift, the carcinogenic weight of their insufferably repetitive routine probably differs little from most of our lives (although they probably find themselves in the midst of scores of domestic disputes other than those of their own making). Of course, none of the petty crooks with whom I shared these brief periods of detention -- substance abusers and boosters, as well as a stick-up kid and a Harlem bookmaker who called Howard Beach home -- do not exactly fit the profile of the diabolically misanthropic mastermind (emotional, physical or spiritual) cripple bent on world domination. Mostly, they are kids nabbed out on the corner smoking a blunt, partygoers caught in the act of stocking up on illicit party favors, diehards netted while hanging around for too long at the bash... Everyone of them ends his (men and women are still held separately, despite gains made by women in other realms) story of capture in more or less the same way: "I knew I should've took my butt home," or "I told myself not to go to that spot no more," and the all-too-common denial of a nagging, metaphysical hunch, "I felt like some bad shit was gonna go down all day..." In a vast, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-consuming metropolis like New York City, hindsight is not only clarity, it's everything.
Colson Whitehead's Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts is full of the visionary inconsequence of New York. With his pen focused principally on Manhattan, Whitehead Ð a native born in the city and now a Brooklynite Ð delves into that city-island-within-The-City which, for most people living on Planet Earth, is the only New York that counts. For commuters and tourists, jobbers and visitors, Manhattan is the axis around which the rest of the metropolis revolves; for Manhattanites, the entire world spins around our thirty-five square mile chunk of solid bedrock (as depicted over twenty years ago on a now infamous New Yorker magazine cover). Whitehead's impressions bring this island's atmosphere to life, building upon and taking creative license with an abundant literary convention that harkens all the way back to Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language. (Begun in 1747 and completed in 1755, Johnson's lexicon included over 40,000 definitions, an undertaking that remained without rival until James Murray started to compile the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 Ð that project was finished in 1928, thirteen years after Murray's death.)
In this, Whitehead's third book (after 2001's John Henry Days and 1999's The Intuitionist), the author assembles a baker's dozen of entries reflecting a city that he acknowledges is his own only inasmuch as it belongs to us all. He does this by improvising on a form that has attracted literature's more learned practitioners since the onset of modernism: the lexicon permits the writer an opportunity to not only reorder a theme or subject of interest, it becomes a verbal repository into which one may unleash a portion of the bedeviling glut of information churning unbridled through one's brain. For some writers, that surfeit may be one of facts, for others, it encompasses other literatures; index card after index card of citations fill Roland Barthes' Fragments of A Lover's Discourse, for example. For Whitehead, this verbal overflow is more immediate, becoming palpable not so much because the reader has lived in the city for a quarter of a century Ð nor because he or she may have diligently studied its texts for just as long, or longer. Rather, Whitehead's uncanny, ludic illustrations achieve their startlingly tactile quality because he has followed a simple, yet laudably complete approach. By choosing to listen to the city as it is, as it lives and alters itself around us, the writer has returned us to literature's primal source: "In the beginning was the Word," word as voice, voice as word. There are no footnotes in The Colossus of New York because Whitehead has referenced no texts. For this reason Ð and without compromising the mellifluous lyricism that colors the flow of his poetic prose Ð he maintains a wholly human context from start to finish. His vignettes derive from the same "sourcebook" that The Naked City postscript pretended to draw from, although that text was pure fiction. Where history books and news reports Ð along with far too many purveyors of ostensibly creative fictions Ð scour the darkest aspects of the human drama for adrenaline-charged spectacle, distilling the official record into so many kilos of mass-mediated opiates, it's a rare Ð and courageous Ð storyteller who can reflect upon the reality of our more mundane experiences and infuse them with an honest, kinetic and ever vital perspective. Without adhering to the straightforward approach employed in oral history milestones like the omnibus works of Harry Smith, the Lomax family, Studs Terkel, and others, Whitehead has clearly enjoyed the process of stumbling on citizens who bend his ear, of transforming this aural bounty into an accurate and exhilarating text, a verbal portrait of our unofficial Empire's unofficial capital.
