What Could Have Been

One of the other oddities of The Underground Railroad appears in the author’s biography, the very first sentence on the very first page of the book. The last words of the bio describe Colson Whitehead as the author of half a dozen novels as well as “a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York.” It doesn’t matter to me whether Whitehead himself wrote the bio or whether it was written for him. What matters is the extraordinary underselling of what is arguably his best book. The Colossus of New York is, as its title suggests, a love letter to a metropolis, but in no sense does Whitehead express his affections for Manhattan in the form of essays. You could maybe get away with calling Colossus a book of prose poetry, although even that label doesn’t fit well. There’s no easy way to say exactly what it is. Part of its power comes from that fact. To familiarise this unfamiliar thing by describing its contents as “essays” is to rob the book of its charms, shoehorning something idiosyncratic into the mundane.

Many critics savaged The Colossus of New York when it appeared in 2004. At that time, Whitehead had only just begun to establish himself as a novelist. He’d published The Intuitionist and John Henry Days to wide acclaim, and he’d won a 2002 MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant on the basis of the artistic promise they showed. The Colossus of New York was the first book to bear his name in the wake of receiving that prize. Wyatt Mason, writing for The New Republic, saw it not as an advancement in Whitehead’s artistic development, nor even as a minor misstep, but as a devastating retreat from making the most of the potential he clearly possessed. Lambasting Colossus as “a book that indulges Whitehead’s worst instincts,” Mason said that although The Intuitionist and John Henry Days had allowed Whitehead to take “inspiring leaps forward as a novelist, reaching toward, and beginning to attain, his own means of addressing and dramatizing our losses,” the new book “allows him to be swaggering where he should be controlled, vague where he should be specific, homiletic where he should be secular.” Other reviewers were less acerbic but similarly dismissive. In The Onion, for instance, Andy Battaglia cast the book aside with the judgment that Colossus is filled with “stock characters” and that not one of them “linger[s] long enough to weigh down a breezy prose-poem experiment that’s equal parts swoon and sigh.”

Looking back on those reviews almost fifteen years later, they strike me as basically the offhand assessments of readers who didn’t summon the patience to think carefully about what to do with the words in front of them. They’re basically reviews that yearn for Colossus to be a book about someone, reviews that hunger for Colossus to serve up an identity, a psychology, a morality, a consciousness worthy of discussion. But The Colossus of New York isn’t interested in delivering what those reviews want from it. The book contains no named characters. It doesn’t even contain any developed characters, any characters invested with more than a hint of an interior life. Moreover, the characters that do populate the book — the fleeting figures who usually have the lifespan of only a single sentence — tend to blur at the edges and blend together as Whitehead quite purposefully clouds the referents of his pronouns. Here’s a stylistically typical passage from the chapter on rainfall. I quote from it liberally because it’s one of my favourite parts of the book, but also because of how clearly it demonstrates Whitehead’s interests and disinterests. In lieu of setting scenes, developing characters, and offering intimations of someone’s consciousness, Whitehead prefers to play with various types of prosody, with exaggerated and pointillistic imagery, with fragments of unattributed remarks that don’t quite qualify as dialogue, with abrupt changes in perspective and temporality, and, as above, with pronouns so ambiguous that they sometimes acquire multiple and simultaneous referentiality:

The new rivers along curbs shove newspaper and grit to gutters. Too big to squeeze through grates the garbage bobs in place like the unstylish waiting for nightclub doors to open. The liquid sinks below. The alligators don’t mind. Eventually a clog sends a puddle advancing. A sliver of moon, the surface of the puddle is tormented by brief craters. Each drop explodes and extends the surface of the puddle. Doing their part for the water cycle, the bus wheels return the puddle to air again. Complacent beneath her umbrella she is thoroughly soaked when she stands too close to the curb. The enemy came from below. The metropolitan transit authority reinforces old lessons: every puddle wants to hug you. If not heavy motor vehicles then it is the children in their bright red boots detonating puddles on people. Knock it off.

It finds the nape of your neck easily. It traces the length of your spine greedily. The long list of errands shrinks into what people can do in the least amount of water. So much for the dry cleaning. All over town the available number of cabs shrinks as thin fingers tilt and quiver at the edges of the 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. …

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 contours of an absurd pregnancy. She hides in the bus stand. She hasn’t taken the bus in years and feels a secret terror. Pressed up against other people: what’s the point of money. In shelter they make plans. He doesn’t know where he is supposed to be because the paper got wet and now the address is a smudge. Lost at intersections. Look at all the trenchcoats — it is the detectives’ convention come at last to take care of all our loose ends. Up in all the windows, leaning on the sills, the dry people look down on the street and think, Glad I’m not out in that. As if they are without problems. Open half an inch, the window in the next room is still open wide enough to get the floor wet before they notice.

Does that read like an essay? Even an aphoristic one? What, then, are its assertions and contentions, its observations and insights? I’d say it’s more an imagistic riff on a theme, bound to a particular location; it uses rain as an occasion for experimenting with jarring, unsignalled leaps in the sources and scales of implied perspectives. Given the book’s title, of course, The Colossus of New York would have you believe that the cumulative power of this sort of thing evokes Emma Lazarus above all others, but that’s not the case. Whitehead’s guiding spirit here is clearly Walt Whitman prowling the streets of Manhattan, though Whitehead’s work is less ennobling of the people caught in the narratorial gaze and more careful, more purposefully multivalent, in its use of language.

It’s a shame, I think, that this sort of work turned out to be a one-off for Whitehead, a brief detour along the path that led him from those early novels to the dire Zone One and the disappointment of The Underground Railroad. I wish he’d had the courage to truly claim ownership of Colossus rather than allowing it to be diminished, sidelined as something so tepid as “a collection of essays,” receiving a mention in his biography only as an afterthought. I guess it stands now as a reminder that at one stage, early in his career, Whitehead was a genuinely unconventional writer capable of shaking off the received forms that dominate American literature. We can only wonder what he might have gone on to do if he’d taken Colossus as the starting point for a new set of rules, rather than setting it aside as an exception to the rules that have prevailed.

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