Constructing a City with Words: Multi-perspective Story-building in Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York
M.A. Deutsche Literatur
There is probably not a single city in the world, that is subject to more love and more hatred than New York.
Walt Whitman appeals to the city as a living, and breathing symbol of “infinite, teeming, mocking life”. In her poem “Awakening in New York”, Maya Angelou likens the metropolis to a bleak battlefield, when she writes that “[t]he city drags itself awake on subway straps; and I, an alarm, awake as a rumor of war, lie stretching into dawn, unasked and unheeded.” And WH Auden, likewise, describes the city merely as a temporary collection point that offers no place for any of the people who come to the city in order to seek refuge.
On the other hand, however, there are also many literary and musical works that seek to capture some of New York’s intrinsic hopefulness and candour. The one poem most closely linked to the city’s history as a heaven for newcomers is probably Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus”, which names the city the “Mother of Exiles”. In their song “Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sing:
In New York,
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do
Now you're in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York.
And Vijay Seshadri even uses his craftsmanship as a writer to furnish the city with “Trailing Clouds of Glory” which depict the many thousand hopes and dreams that immigrants carry into New York when first arriving amidst the towering skyscrapers.
In this manner, one might consist that there are as many different versions of New York, as there are people who have laid eyes upon its steel pillars. Some focus more on the promising varieties, while others rather pay attention to the desperate, violent side of the city that lurks underneath the shiny surface of “post-card perfect America”. But if one searches close enough, there is always a unifying commonality that links “the subjective perceptions of the countless people who experience it” (Butler 72).
This unifying identity to a variety of collective phenomena, then, is probably what forms the keel and backbone of Colson Whitehead’s “The Colossus of New York”. In his introductory essay “City Limits”, which sets the tone for the entire collection, he writes that the city is full of people, “each haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing” (Whitehead 7). But even though there are so many different ways to experience the city, that it becomes almost impossible to describe how a single being might observe the city, he sets out to bring as many different approaches to reality together as possible. By combining numerous subjective viewpoints and assessments, he manages to illuminate the city in all its dazzling diversity. And because his narrative weaves one person’s thought into another’s, thus connecting distinct shards and fragments of reality, the reader soon begins to see and feel the city as a certain living entity that always appears to be within one’s reach but never becomes fully tangible.
On the one hand, the detailed descriptions of life in New York leave the impression that there is a part of the city that never changes. A part that remains the same, no matter from which perspective one might look. A deeper structure that stays unmoved even though the surfaces are continually in a state of flux. But because the narrative lingers on the verge between diffuse and specific, fact and fiction, it slowly becomes apparent that Whitehead’s New York is by no means a neutral medium that can be explored by all men alike, but rather a kaleidoscopic construct of places and experiences which are per definitionem always contaminated by individual memories, motives and emotions (Schulte 63).
Due to Whitehead’s frequent use of personifications and metaphors, it remains strangely unclear whether New York is actually a set of common spaces and experiential triggers which are each interpreted in a singular way by its visitors and inhabitants, or whether these “individual atomizations” do indeed form “an urban collective” (Katz 823) that might best be called the “multidimensional phenomenon of New York City”. But either way, there is a conspicuous linkage between the city and its people that goes way beyond our narrow understandings of what it might mean to live at a certain place: “The commodified city appears especially pernicious, in many critical accounts, because it seems to falsify the way authentic urban community functions, by producing a version of urban interaction” (Katz 821) that illustrates the collective consciousness of New York as a vivid phenomenon. In the essay “Subway” , for example, Whitehead explains how certain places like the subway or the bus influence our behavior and determine our actions: “There is a culture for platforms and a culture for between stations. On the platform there are strategies of where seats will appear when the doors are open, of where you want to be when you get off, of how to outmaneuver these impromptu nemeses.” (Whitehead 50) Thus, the city actually seems to perform a critical function in the lives of its people, dictating the rhythm of their steps (Whitehead 83), graphing their hopes and dreams (Whitehead 114), and even gathering analogies from the day-to-day struggle of the masses. “The urban built environment is thus sentient, witnessing your most private moments, and can make a coherent narrative out of them—one you cannot know yourself” (Katz 827).
