Many people leave home for New York to become writers; F Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes were born in the Midwest, Truman Capote in Louisiana. Out-of-towner EB White based Here Is New York, on two days he spent in a New York City hotel. But Colson Whitehead didn't have to go anywhere. Whitehead was born in Manhattan in 1969. After attending Harvard, he returned to live in Brooklyn. He has won a MacArthur Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and is the author of three books. Below, read about the two that focus on his home town.
The Colossus Of New York: A City In Thirteen Parts
"Never listen to what people tell you about New York," Colson Whitehead warns at the beginning of his book Colossus of New York, "because if you didn't witness it, it is not a part of your New York and might as well be Jersey."
In a form that has been compared to the EB White classic Here Is New York, Colossus of New York sets out to capture the city's essence in a short, non-narrative essay. But unlike White's book, which takes care to ground its New York in the city's history, Whitehead's city is one without a past.
The 13-chapter, 158-page book is practically factless, (though the reader does learn that his tax dollars have been spent to calculate that the average time spent sitting on a park bench is 17 minutes). Instead, Whitehead's staccato sentences focus on the mood of the city's inhabitants as they pass quickly through a place that won't stop changing long enough for them to get a hold on it. Each chapter deals with a different part of the city � Coney Island, The Rain, Rush Hour.
Collectively, his nameless city-goers are a nervous bunch; sexually repressed, insecure, fearful of being discovered as frauds. They are constantly computing the odds of losing an eye to an umbrella, or the chances of finding a cab at a particular corner, or inventing equations to represent street corners.And although Whitehead is a native New Yorker, many were born elsewhere. Two entire chapters of Colossus � Port Authority and JFK � are dedicated to people moving into the city or leaving to go back "home."
To read a review of Colossus of New York in The Nation, click here
Without mentioning the city's name, Colson Whitehead's novel the Intuitionist describes New York through some of its finer attributes � corrupt unions, inefficient bureaucracy, racial tension, and elevator crashes.
Lila Mae Watson, the novel's main character, is the city's first black elevator inspector. She has moved to the city to pursue a dream farther than she could have anywhere else: "I moved up here because here is where the elevators are," she says. "Downtown they have high-rises that are a hundred stories tall. And elevators that match them every step of the way.
But by chasing her dream, Watson finds herself joining a corrupt union in a city filled with racial tension. While the book playfully explores the idea of a powerful elevator inspectors union, it also focuses more seriously on questions of race and gender.
When an elevator that she has inspected crashes, the idealistic Watson is pulled into a violent sectarian battle within her union between the Empiricists, who employ conventional techniques to inspect elevators, and the Intuitionists, elevator mystics who �feel' what is wrong with an elevator. While journalists are tortured and elevators sabotaged in the battle around her, Watson goes underground, picking through entrenched ideologies of race and elevators.
To read Salon's interview with Whitehead about the Intuitionist, click here.