What does it mean to love a city? Can you really identify with a multitude of inhabitants, their hopes and despairs and all their damned tics? Can you sing the praises of the high rises and the lowlifes, the glitter and the grit? Well, maybe love isn’t the right word. Can you feel possession? Can a city be yours?
Colson Whitehead tries to make the Big Apple his in his latest book, which after two well-received novels (he won a MacArthur genius grant on the basis of The Intuitionist and John Henry Days) is hard to fit into any particular genre. Maybe it’s a prose poem travelogue — that happens to be about the author’s hometown.
Think of Walt Whitman as a slightly jaded hipster. That’s the sort of affection Whitehead has for the endless bodies electric that parade through the city’s streets and his book’s pages; he can’t stop thinking about them. And as in that grand text of the metropolis (ancient and modern), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, there’s an acceptance that the city is not one thing, but a changing body with parts rotting away to make way for the new, where there are as many cities present as imaginations and perspectives.
Writing 101 establishes that a work needs a consistent point of view: first person, second person or third person, omniscient. Whitehead employs all of them. But mostly it’s as if the narrator were some unnamed telepathic wanderer who tunes in the frequencies of passers-by, always surfing, never staying long with any station, not even long enough to discover anyone’s name.
This is from his chapter on rain:
“Couples forced into doorways kiss, coached by the cinema. One of them says one two three and they make a break out of the latest slim refuge. They are reminded after a few steps of how cold the rain is. They stop at the next outpost to catch their breath and forget how cold the rain is. This is the start of her long illness. The wrapping would be ruined by the water so he holds the present under his coat, lending to his belly the absurd contours of pregnancy. She hides in the bus stand. She hasn’t taken a bus in years and feels a secret terror. …”
This is from his chapter on night life:
“Hipsters seek refuge in church, Our Lady of Perpetual Subculture. There is some discussion as to whether or not they are still cool but then they are calmed by the obscure location and the arrival of their kind. Keep the address to yourself, let the rabble find it for themselves. 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. …”
Whitehead introduces himself in the first chapter, and in subsequent ones visits the Port Authority, Central Park, the subway, Broadway, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, downtown, Times Square and John F. Kennedy Airport. He meditates on mornings, downpours and rush hours. There’s a throng of humanity here, but its center of gravity is more young than old, more upper middle class than any other class, largely devoid of racial, class or any other kind of conflict.
For that matter, this is a New York City in which either the WTC is still standing or where no one happens to be thinking about its fall.
And while this is very specifically a New York City book, some things apply universally. From the beginning Whitehead tells us that you’re 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.”
Change New York to wherever you are reading this. Does that place belong to you?
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.
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