Yet, despite all these instances where the city seems to take an interest into the millions of people who dwell amongst it buildings, there remains a distinct notion that the single individual succumbs to the overwhelming mass of humanity that sprawls through the metropolis. “Instead of providing its inhabitants with a stable place grounded in a shared history, common values, or genuine communal life, Colson’s New York breaks down into the always shifting, subjective perceptions of the countless people who experience it” (Butler 72). Because the city is continually changing, swapping stores, growing new buildings, diminishing old neighbourhoods, and welcoming ever more strangers into its compounds, New Yorkers always have to fear that they will one day disappear into anonymity. While Whitehead frequently emphasizes that “neither past urban spaces nor past selves can be lost” (Katz 827) since the city functions as a sort of library that holds a record of all our memories and events, he also concedes that “rushes to hide all trace” (Whitehead 109) of what has happened on its streets. And this essential impersonaliy leads Robert Butler to say that Whitehead’s New York is “more of a symbolic space than an actual place. A cauldron of perpetual change, it serves as a powerful reflection of the postmodern self, a provisional ego that is always in the process of ongoing and relentless transformation and always on the edge of extinction” (Butler 72). Somehow, the city seems to be hardly more than “a ‘make believe’ construction, which is constantly redefining itself as a work in progress; it is an unstable mixture of parts which can disintegrate” (Butler 76).
This effect of depersonalization and engulfment, then, is even further enhanced by the eclecticism of Whitehead’s writing. In an interview with Linda Selzer, he states the following: “Faced with the lack of a main character or story I was following, the voice had to do the work, its rhythms. It telescopes out for a wide shot, zooms in for a close-up, details an abstract thought and then captures a small and concrete detail. And that back and forth makes a certain rhythm that pulls you along through each chapter. It is intended to be a chorus of citizens” (Whitehead and Selzer 400). The question, however, is whether all these individual memories really do merge into one euphonious entity, or whether this amalgamation actually creates a cacophony of city life that drowns out all individual sense and meaning. “Whereas Lopate and Li find the book’s lack of unifying authority to be a problem, others see what Lopate dismissively calls a “tribal soup” as intrinsic to Whitehead’s main point about the city’s nature” (Maus 97). New York is presented as collage that merges individual sentiments, rhythms, and reality in a way that allows the readers of The Colossus of New York to get involved with the proffered material, contributing their very own experiences to the literary re-construction of the city. And precisely because the singular essays remain fragmentary and sometimes even desultory in nature, they are ideally suited as building blocks that the readers can interlink with their personal associations in order to create ever new forms of reality.
In that sense, the collection of essays itself becomes exemplary of Whitehead’s notion of a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional complex of places and experiences: there is an indefinite number of different New Yorks being built during the overall process of reading this book. There is Colson Whitehead’s very own New York. There are the many different cities that the narrator is carrying around as he marches through the story. “The ‘magnificent contraption’ of Whitehead’s literary New York is ‘tended to’ by the hundreds of disparate, mostly unidentified figures whose fleeting experiences make up The Colossus of New York” (Maus 92-93). And, of course, there are also the many different cities that each of us readers is building within the confines of his or her fantasy.
To be sure, even this huge conglomerate of voices can never quite reach the dimensions of the real New York, since the city is way too multi-faceted and too overwhelming, as to reconstruct it in mere words. But by taking singular segments out of the ephemeral complex and reproducing them in a perceptible way (Middeke 2), Colson Whitehead actually manages to create a medium through which we can perceive the multivariate nature of the city. We are allowed to glimpse the invisible connections of interplay between the humans that roam New York’s streets, and the places that they infuse with their personal experiences. And this is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the dynamics of urban living.