The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts
by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday
176 pages, 2003
The Asphalt Hereafter
Reviewed by Paul McLeary
If you were to place the racial absurdities of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man in the postmodern streets of the San Narisco of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, you'd have a pretty good idea of the world in which Colson Whitehead's debut novel, The Intuitionist, takes place. Whitehead's take on urban life, technology and race relations in a thinly-veiled New York City won him an immediate following, as well as a batch of literary awards with which to grease his resume. In every way that The Intuitionist was a classic "first novel" -- a tightly wound ball of ideas and creative exuberance, his second novel, John Henry Days, was a more studied, descriptive lob at pop culture, mocking and reveling in our self-propagating, publicity-obsessed culture by following a group of bored freelance writers covering the unveiling of a new postage stamp in rural West Virginia.
Now that he has two critically acclaimed books in the can, Whitehead's taking a victory lap of sorts by publishing what can arguably be called a vanity project -- a book that a major publisher probably wouldn't touch unless the author had already proven that he can move units. While The Colossus of New York isn't necessarily as ambitious as his first two books, it's also his first book-length foray outside the world of the novel. The collection of 13 short prose pieces is a kind of roman a clef in which well-known elements of New York, like Broadway, JFK and the Port Authority act as the natural environment of a nameless, and ever-changing, cast of ghostlike characters. Like New York street life itself, these people exist only in the few fleeting moments they are observed by others, before disappearing back into the mass anonymity of the city's glass canyons.
As a native New Yorker, Whitehead grew up amid the human tidal flows of the city, and while he's not one of those writers whose style or subject matter tie him to a specific time or place, there's a palpable urbanity in his work, and he nails New York cold in the first essay, "City Limits", in talking about the reproachful love affair all New Yorkers feel toward a city that never ceases becoming something foreign and unfamiliar: "No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. ... You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now."
"There are eight million cities in the naked city," he says, "they dispute and disagree. The New York City you live in is not my New York City; how could it be?" All New Yorkers, whether transplants or native born, carry with them a sense of ownership for this untamable place, a feeling that they own a little piece of the whole that they horde and keep like a secret. Whitehead understands this, and exploits this willful self-delusion while confessing that he also understands that "The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone," admitting the defeat New Yorkers are loathe to cop to. That's the trick the city plays on its residents, it gets under their skin and forces them to stay despite the high rents, horrific summer smells and the public transportation that runs on only the thinnest subtext of a schedule. The city knows its captives intimately, but proves every day that it couldn't possibly care less. Whitehead embraces this one-sided affair, lovingly and spitefully stretching it out in these essays. "This city is reward for all it will enable you to achieve and punishment for all the crimes it will force you to commit." He says this, knowing both the unbridled love and the constant contempt New York brings out in its children.
The odd thing about these essays, or stories, or prose poems, is that Whitehead often starts off with a title, like "Downtown", which sounds promising, only to veer off in disparate directions as he picks up and discards bits of street life and takes the obligatory swipe at the hipsters who now own the once unwalkable streets of the Lower East Side (doesn't he know the hipsters are all in Brooklyn now, anyway?) In reality, while there are large chunks of New York in these pieces, there is also a sense in which he could be writing about any large city, so lost does he get in these snatches of missed connections between perpetual strangers. He's writing in the holes of the city dwellers' daily life, tracing the ways in which we walk by our past and future neighbors, friends and lovers every day, or cut a corner and miss a chance at redemption, without ever knowing what there was to miss.
If nothing else, New York City is the sweetest slap in the face you'll ever receive, and the visual assault can get so intense as to almost seem unreal: "Let's pause a sec to be cowed by this magnificent skyline. So many arrogant edifices, it's like walking in to a jerk festival. Maybe you recognize it from posters and television. Looks like a movie set, a false front of industry."
In the end, though, he nails the degraded majesty of New York time and again, and while the pieces can become a little self indulgent, as a whole the collection is worth it for those little gems he plants here and there in the form of a tired love letter he has written for his hometown. "All it can do is shine," he says of Manhattan, "brighter than heaven and easier to get into, an asphalt hereafter." | November 2003
Paul McLeary has written for New York Observer, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon.com. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.