New York State of Mind
I wonder to what degree this reluctance to analyze further is generational. Whitehead's novelist contemporaries, such as David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody, who also grew up in the aura of postmodernism, often display a mocking, claustrophobic hyperreasoning that undercuts itself, in an unreliable-narrator manner, even when the writer turns to nonfiction. Underneath, it seems to me, is a lack of conviction that meaning is even possible, that anything makes sense, that individual perception is possible in this brainwashed age of pop culture cliché. The mind seems locked in its hamster cage, and the very effort to make sense leads merely to entering another dream, another self-deception. "People huddle into elevators and ride down into in-betweeness," writes Whitehead, "into the space between work and home that is a kind of dreaming: it's where they go to make sense of what just happened so they can go a little farther." What the average schmo comes up with, in the way of making sense, is usually mere self-justification: "All of them from every floor are crammed into this one subway car: the makers of memos, the routers of memos, indexers, filers and shredders of memos, the always-at-their-desks and the never-around.... Everyone thinks they are more deserving, everyone thinks their day has been harder than everyone else's, and everyone is correct." The cynicism is too facile, the superiority presumptuous and the sympathy too glib--all perennial dangers inherent in the book's prose strategy.
In channeling the urbanite's mass mind, Whitehead reproduces the era's clichés with sardonic enthusiasm, then pivots and provides his own all-purpose disclaimer: "Do not underestimate the will it takes to submit to cliché." This bon mot is immediately, and tellingly, followed by: "Follow the script. It's all make believe. Like happy endings." I am never sure whether such assertions by Whitehead as "it's all make believe" are an expression of spirituality or nihilism, Hindu enlightenment or cultural exhaustion. In Whitehead's earlier novel, The Intuitionist, we encountered the notion that everything might be maya, illusion: "'They were slaves to everything they could see.' But there was a truth behind..." This Matrix-like idea that an alternate reality lurks just beneath the programmed one has both conspiratorial and theological connotations.
To Whitehead, New York is predominantly allegorical. It is the place where real and unreal merge. On the one hand, "the city is one substance, every inch of it from one end to the other. Solid. Immutable. Unbreakable." On the other, "it's not even what it was five minutes ago," hence, a Heraclitean conundrum. This mythicized city is part heaven, mostly hell, where the subway train "stops at ghost stations" in a "purgatory" that is easily equated with "the underworld," while, aboveground, a pedestrian "wrestles with a ghost for the soul of his umbrella." The city is simultaneously a juggernaut "operating on pure will," no longer needing humans to guide it, and a chimera. The Colossus of New York ends with this line, delivered from a departing plane: "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." So it was all a dream? That would explain why there's so little historical or physical detail in a book about New York. If it keeps changing from one moment to the next, what's the use of considering its past? If we are merely slaves to what we see, why bother with a description of Times Square?
While I find this too tricky, and Colson Whitehead's portrait of New York ultimately too abstract, maybe it's because I lack a taste for metaphysics and allegory. Like the author, I'm also a native New Yorker, but I can't set aside as easily its history or the hard planning decisions its present state requires. A reviewer should not fault a writer for neglecting to include what he intentionally left out. This little book is internally consistent, it does what it sets out to do and it is a brilliant tour de force of sorts. Still, I can't help feeling that a little impurity would have helped it. In the end, Whitehead has sacrificed range for uniformity of tone, and realism for epigram, and the result is smooth, dazzling, evocative, but also narrow and monochromatic.