Colson Whitehead: Brilliant Writer

I have been thinking about the language Colson Whitehead uses in Zone One ever since I began reading it. It’s complex. Overly-descriptive. Lyrical. Eloquent. Frustrating. Muddy. Inflated. But I love it.

I didn’t think it would be worth writing a blog post about, but Wednesday’s class made me change my mind. By the end of class time, there were about forty plus previously unfamiliar words written on the board. And I’m sure we could have come up with plenty of more. Zone One is a complex novel through and through.

What makes me love Whitehead so much is that I love writers who use complicated, graphic language to convey a message. First things first: I am an English major. I guess that means I inherently love fresh and complicated vocabulary. Some of my absolute favorite writers are Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, and Edgar Allan Poe: all writers that fill hundreds of pages with perplexing, overly-descriptive sentences that force me to sit down for hours and analyze and turn my insides out until I figure out what they are trying to say. I will admit, it gets aggravating/boring at times. But more than being a reader, I am also an avid writer. Outside of the English Literature disciple, I am a musician. I write songs, play some instruments, and sing. My songs are (you guessed it) filled with some of the same complex, but flowy language I love, and I’m very attracted to artists that lyrically express themselves differently, usually using phrases that could be said in a much simpler way.

Anyway, the debate over language is a passionate one, and I know many are not so in love with Whitehead’s word choice or any author that bombards us with unconventional vocabulary. Though I don’t know Whiteheads’s intentions, I think his word choice is brilliant.  If we take the time to wrap our heads around what Whitehead is saying, the language adds so much depth and feeling to the story.

It took me a while to get through the very beginning of the novel… I even skimmed much of it. But the language is so important. “… The Day-Glo threats and pidgin manifestos, a.k.a.’s of impotent revolutionaries. Blinds and curtains were open, half open, shut…” …”Pieces of citizen were on display in the windows, arranged by a curator with a taste for the non-sequitur: the splayed pinstriped legs of an urban golfer putting into a colander, half a lady’s torso, wrapped in a turquoise blazer, as glimpsed through a trapezoid…” “…He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows. Inevitability was mayor, term after term.” (Page 6) I tried to keep this as short as possible, but Whitehead’s description runs on for two full pages. I guess it seems a bit unnecessary. What was said in two pages could have been said in a paragraph. But Whitehead’s fluffed descriptions gives us a true sense of New York City. I am originally from Long Island and spend much time in the city, and these descriptions literally made me feel like I was walking those streets, staring up at the buildings. It puts us in that very moment with the character. Though it’s a bit of a drag to get through, I don’t thing the impact would have been the same with a shorter, brief paragraph.

“He leaped to the hood of the late-model neo-station wagon and started firing, first taking out the grandmotherly type in the tracksuit and then the teenage wearing grimed soccer-team colors…” “…He vaulted onto the black sedan beside him and demolished the craniums of two more skels, who dropped and were stepped on by the replacements behind them.” (Page 162) “Don’t shoot, dummy.” “She reached the skels and decapitated them with two swift chops as they slowly raised their arms. Their bodies swayed, dark liquid burbling from tubes in their necks, then collapsed into a clump of foxtail at the same time.” (Page 212) Though I only quoted a small portion of Whitehead’s words, his descriptions and language really empower each scene. The use of such specific vocabulary and description keep us petrified and also adds to the emotional depth of the situation. It’s a lot, but it is not too overly done. It is language that has the power to keep people up at night.

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