Thursday, May 31, 2012

Colson Whitehead: Surviving New York

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


Photos Nina Mouritzen

Though Colson Whitehead has been living in Fort Greene, on and off, since 1993, during which time he’s written five novels, the only piece of neighborhood geography to appear in his fiction is a bulletproof-glassed 24-hour deli to which a freelancer writer repairs for late-night sustenance in John Henry Days. (That deli is now the sports bar Mullane’s.) For his “autobiographical fourth novel” Sag Harbor, he produced a hand-drawn map of the town where he summered as a child (and still does, when the peripatetic writer’s life of workshops and fellowships allows it). But that book was a memory piece; as a writer, he pointed out more than once over the course of an interview conducted during a walk through Fort Greene, “I spend most of my life in my apartment.”

So while Whitehead is a lifelong New Yorker, it’s maybe more to the point to say that he’s a lifelong consumer of American popular culture. He was a critic for the Village Voice in the 1990s, using his columns to go long about music and attendant issues; he dropped a line of dialogue from Unforgiven into his first novel, The Intuitionist, and his most recent novel, Zone One, features convincing mockups of propaganda anthems rendered in contemporary Billboard chartspeak—“Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)”—and kiddie-TV characters and their tie-in merchandise: “The plastic-covered notebooks were candy-colored and palm-size, brimming with the characters and arcana of a prosperous and long-standing children’s entertainment combine. The creation myth of the product line concerned the adventures of a clever, effeminate armadillo and his cohort of resourceful desert critters.” He’s expert at showing how people are populated, and repopulated, by their culture and language. It’s partly a matter of branding, like in Apex Hides the Hurt, in which a corporate “nomenclature consultant” is called upon to rename a town, striking just the right tone about its conflicted racial history and hopes for the future; but also there in the way that Run DMC lyrics and Star Wars action figures signify the diverging paths of two teenaged brothers.

In Zone One, which is out in paperback in July, a “sweeper” called Mark Spitz and his paramilitary compatriots work their way through Manhattan south of Canal Street, flashing back to the early days of the zombie apocalypse which has left the island a new kind of contested space. (The notion of “survival in New York,” once a major psychological block for Whitehead’s commuter protagonist, becomes amusingly literal.) The book, Whitehead says, is his tribute to his own childhood frame of reference: “I was a bit of a shut-in as a kid, and my only real only access to the real world was through movies and TV and comic books, horror and sci-fi novels,” including not just George Romero but films laying a genre overlay atop New York City, like The Warriors and Escape from New York, and the similar but L.A.-set Omega Man (Whitehead exactingly qualifies a more recent, NYC-shot version of the same Richard Matheson source book as “the third adaptation of I Am Legend”).

Informed by nostalgia, Zone One is also, like Sag Harbor, “about nostalgia,” Whitehead says, and “trying to go back to your safe places,” both psychically and, in this novel at least, otherwise. As Whitehead revisits his childhood cultural familiars, block-by-block, the city’s grid also structures the book, and its main character’s head, triggering “fragments,” per Whitehead, “of his former life, places that he used to frequent, people that he used to be and what he used to love,” in the way that Whitehead, walking around the neighborhood where he’s lived for the better part of his adult life, has his “private monuments… The places where I wrote are very important, they're beacons of hope around the city—I've lived in five or six different neighborhoods, five different apartments in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and I can't walk by them without saying, ‘Oh, that's where I wrote half of The Intutionist, that's where I wrote John Henry Days.’"

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?”

Colson Whitehead
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Colson Whitehead

By Nina Mouritzen

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