While Whitehead's "project" is pleasantly free of the crime and violence that make our newspapers worth skimming and Fox-TV worth mocking, his is not exactly a rosy rendering of this aging urban colossus. In fact, he opens the first chapter, "City Limits," by reminding us that New York changes and ages in lockstep with each and every personae that lives here. The endless parade of urban renewals, he suggests, may strike us as an uneasy, somewhat disconcerting reminder of our own transitory Ð hence, botched Ð efforts at revitalizing ourselves. "...[B]efore the internet cafŽ plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.
"You start rebuilding your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it... Somewhere in that fantastic, glorious mess was the address on the piece of paper, your first home here. Maybe your parents dragged you here for a vacation when you were a kid and towed you up and down the gigantic avenues to shop for Christmas gifts [this reviewer's own experience]... Freeze it there: that instant is the first brick in your city." [pp. 3-4]
Having determined how one may lay claim to an authentic citizenship in this imperial capital, Whitehead goes on to document the arrival by bus at "Port Authority," where "It may be day or night outside, or sunny or rainy outside, but inside the terminal light is always the same queasy, green rays." We enter this Colossus as equals, waiting "for so long to see the famous skyline but wake at the arrival gate and with a final lurch are delivered into dinginess."
In the next chapter, each "Morning," we do battle with the shabby infrastructure that plagues our Colossus from apartment to sidewalk. Instead of roosters, "hydraulics crow... Emptied trash cans skid to anchor corners. Shopkeepers retract metal grates that repel burglars from merchandise unworthy of theft. All this metal grinding, this is the machine of morning reaching out through cogs and gears to claim and wake us." Punching snooze buttons, dancing through slush and snow, suffering the TV set's morning shows, we find ourselves "Out of coffee. Out of milk. Out of luck. Late again. Call in sick, or don't... The name of his cologne is Hamper, Recommended by Four Out of Five Whiffs." Apart from all the empty greetings, the dog shit under melting snow, there are glimmers of dashed hopes: "Time it right to see your secret crush at the bus stop. Moved away two weeks ago without telling you but keep the fire burning, my faithful." Spring leads us to "Central Park" and the dilemma of where to sit, broken glass, joggers, Popsicles, bird guano... We ride the "Subway" and abide its platform culture, the choice of cars, wading out against the crush of new riders, the elevated, the protracted and unsettling, unscheduled and unexplained stop between stations. We dance through "Rain," losing umbrellas, avoiding the points lest a stranger poke our eyes out, navigating the rivers that spring up at corners, trying to wait it out under shallow doorways, awestruck by the tough guys who strut past as if the sun were shining on them alone. We head down "Broadway," take a trip to the grim, stinking multitude that haunts "Coney Island" and its littered sand. We stroll over our favorite span, "Brooklyn Bridge" with its flaking paint, shrinking before the Manhattan skyline, our spirit still empty and unchanged at the far end. We dive into the dread "Rush Hour," the escape from Midtown. We enjoy the horrorshow of a night "Downtown," happy hour, reaching the wrong address where we've planned a rendezvous, surrounded by hipsters, deafened by stentorian music and loud shirts, menaced by the lunatics out on the full moon, suffering not only through last call but the fight for the cab ride home. Then, after paying a visit to the new and improved "Times Square," it's time to go. "Everything's packed. All the necessary documentation is secure in pockets and pouches. The time passed so quickly." We depart through "JFK," leaving the city behind, maybe to return to a changed metropolis, perhaps to remember it as an affair of youth, or a dream: Looking out the window, "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."
