After two elegantly written, consistently engaging, critically praised, ambitious if not entirely satisfying novels, the prodigiously gifted Colson Whitehead has given the reading public every reason to follow his career closely. Now he surprises us with a perversely daring book–a series of thirteen meditative essays on New York, certainly a change of pace. Small enough to slide into your pocket, at 158 pages and 5″x7″ trim, it suggests the old companionate volume of Stevenson’s or Thoreau’s essays you might take along on a country hike. Except these are determinedly city-bound reveries. One way to think about them, in fact, is as a revival of the urban sketch.
In its heyday, the urban sketch was a byproduct of the concurrent rise of newspapers and population growth in metropolises. The public showed an increasing appetite for light essays, character sketches, vignettes and urban panoramas, which were to be found on the back pages, or feuilletons, of daily journals and magazines. Style was at a premium: The urban sketch was expected to be witty, effervescent and worldly–naïfs need not apply. Baudelaire, musing on the evolution of that “lyrical, supple” prose he envisioned for his prose poems, observed: “This obsessive ideal is above all a child of the experience of great cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.” Rhapsodic, ironic, elegiac and disillusioned, the urban sketch, for all its sparkle, tended toward melancholy. Joseph Roth, a master of the form, characteristically began a piece on Berlin nightlife: “Sometimes, in a fit of incurable melancholy, I go into the standard Berlin nightclubs not to cheer myself up, you understand, but to take malicious pleasure at the phenomenon of so much industrialized merriment.”
The urban sketch spread from England and the Continent to the United States: To take New York alone, such literary lights as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Margaret Fuller, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Djuna Barnes, Paul Morand, Henry Miller, Christopher Morley, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell all tried their hand at such series, striving to capture the city’s elusive soul. They make wonderful reading today. Still, the urban sketch fell into a decline, thanks to changes in literary taste, the drying-up of markets for belletristic writing and the suburbanization of America.
Enter Colson Whitehead, gallantly taking up the form. Not that this writer hasn’t always written about New York. His first novel, The Intuitionist, a witty, imaginative fantasy about an elevator inspector who doesn’t need to look at the machinery to grasp its functioning, treated the city as a mythological, stylized backdrop of power and corruption, similar to Gotham in Tim Burton’s Batman film. His second novel, John Henry Days, offered an engrossing, Nashville-like convocation of lost souls on the make in redneck America, with New York the fallback media-hype center, where freelance journalist and publicist bed in drunken mutual solace. But now he is treating New York directly as his subject matter, employing some of the classic organizing devices of the urban sketch, such as time of day (“Morning,” “Rush Hour”), season (“Rain”), place (“Subway,” “Central Park”) and so on. It is moving to watch Whitehead patiently reworking these old tropes, fully conscious of his enterprise’s antiquarian aspects. And he writes wonderfully, commanding a lush, poetic, mellifluous prose instrument.
Walter Benjamin said of the flâneur, that connoisseur of the boulevard, that the crowd “permeates him blissfully like a narcotic that can compensate for many humiliations.” So it is with Whitehead. Like Whitman, he alights for a momentary line on this or that person’s destiny. Like Joyce’s Bloom, he wades into the city walk with attentiveness to interior sensations. The narrative “I” quickly yields to “he,” “she,” “you,” “they”; and the willingness to inhabit speculatively, fictively, anyone who passes by makes these reveries a record of Here Comes Everybody. “Great day to be a caricaturist–everyone remembered to bring their faces,” he quips. However, the passers-by are not so much physically described from the outside as their internal monologues are eavesdropped in on. What Whitehead really seems to be after is an inventory of the urban tribe’s mass consciousness. While insisting that each citizen builds a “private New York” with “private landmarks” based on individual memories, he nevertheless keeps asserting a sort of group psychology, fabricated under stress.
Self-consciousness and chagrin form its core; loneliness, its baseline. “The loneliness is the worst,” he writes, “because this knowledge is something that cannot be shared, only suffered. Just as well. Why should anyone have it easy. Spoken like a true New Yorker.” There are nagging concerns about personal appearance: “Two drops of java on his shirt is enough to make the day unsalvageable.” The open zipper and the zit make their appearance. Slush awaits the unwary pedestrian; closed trapdoors on sidewalks invite atavistic fears of falling, and “a multitude of stenches” brought by summer make for “discomfort without end.”
