"The City Knows You": Spatial Consciousness in Colson Whitehead's the Colossus of New York (2003)

By Shrivastava, Jaya; Varghese, Joe | Notes on Contemporary Literature, November 2013 | Go to article overview

"The City Knows You": Spatial Consciousness in Colson Whitehead's the Colossus of New York (2003)


Shrivastava, Jaya, Varghese, Joe, Notes on Contemporary Literature


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 . …

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