Thursday, May 31, 2012

Colson Whitehead: Surviving New York

Posted By on Thu, May 31, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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In one scene, Mark Spitz fugues out in a franchise of the same nameless but distinctly Applebees-like chain restaurant where his parents used to take him, recalling All-You-Can-Eat Shrimp Tuesdays and wall-mounted mass-produced memorabilia and table after table singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend whose birthday it most likely is not. It’s wry—Whitehead cops to “a certain level of satire, sometimes more subverted, sometimes more overt,” as inherent to the way he sees, think and about and talks about the world—but the affection is evident, and genuine: “The corporate structures in the book, they’re fake but they’re also real repositories of meaning… people’s Red Lobsters, people’s Applebees, and people’s IHOPs are important places.”

Also evident, also genuine, is Whitehead’s less than handwringing attitude towards gentrification, which he sees as “a natural process of the way the city moves. Populations change different neighborhoods over generations. Fort Greene's up, Fort Greene’s down.” (Whitehead, whose reluctantly offered nut-graf take on the changes in his neighborhood is “Fewer crack houses and more strollers; that’s probably a general condition across the city,” has seen both up and down. One of his private monuments is Habana Outpost, which, before it was an eco-eatery, was a real-estate office and video store and duplex where he was living while writing John Henry Days.)

New York City, in Zone One, is written and rewritten, populated and repopulated, by its inhabitants. Mark Spitz is here to clear out the “stragglers,” infected undead who, rather than pursue a diet of brains, linger over their own private monuments, lingering symbols of earlier layers of city life: “The pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuring instrument, frozen, sans customers, the left shoes of his bountiful stock on display along the walls of the shop on miniature plastic ledges. The vitamin-store clerk stalled out among the aisles, depleted among the plenty, the tiny bottles containing gel-capped ancient remedies and placebos.” With the stragglers out, the new American government, based out of Buffalo and seemingly run as a corporation, can reclaim prime city locations. “In trying to realize what my apocalypse would look like,” Whitehead says, “it seems to me that the bad stuff is what comes back first. The marketers will inherit the earth,” which makes jokes about NYC real estate hardly a stretch.

But the stragglers are, for Whitehead, a problem of genre more than gentrification: “When you approach a genre you see what you keep and see what you want to throw out. You definitely want to keep slow zombies, and not have fast zombies; and then, what kind of wrinkle can I put on them to make them mine. Stragglers are basically ghosts, people tied to their places, and they become in-between figures… They’re stuck in their pasts as much as the survivors are trying to come back to who they were and the ways they used to be.” So if the New Yorkers of Zone One trace familiar steps in the dance of time and the city, that’s down to Whitehead’s mode of attunement, which is practical above all. “I am talking,” he allows, “about what remains, what’s wiped out by these different layers of change. How time is a certain kind of disaster in the way that the apocalypse is a disaster. How do buildings, people survive these cataclysmic changes?”


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Colson Whitehead
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Colson Whitehead

By Nina Mouritzen

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