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The Colossus of New York

Colson Whitehead

Doubleday / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-385-50794-1

Publication Date: 10-21-2003

160 Pages; $19.95

Date Reviewed: 10-28-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Non-Fiction, General Fiction


Readers know that genre classifications are more a marketing tool than a literary device. Books of a certain nature are more likely to sell when placed in the vicinity of others of a similar nature. If you like mysteries, it's easier to find them in amidst the mysteries rather than searching through the entirety of a bookstore's fiction selection. That's why in spite of the arguments that favor it, we're unlikely to see a trend in which bookstores simply offer one monolithic section devoted to FICTION. But the difference between fiction and non-fiction should, in theory, be pretty clear. And, in practice, it is pretty clear. Moreover, readers and booksellers alike appreciate the difference and the fact that the two aren't simply shelved together.

In general, perhaps one could say that non-fiction purports to inform and entertain with facts, while fiction purports to inform and entertain with inventions. The two may contain facets of one another. A non-fiction book may in fact be a pack of lies or a fictional book may be packed with facts both emotional and actual. Even in cases where the two are deliberately confused, the difference is usually clear. But it is very rare that a book rests easily between the worlds of fiction and non-fiction before being read. And upon reading, a work simply declares itself to the reader as one or the other. Or so you might think. But apparently, that needn't be the case. It's possible for a writer to speak of the facts in the language of fiction. The borderline between non-fiction and fiction has never been as porous as it in Colson Whitehead's beautifully written 'The Colossus of New York'.

You're likely to find Whitehead's series of thirteen short essays about the iconic metropolis shelved with the non-fiction. But it might just as well be shelved with the fiction or the poetry. Anywhere you found it, you'd be lucky. Whitehead's latest book is a jolt of jazz verbiage that puts the lie to David Bowie's old saw that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." No, Whitehead's not writing about music, he's writing, essentially, about architecture, but his words are the work of a verbal virtuoso who can write, dance, build and sing with nothing more than the English language. He annihilates all classification with writing so pure and powerful that you can't help but be impressed.

'The Colossus of New York' is the kind of book you might read much of while standing in the bookstore. Each of the thirteen pieces is a self-contained prose poem that's a blast to read. Whitehead manages this by infusing his writing not only with intelligence and truth, but also with wit and humor. He traipses across tenses and points of view like a falcon darting between buildings in search of prey. This is pointillist non-fiction, with individual sentences carrying the weight usually borne out by paragraphs of earnest reflection and sober examination. Though to be honest, there's not a lot of sobriety in this book, which is why it manages to seem both fictional and non-fictional. Whitehead is clearly telling the truth, with facts and emotions. But even though the effect is poetic, this isn't poetry.

There might be an argument for a published version of 'The Colossus of New York' in which every sentence would be broken off and given its own line, the poetry version. But these tiny pages and nice blocked paragraphs are certainly easier to read. Interestingly enough, there's no mention or hint of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 in these pages. Readers will thank Whitehead for that, because it doesn't seem strained as a result. What you get in Whitehead's little bit of neither-fish-nor-fowl is nothing less than the truth, nothing less than fiction, nothing less than a rocking great time reading. Whitehead takes the assertion that you can't write about music, or dance about architecture, dances on its grave and writes the obituary, laughing all the way. How you feel about the subject won't matter. How you will feel about the writing is certain: enthused, confused, enlightened and thoroughly entertained. That's entertainment. Get out the checkbook -- you're buying a book today. Fiction, non-fiction; who cares? This is Colson Whitehead talking straight to his readers. You wanted a hoot and a holler? Here it is.