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"The city knows you": spatial consciousness in Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York (2003).

Colson Whitehead's non-fictional reflections on urban scenography in The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts (2003. N Y: Anchor Books, 2004) is an attempt to understand space as personal and as a site of narrative performance, where the "naked city" (6) responds to the inroads made by "eight million" New Yorkers on its consciousness. The technique of personification, which is extensively used by the author, can be striated using Mark Turner's notion of 'conceptual blending' (The Literary Mind. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), which allows the reader to cognitively map the terrain where people read, write and live their own versions of the city.

The book, constitutive of thirteen essays, illustrates how locales such as Central Park, Broadway, Times Square and moments such as Morning possess the ability to regulate the mental state of the city dweller. The text exemplifies Mark Turner's assertion that "personification is perhaps the most thoroughly analyzed consequence of blended space" (76), resulting from our ability to recruit emergent mental spaces that are a part of the larger conceptual domains of perception, experience and representation. This is illustrated through the reveries of an anonymous female pedestrian in the essay on 'Brooklyn Bridge,' from The Colossus of New York, where "her whole history hordes behind her with its unfashionable area code and immigrant spice[s]" (99), as she traverses the span of the bridge. Arrested movement suggested by the drifting island on which the bridge stands echoes the pedestrian's attempt to deal with expectation and responsibility: "Various anchors hold the island in place so it won't drift away. You'd try to flee too, if everyone heaped their dreams upon you" (99). This state of suspension mirrors the transient nature of the pedestrian's performance as she adds her part to the everyday urban flows channeled by the bridge.

The blended space stages the motif of 'talking cities' where "the city knows you" (8), it sees, and it "remembers, too" (9). The motif is extended when the blend contextualizes the dialogic interplay of urban artifact with pedestrian as the "bridge takes a while to get to the heart of its argument and for a while she is seduced by honey talk" (99), anticipating a vision of the cityscape where she emerges into its consciousness. The "exemplary rhetoric" provided by the bridge augments the space of narration where "this rather spectacular leap of faith" (100), from artifact to locale, is realized in the duration of the spatio-temporal 'span'. Here the metaphor, "leap of faith," finds resonance in the capacity of the pedestrian to inhabit "outlaw territory, between places" (102), as she bridges the zone of exile in her movement across the elevated span.

Movement and interrupted motion, in the form of a pause, performed by people walking on the bridge are key features in facilitating different spatial perspectives, affording the reader insights into their mental states. A pause taken while walking is enough to cause awe and fear of the skyline as it serves to remind the pedestrian of her insignificance: "Let's pause for a sec to be cowed by this magnificent skyline ... Joggers speed past walkers, seeing nothing but their inner skylines, long indifferent to the miracles around them" (101). Whitehead blends movement in the trope of 'the journey' with a rationale for life itself as the narrative voice encourages the pedestrian to "keep moving forward. Please move it along. By making this journey making the case for life or weakness of conviction" (102). The implication of successive change in the pedestrian's location metaphorically suggests a city in transition where "you start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it" (3). Interestingly, E. B. White's Here is New York (1949, New York: The Little Bookroom, 1999), which is the source text for Whitehead's collection, does not incorporate shifts in perspective within the structure of the cityscape, but resorts to a static point of view by a narrator sitting in a New York hotel room reporting a city that he experiences as artifactual rather than personal.

Brooklyn Bridge in its role as protagonist looks forward to that moment "when the number of cars going into the island matches the number of cars going out of the island" (104). The bridge, in that moment of balance, rewards the anonymous pedestrian with the same prospect whereby "a scale inside her seeks equilibrium as she walks [the] larger scale" (104). The bridge not only makes the pedestrian conscious of her hopes, but also makes her aware of her own shortcomings. The monstrous length of the island tells her "You have not thought this whole thing through. But she's never been one to take a hint. Hardheaded like streets and bridges" (105), the blend conflates the material characteristics of the bridge with the emotional state of the pedestrian; "She and the bridge have so much on them, possess a weight that will not be blown away" (107).

Explaining the nature of a blend, Turner opines: "Crucially, blended spaces can develop emergent structure of their own and can project structure back to their input spaces" (60). The projection of the blend back to the pedestrian equips her with a belief in the possibility for change, but as she steps back on solid ground we are told that "The key to the city fell out of her pocket somewhere along the way and she's level again. Bereft again" (108). Significantly, Colson Whitehead projects this blend to the reader by juxtaposing the pedestrian's journey on the bridge with the reader's journey through the narrative: "What did you hope to achieve by this little adventure. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. Presentiment of doom. Closer you get to the other side, the slower you walk. On the other side there is no more dreaming. Just solid ground" (107-108). But the author does not let go the perspective acquired on the bridge and by blending his address both to the pedestrian and to the reader in the pronoun "you" he suggests that there is time enough to breach the limits of the span, "put it off for as long as possible" (108), and perhaps the bridge will continue and so will the pedestrian.

Jaya Shrivastava and Joe Varghese, Yeldho. Indian Institute of Technology, Indore.
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Title Annotation:The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts
Author:Shrivastava, Jaya; Varghese, Joe
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 1, 2013
Words:1045
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