Tuesday, February 14, 2006


The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts, by Colson Whitehead, Read by The Author, Recorded Books, LLC, 2003

Someone once remarked that you should never tell anyone about the dreams you have at night (unless they’re your analyst), as they will only bore your listener. Likewise it has been suggested that detailing your sexual fantasies to someone not currently or about to get naked with you is also a mistake. The element both these bits of advice have in common is that there are certain personal elements that are of just little to no interest to anyone other than yourself.

Which is part of what makes Colson Whitehead’s last book such a disappointment. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts fails spectacularly to live up to its title’s superlative promise. There is little in Whitehead’s book that is colossal by any definition of the word and this thirteen part essay/reminisce/lengthy prose poem likewise fails on nearly every level to adequately capture much that would be recognizable about New York.

Whitehead begins the book’s kinda-sorta preface with some good advice: “Never listen to what people tell you about Old New York.” He tickles the idea of memory, how certain buildings’ names when you knew them remain those buildings for you. The Pan Am building will always be that for him, regardless of what it is called now. “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... when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now,” Whitehead writes. You never get a chance to say goodbye, every time is the last time something will happen, be seen, exist for you.

It’s at the book’s beginning and its end where the strongest pieces of writing sit, bookending a (thankfully) short middle of disconnected images, miniscule fragments of narratives, and sketches lacking any good reason for their existence. I’m not saying that writing can’t exist for its own sake, that aesthetic appreciation must take a back seat to some kind of pragmatic purposeful use for the art in question. It’s just that Whitehead’s middle pieces offer little sustenance and even less urgency. They make no claim for their own value.

The opening part, the portrait of Port Authority demonstrates conclusively that Whitehead has indeed made the poverty pilgrimage and rode the cross-state, cross-country bus. He knows about breathing through your mouth for a thousand miles because of your seat mate’s odor; the orange juice bottle that rolls up and down up and down under the seats, claimed by no one; the pretending to sleep at a stop so you don’t have to share with someone. He’s seen the madness of the poor, poor people who go Greyhound in this nation. For anyone else who has done so, that piece alone is worth a sit-down in a bookshop to relive some bad old memories made amusing by time.

This is followed by an assortment of snapshots that are somewhat limited to New York and so of interest if you wanted to read about the Big Apple as the book promises. This Central Park observation is spot-on. “Watch out for humans on conveyances. Trusted servants heave heiresses. Roller-blading yuppies burn off lunch. Always some jerk on a unicycle.” His take on Coney Island is a good sensual vision of going to the beach, filled with smells, scents the first thing that hit you arriving there, moving into kaleidoscopic visual descriptions with a nice tang. Even the subway (when one thinks subway, is it not New York’s that first come to mind?) piece is delicious with its big city grime and madness.

The Broadway bit comes off a little too personal, revelatory only to Whitehead offering nothing to us. The writing here passes beyond opacity to murk and a kind of thickly fevered writing almost wearing in its unimportance.

But a number of pieces like the one about rain aren’t really portraits of New York any more than a portrait of any particular busy city. Chicago also has awnings under which people huddle. London has umbrella salesmen there as well. Sydney’s puddles too want to hug your clean dry clothes, thought to be safe under your snug umbrella. Through this piece, he gives us miniatures of people sharing umbrellas, people huddled in doorways kissing, men rendered temporarily pregnant as they hide packages under their jackets. Nothing here screams New York, not even my own personal private New York.

The same could be said for Whitehead’s essay on getting up in the morning to go to work. Snow on the ground or rain falling, hurrying to make your stop, realizing your shirt has a small stain, how we pray to the god named the Snooze button. This is as true in New York as it is in Topeka. The best moment in all of this is his ode to the public transportation crush, the glimpse of unfamiliar/familiar beauty in the morning that gives you a little lift.

Publication of such a volume of rather pointless writing is indicative of a certain mindset. When the book came out (Oct 21, 2003) it was a reasonable guess that with September 11th’s second anniversary only a month past, New York-philia would still be in operation. It’s a good bet that the book was commissioned or suggested or inspired by such events and carries with it the very likely smell of crass commercialization.

Whitehead’s fairly recent celebrity status in the literati world is another likely factor along the road to publication. Had the book been posed in 2000 when Whitehead only had the quite enjoyable The Intuitionist under his belt, it is unlikely you’d be reading these words today. It’s highly unlikely anyone would have agreed to publish what amounts to thirteen lengthy prose poems/sketches. Divorced from that connection, the book loses any sense of immediacy.

I suspect it will fall out of print much sooner than any other of Whitehead’s books, will finally end up in a larger collection of nonfiction writing. There’s little here that has the necessity that draws you along in good writing; there are small images that linger, momentary revelations of things you only thought you had noticed, secrets of observation you’d not have told anyone else, but little that is terrifically original or compelling. There also seems to be a great deal of filler. And like any second-hand memories, the book's writing fades out of memory rather quickly.

Ultimately the book fails for me on one respect most definitely, the one defining question for all art. Why should I care? What does Whitehead tell us about New York that is interesting, touching, informative, imaginative, brilliant, necessary? These are the questions the first few pieces pose which the following pieces fail to answer.

In inverse of the writing’s positive to negative movement is the narration. Whitehead reads the book and it’s a bad idea. He reads with that awful poetry reading intonation which makes everything sound like the pretentious rantings of a dullard. Shakespeare would sound like trash read this way. I might likely have enjoyed this book better if he hadn’t read it himself, sing-songing his way through lines where he says things like “where they bought your Christmas...gifts” or “until one day it will be a ... pet store” the last words given an extra emphatic kiss of breath as though they were meaningful somehow. By the book’s conclusion he seems to have settled down a bit with that, but at that late stage, it’s too late. The damage is done.

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