Much of what Whitehead sees as the New Yorker’s group psychology is a negotiation between conflicting responses and desires, neither ever fully accommodated. “Ire and compassion have been neighbors for years,” he writes. A central pairing of dualistic traits is the opportunist and the stoic: First the New Yorker uses gamelike coping methods, which, when ineffective, yield to bemused resignation. In the subway, for instance:
On the platform there are strategies of where seats will appear when…you get off, of how to outmaneuver these impromptu nemeses. So many variables, everyone’s a mathematician with an advanced degree…. Can I make it to the seat before she gets there. Their eyes meet and they calculate distance. Stared down once again he gives up, such is his lot, and he leans against the conductor’s door.
This pattern is repeated on a rainy day, trying to hail a taxi:
All over town the available number of cabs shrinks as thin fingers tilt and quiver at the edges of traffic. The bastard one block upriver gets it before you can stick a hand out, just as you are someone else’s bastard one block downriver. Epithets are tossed against the flow of traffic, upon the unbeknownst. Everybody just wants to get home, so they can make calculations and jockey. What’s a better block for a cab. East or west, up a street or down. Schemes multiply and divide the longer you stand there. The super-computer of cab-catching.
Yet some New Yorkers submit to their rained-on fate: “The best of them cease stooping, stand up straight, stop dodging, take it as it comes. Apparently they are supposed to get wet, so they give in. It is like letting go of something and a small miracle wrung from accident.” He calls them, tongue-in-cheek, “citizens of a better city.”
The typical New Yorker is portrayed as addicted to self-invention: on good days, the star of his or her own musical (“Dance over prostrate bodies as music swells”), on bad days, constantly adjusting ill-fitting masks. “Pull the next personality out of your back pocket. Maybe this one will work…. somehow you made it through the day without anyone finding out that you are a complete fraud.” John Henry Days had explored this theme of fraudulence through its protagonist, J., a burnt-out African-American journalist who is going for the world record of public relations junkets. Whitehead, himself a Harvard-educated, acclaimed African-American writer, seems sensitive to the vanity of ambitions and the perils of inauthenticity and celebrity-hunger.
Though his two prior books had worried questions of racial identity, here he takes a perhaps-needed holiday from such concerns, making no mention of race. Nor is there much said, for that matter, about social class, or the economy that has so polarized New Yorkers in recent decades. Neither the rich nor the poor are in evidence, except for a few stray references to “the homeless,” who are treated more as angelic presences than hard social facts. Whitehead seems intent on presenting the typical New Yorker as one coherent social construction: a lower-middle-class or middle-class city-dweller, subject to the democratically leveling discomfort of a debased public realm. Newcomers entering Port Authority bus terminal “are delivered into dinginess,” a condition that is soon internalized: “His brain gets so dingy sometimes…” Occasionally the lonely millions experience a communal moment, like the first springy day in Central Park. But mostly, they are alone in their ill-at-ease responses. Like this anonymous woman Whitehead shows us crossing Brooklyn Bridge: “Remembering that disappointed feeling she gets each time she reaches the other side, then feeling that disappointed feeling.”
Perhaps this anticipation of disappointment, which the author sees everywhere, is a way for big-city dwellers to gain a measure of control in the face of sensory overload. Perhaps, also, it helps to mute the frustrations of an eroticized city that offers so many squandered opportunities, crushes on passing strangers. “Probably not the right time for a sexual reverie but the view argues otherwise,” Whitehead writes. His New Yorkers are always hiding unexpected erections or fantasizing about making out on a desert island with someone in the subway car. They are pulled out of the present into intimate sensual recall (“Her smell still on him”). Often the memory begins in pleasure and ends in rue: “So nice to wake to your spouse’s hip but then remember last night’s disagreement and decide you are still angry.” The insistence on lament having the final word is also something Whitehead views as New York-tribal (“To complain is to belong, possess property”) and consumerist (“Wait your turn, there’s enough bitterness to go around”).
When not divining the crowd’s thoughts, he dives into the city’s psyche, through anthropomorphizing metaphors. Since the crux of the charge against New York as neglectful parent is indifference, Whitehead stands the idea on its head: “Wouldn’t it be funny if the city actually gave a damn about you…. The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone.” An animistic imagination imparts to everything nonhuman its momentary voice: “The wind is a harsh critic, renowned for sardonic turn-of-phrase…” “The bridge pants, exhausted.”
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.
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.”
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.