New York State of Mind | The Nation


New York State of Mind

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So accomplished are Whitehead's ironies, throwaway aperçus and inventive metaphors, that he is able to distract you for quite a while from the book's not going anywhere. It just keeps chasing its tail and repeating the same fanciful riffs. For this reviewer, the wondrous high began to wear off about two-thirds through the text. Then I suddenly realized all that was missing, that might have deepened or varied the experience for me. I mean things like history, physical description, analytical development.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate is the author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Anchor) and editor of the anthology American...

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First, history: There is none. Not only no mention of old mayors, such as Fernando Wood or Fiorello La Guardia, no references to the present political era of Dinkins, Giuliani or Bloomberg. No draft riots, no Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, no General Slocum steamboat disaster. Even our own colossus of anxiety, 9/11, is omitted, except in oblique references ("Fragile skylines are too easily destroyed"). If anything, 9/11 seems to have given the author permission to dispense with history, as if its trauma released the city into a posthistorical, statically anxious, "eternal" present. Or is he saying that the everyday stress of living in this city trumps any larger perspective that might incorporate the past and future? If so, I don't think that's true.

To be fair, Whitehead has an amusing riff in the opening section that explicitly denies historical reality: "History books and public television documentaries are always trying to tell you all sorts of 'facts' about New York. That Canal Street used to be a canal. That Bryant Park used to be a reservoir. It's all hokum. I've been to Canal Street, and the only time I ever saw a river flow through it was during the last water-main explosion. Never listen to what people tell you about old New York, because if you didn't witness it, it is not a part of your New York and might as well be Jersey." This is clever and almost finesses the problem, but I still think the book would have been enriched by some research. It is too much the work of an "intuitionist," trusting to a talent that, though immense, keeps leading back to the same effects.

Then there is the odd shying-away (in spite of the many sections titled with place-names like Broadway, Coney Island, Times Square) from actual, detailed physical description of these sites. Such descriptions might have balanced the tribal soup of interior monologue and offset its hydra-headed subjectivity with a single narrator's more objective viewpoint. However, to describe any city district's physical layers is to be plunged into a texture of historical names, old conflicts, research and all that other nonfiction "goop" that might interrupt the baritone sonorities of improvised lament.

Finally, one notes the author's chaste refusal to deepen analysis. He courteously includes any stray whim that floats through his mind, however original or trite, and lets it dart away without probing further. The method is faultlessly impressionistic, which works fine as a stream-of-consciousness fictional technique but is somewhat less availing in book-length nonfiction. A further problem is that this method allows him to elude full responsibility for any idea he presents, in the same way a novelist can say: "That was not my opinion, but the character's." So there is mentation without argumentation. A repeated device is the Barthelmean paragraph made up of shallow rationalizing fragments whose failure to add up induces a hip reader's weary smile. Example: "Wow, this crappy performance art is really making me feel not so terrible about my various emotional issues. He has to duck out early to get back to his bad art. Three cheers for your rich interior life, may it serve you well come rent day. Beer before liquor never sicker. This one's on me."

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