Colson Whitehead Contemplates the Zizmorian Mysteries


No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge,” writes Colson Whitehead, author of The Intuitionist and John Henry Days and former colleague here at the Voice. Whitehead proposes his latest book, The Colossus of New York, as a kind of poetic guidebook to “my city,” but it contains no confessionals, no specific incidents or anecdotes linking landmarks to the writer. Really, Colossus is more a compendium of Manhattana—rituals and moments that we experience as we drift through town, seeing our own memories hovering in buildings we used to live in, stores we once frequented.

Whitehead’s always been fascinated by the inner workings of ordinary things (e.g., the mechanics of elevator maintenance in The Intuitionist). Here he tracks the invisible routines that keep the city moving, dividing them into loose themes (“Rain”) or gathering spots (Central Park). A scientist of metropolitan encounters, he surveys places where the masses collide, knitting together hundreds of observations and calculations that usually remain unspoken. Which subway car should I enter; how close to another person should I sit; “Has anyone ever in history copied down the phone number of the dermatologist with the sinister name” who advertises on the subway?

Occasionally Whitehead goes into whimsy overdrive, but mostly the musical prose thrums with urban momentum. New York here is both an impersonal machine (at Port Authority, “The buses depart with the ones who need to leave and come back with the replacements from every state”) and a breathing organism, full of former apartments that have seen you at your most vulnerable, “that could piece together the starts and finishes of your relationships, complain about your wardrobe and musical tastes, gossip about who you are after midnight.” A city that stays the same in our minds, even as it forever changes.

Related Article:

An Interview With Colson Whitehead” by Anderson Tepper