Neither Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino nor The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead is a novel in the traditional sense, with protagonists and antagonists or even much of a narrative. The two works read much more like essays of description, snippets of life in different cities experienced by all-knowing narrators. characterizations are intrinsically within these cities, and not placed upon them by the narrator’s perspective. Without human characters, both novels fill the empty space with cities as protagonists. To create these characters, Calvino and Whitehead look at the city through a narrator’s eyes, drawing attention to the mysteriousness of each city. In addition to narrator perspectives, the authors use word choice and specific stylistic choices to gender their personification of their respective cities. The male/female persona dichotomy of the respective cities is then strengthened by the need for dominance of both Kublai Khan over his empire and New York over its inhabitants. In short, because the two books do not have distinguishable or individualized human characters, Calvino and Whitehead make characters out of cities. Both authors personify and gender their cities through specific literary style, their narrators’ perception of cities, and a domination dynamic between cities and people. Lack of Human Characters
In Invisible Cities and The Colossus of New York, human characters are collectivized in a way that removes them of individuality. Kublai Khan and Marco Polo serve as narrators in Calvino’s novel, taking a small role in the book as whole. When Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan stories of the cities, the description is usually of a whole, about the collective theme of a city, leaving out individualization of any kind. Whitehead creates the same kind of collective by describing people in groups without giving characters individual traits. He describes passing people on the sidewalk, saying, “Judging by the grim procession of faces, some of these folks are halfway to sheetrock. Steel-boned, mortar-blooded. Granite without end” (114). Even when people are given snippets of character or individualization, Whitehead takes us quickly to a different person’s consciousness before we can distinguish anything unique about a specific city dweller. The lack of individualized human characters within both novels constructs a space for cities to become protagonists. Writing Style
In order to give their cities character through gendering, Whitehead and Calvino each write in a unique style. The Colossus of New York’s sentences describe New York haltingly and abruptly, as seen in the opening chapter ‘City Limits’: “What follows is my city... It contains your neighborhoods. Or doesn’t. We overlap. Or don’t. Maybe you’ve walked these avenues, maybe it’s all Jersey to you. I’m not sure what to say. Except that probably we’re neighbors. That we walk past each other every day, and never knew it until now” (10-11). The style reads as abrupt, direct and slightly abrasive: all traits traditionally associated with a masculine attitude. As a reader, this particular writing stylization gives simple description a certain character that can be associated with masculinity. In direct contrast, the style of Invisible Cities is lyrical, flowing, and at times surreal. Even in descriptions of New York within Invisible Cities, pg 139, the city seems more poetic: “New York, crammed with towers of glass and steel on an oblong island between two rivers, with streets like deep canals, all of them straight, except Broadway” (139). The contrasting descriptions of the same city highlights the effect style can have on a reader’s perception of that city. Whitehead’s forceful style is brought more into focus when contrasted with Calvino’s lilting, otherworldly phrasing in description of the same city. Word choice is also a critical stylistic difference between the two pieces. In Invisible Cities, all of Marco Polo’s cities...
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