Street Lights, Big Dreams

This genre may not look familiar to you on this blog. That’s because I never read books of essays or short stories. I need a plot, people. I need characters playing out those plots — even if it’s non-fiction, and these are actual people. So no, I have not read a book of essays since starting Big Little Literature nearly three years ago, and I wasn’t expecting to read one — not until Colson Whitehead.

He has easily become my favorite writer the past few years. Between The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, his writing has moved me, and his creativity has inspired me. I’m determined to read all of his books, all of which I know will become instant favorites.

Now mix my favorite writer with my city, and it’s not surprising that I read a book of essays. OK, so I no longer live in a New York City zip code, and I don’t pay those astronomical (but beneficial) city taxes. I’m right across the river though. NYC is where I work when a pandemic hasn’t taken over. It’s the city I stare at every day on walks. It’s the city that changed my life for the better. So yes, it is my city still.

I’ve had intense nostalgia since this pandemic started, and not going into the city every day has broken my heart. My favorite writer and my favorite city would surely cure my blues.

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“You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” — The Colossus of New York

I can’t really summarize The Colossus of New York, considering it contains essays rather than a plot. That structure in itself is very poetic — as in, can you really summarize New York? No. The answer is no.

This book is divided into 13 parts to encompass New York’s varied satisfactions and frustrations and treasured and tortured points of reference — from Coney Island to Downtown and everything in between and beyond. One of the best parts of this book is how Whitehead utilizes so many literary techniques in such a short amount of time. The personification, in particular, provides a punch, to really make this place live up to its vitality.

Take this example from the chapter titled “Mornings”:

“She is betrayed. Not once but repeatedly. This morning everything conspires against. Let down by a broken alarm clock rebuked by work untouched last night, and now this snow. A well-planned assault against equilibrium that will end at midnight, when the spell is broken. Not a single clock offers an encouraging word, not even the one in the microwave, famous for its accelerations. We have been well rehearsed in our responses to first snows and first frosts. We take our places.” — The Colossus of New York

If you’ve ever listened to an interview with Whitehead, you know he has a sense of humor, which he employs in this book — a lighter approach than his other works I’ve read. His frequent personification demonstrates his wit. You see it too in his analogies, various voices, and visuals, of which there are many to quote.

Whether he’s talking about the body parts that slip out of our bathing suits or the tortuous clothes we wear Monday through Friday (or hopefully just until Thursday), his witty remarks will leave you with a smirk as if you’re in on the joke. You too have experienced these moments. *wink wink* You see what he did there.

The beginning of this paragraph especially spoke to me, given my love of heels at work.

“The sound of her heels chipping away at office floors makes lesser mortals tremble, but these sneakers downright kiss her feet on the commute. One more day until Casual Friday, goody goody gumdrops. In suspenders, in wingtips, as if dressing up in the language of flight might make them lose the ground and become something better. The wind tunnel round this building finally alerts him that his fly has been open for hours. Bit of a nip in the air tonight.” — The Colossus of New York

And just because there are so many quotable moments in this book, here’s one more witty remark about the awkwardness that can endure at a social function:

“Mark my words: when they finally teach coffee-table books to walk and talk, the market will fall out of the trophy wife and boy toy business.” — The Colossus of New York

Whitehead’s use of analogy and personification won’t surprise you if you’ve read his other works. These devices show themselves in both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. I remarked about Whitehead’s brilliant writing techniques in my review of the latter. He writes for a smart audience that also has empathy, an imagination, and a sense of humor.

This book’s pace and perspectives set it apart from his two novels I’ve read. The writing in The Colossus of New York moves quickly from person to person, from perspective to perspective, and opinion to opinion. The pace will challenge you, but that’s not a negative; it just represents the fabric of this city. With its 8.3 million people, it would be impossible to narrow the New York experience to a singularity. (Seriously, this whole book is filled with poetic symbolism from the content to the structure.)

Whitehead knows that attempt would fail, and that plurality makes New York so grand. Every person experiences this city differently every single day. But Whitehead, while providing themes that we can all relate to (terrible commutes, dreaded rainy days, the freedom the Brooklyn Bridge represents), attempts and succeeds at giving us a taste of all that diversity and variety.

“Sometimes the author is speaking, and sometimes it is someone overheard in a crowd or the sound of someone else’s interior monologue or some anonymous emanation from the domain of received ideas,” wrote Luc Sante for the New York Times in 2003. “The texture is like the flick of a radio dial across the band, if all the stations had achieved a mysterious unity of subject.”

In that variety, Whitehead never sugarcoats or hides the ugly sides of this place we love so much. He uses these numerous perspectives to describe New York City exactly how it is: the good, the bad, and definitely the ugly.

That’s because New York’s flaws and imperfections make it what it is. New York is frustrating, yet you can still somehow find peace and quiet moments that I promise do exist. It’s dirty, though clean if you consider the number of people who invade it every day. It’s also beautiful, powerful, rich, and poor. New York perpetuates struggle, which makes success that much sweeter. It’s transformative and freeing, fast and rarely slow. There’s hunger and yearning here, and these doe-eyed individuals will eventually become hardened. You can be both lonely and social here. You can be whoever you want whenever you want in New York, and that’s why it represents every dichotomy of life.

Thankfully for readers, Whitehead nails all of these dichotomies in yet another literary feat, proving once again why he’s the greatest writer of this day and age.

“This city is reward for all it will enable you to achieve and punishment for all the crimes it will force you to commit.” — The Colossus of New York

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