That I use the first person plural Ð the not-so-royal "we" Ð to sketch the book's trajectory is the effect of Whitehead's deft employ of pronouns throughout. Rarely availing himself of the first person, he applies a constructive balance between the second and third persons Ð "you," "he," "she" Ð so that they underscore the sense of personal anecdote that lures a reader in, that drives one on, imbuing these baroque jibes and narrative inventories with a colloquial tone that fixes the work in the voices of the living, and without resort to the fantasy realm of celebrity and wealth. These New Yorkers are most of us and, if Whitehead sometimes sounds a mite pessimistic or heavy-handed, it's only because these are the bona fide reverberations of real New Yorkers. Our cynicism, our affinity for irony, our blunt opinions and firsthand knowledge of everything that's worth knowing is legendary.
If there is another text that comes close to offering such a complex capital as New York its truth through simplicity, it might be veteran rocker Lou Reed's early 90's anthem, New York. Beyond Ð and including Ð the ironic ire that poisons that disc's every lyric, the musical comparison is key. I first heard Colson Whitehead reading this book's penultimate chapter "Downtown" at a Bowery Ballroom benefit for the literary journals McSweeney's, Open City, and Fence. The freewheeling rhythm of the text Ð delivered at a relentless, near breakneck pace by the author Ð was (for me and for notable New York literary mentor Steve Cannon) the highlight of the night, despite featured acts by rock stars Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and David Byrne. Colossus is finally an engagingly musical text, owing its rhythmic cadence more to the beat of everyday life than to the historically brief lifespan of what passes for "spoken word." Should one pick up Whitehead's book, you would do well to share it aloud with a friend. Its command of the tone used by New Yorkers, its celebration and expansion of the anecdotes we love to hear and repeat among friends and strangers Ð especially those whom the Colossus has yet to welcome Ð is without any real parallel.
Such an endeavor as Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York is bound to suffer from omissions. The agility with which he mirrors New Yorkers' darker humours cuts across dialects, accents, and ethnicities. Science has long established these distinctions to be fictions, and Whitehead effectively uses New Yorkers and New York as proof for our universally shared truths. Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York and its imitator, Luc SantŽ's Low Life, will serve to plumb the well-charted hollows of more common and antagonistic platitudes. Here, Whitehead offers a contemporary account of the Empire City without its Great Men of History, a veritable depiction of the eight million, not exactly anonymous flesh and blood lives that worship the Colossus as imperial portal, everyday entities who Ð like their Creator Ð must remain unnameable, whose inspired grasp of paradox may not make this place Paradise, but whose shared incongruities and ability to turn visionary hindsight into legendary fable ritualistically feed the titanic angel as it nurtures them; entire families of orphans and runaways revising their shelters as they vow to keep the Apple sheltered from its divisive parasites Ð internal and external. Like squirrels spinning the loco-motivated caged-wheels in an engine primed by Our Gang after the Grand Street designs of their Bowery forbears, these beings populate Whitehead's catalog of the eight million all-too-human stories that watch the ever-watchful, Olympus-bound sentinel in its fixed reach for the sun. Like the slogan reminds us on a recently devised poster of Marilyn Monroe created and disseminated by some secret claimants of the collective consciousness working overtime, we will never be rock stars. And yet, as Whitehead reveals with pointed insight and a tangible consistency akin to the hoary dictates of our inner child's innately incantatory call and response mechanism, we inhabit an unlimited free space replete with quiet surprise, not-so-low adventure, rollercoaster romances that follow no scripts and feature no stars, and barely tragic victories after unspectacular defeats. Here, the writer has imagined the private glories of the real, unnumbered souls that keep the mechanized modernity of the metropolis running right on time if just a few minutes behind schedule, whose every immeasurable breath quite clearly keeps the Colossus vigorous, resurrected on its regularly remerging ruins, reincarnated by and for its unmartyred minions, singularly sentient, impossibly and impermissibly, most graciously alive.
Thank you, Colson Whitehead, for this urban book of prayer. You are all, I would imagine we would agree, very welcome.
New York, New York, Monday, November 27, 2003