In a Course Called “Metropolis,” I Almost Thought the Setting Didn’t Matter: Confessing, Reflecting, and Trying to “Do Better”

As I was deciding on what my last few posts of the semester should focus on, I thought of the churning and cycling that we have been discussing throughout this course. In the vein of this churning, I thought it would make sense to return to something I wrote about in an earlier post and consider what I might be able to add to that thinking at this point in the semester.

I’d like to cycle back to a post entitled, “Conscriptive Naming and Self-Identification,” where I focused on the credits scene in When the Levees Broke. I still find this scene to be incredibly striking, which is why I’ve chosen to return to it. I have asked myself what the scene might be able to add to my thinking about Zone One–I know we’re focusing on The Tempest now, but I still find myself grappling with Whitehead’s novel and trying to make better sense of its place within our course concepts.

In my earlier post about Levees I noted, “So many people chose, then, to give the name of their home city when given the opportunity to choose any one thing about themselves to identify as.” The documentary’s credits scene expanded my understanding of just how deeply a person’s identity can be influenced by the place they come from. Upon returning to this scene, I am better able to understand just how intentional it was for Colson Whitehead to have set Zone One so specifically in New York City. It may seem obvious that this was a thoughtful decision on Whitehead’s part, but I admit that I did not initially find it obvious at all; I have absolutely no familiarity with any of the places in New York City that are mentioned in Zone One, which made it quite tempting for me to read them as if they were references to any old street in some fictional skel-infested world.

When our class was prompted to pay specific attention to the geographical allusions in the text as we read Zone One, this made it clear that they were of some kind of importance. When we discussed these allusions in class, though, I felt entirely disconnected from the conversations about streets I had never been on and highways I’d never heard of. I was able to locate Duane Street on my map in the Road Atlas, but a thin blue line on a piece of paper felt quite arbitrary in comparison to my classmates’ intimate stories about this street and the surrounding area.

Because the geographical allusions in the novel meant little to me personally, I admittedly felt almost justified to write them off as being of little importance, especially after a class discussion with which I could not relate. Upon returning to the end of Levees, though, I am reminded of the integral role that place can play in a person’s identity. Our class discussion made it clear to me that even though I have no familiarity with the places mentioned in Zone One, there are a whole lot of people who do–there are a whole lot of people whose identities and understandings have been shaped in some way by their relationship with New York City. What does it mean, then, that Whitehead decided to set his zombie novel in such a specific place where so many people have intimate, identity-shaping experience?

Cycling back to Levees has made it impossible for me to write off the geographical allusions in Zone One as I am reminded of just how much geography can truly matter. Surely, Whitehead’s choice to set his novel in a real city and on real streets works to ground the text in some kind of reality, even with skels running loose all over the place. Perhaps this aspect of the text encourages more serious consideration of its implications for our own contemporary world, as opposed to if the novel depicted skels running around on Mars, or something. I feel, though, that the intentionality of setting in this text is something beyond this, something perhaps more far-reaching and certainly more specific. I find myself unable to answer my own questions here, and this is likely due, at least in part, to my already-disclosed lack of knowledge about New York City.

I feel that this reflection on Zone One in light of Levees has still been useful, though, as it’s astonishing how quickly I allowed myself to forget the importance of geography when it did not relate to me personally and I didn’t have tear-jerking images on the screen to make me realize the reality of a place I’ve never been. This quick and irresponsible forgetting brings me back to something Dr. DeFrantz said during our workshop together: “We can do better.” (And the “we” here would be, obviously, me.)

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