Today’s installment in our discussion of Teju Cole’s novel comes from guest blogger Martha Nadell, who teaches at Brooklyn College and is at work on a literary history of Brooklyn. The author of a book on image and text in early twentieth-century African American culture, she also wrote the chapter “Writing Brooklyn” in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York.
Less than two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, genre-bending novelist and Brooklyn resident Jonathan Lethem published “9 Failures of the Imagination” in The New York Times Magazine. Lethem recalled the hours and days after September 11, describing how he moved among the homes of his friends and visited and revisited the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which offered him a close vista on the “raw, unmediated plume, now black, now white, now gray, now black again.” Lethem found himself wondering, just days later, if he were willing to write the “unimaginable fact” of the fall of the Twin Towers: “Can I bear to narrate this into normality, 40 hours after they crumbled and fell? To craft a story: and then, and then, and then? Will the words I’m spilling here seem fatuous or hysterical or naïve by the time they’re read?” Lethem was, in all probability, one of the first writers to speculate about the possibility and nature of literary responses to 9/11, what many have described as a world-altering event.
Despite Norman Mailer’s admonishment to Jay McInerney – to wait ten years “to make sense of it” – Lethem and a host of other writers addressed, some directly and others even more obliquely, the events and aftermath of 9/11. The first decade following the event saw the publication of a spate of novels that scholars have used as evidence of post-9/11 genre: Art Speigelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (2005), Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006), Don Delillo’s Falling Man (2007), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005), John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland (2008), Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil (2010), among others.
Scholars, of course, had to get in on the act and have argued about the characteristics of post-9/11 literature (if they believe it exists at all), its ethical and political responsibilities, its formal innovations, or lack thereof. They have called attention to repeated tropes and common themes: depictions of falling or obvious references to the falling man depicted in Richard Drew’s harrowing photographs; the trauma of familial, domestic, and national loss; connections with other national and international traumas. Richard Gray argues that American literature post 9/11 has failed to address adequately the meaning of September 11, because it couches the unfamiliar and traumatic in familiar personal stories and literary forms. Michael Rothberg follows Gray, arguing that American writers are unable to deal with the complexity of global political discourse. Both insist that American literature has not yet been able to deal with what Catherine Morley calls “the figure of the Other” — a problem, given (as Gray writes) that the US has been shaped as much by its multiculturalism and immigration as by 9/11 itself.
Gray and Rothberg have in mind a particular idea of what literature should do – to engage in political and historical discourse on a global scale, to imagine not just the trauma on the domestic level, among families and communities split apart, but to present accounts of the US and its power in the context of world affairs. Literature, in their view, should be a means to address politics and power and should move beyond the discourse of trauma that emerged in many of the novels published in the years immediately following September 11. For Gray, O’Neill’s Netherland is a candidate for the successful 9/11 novel. In its intertwining of the stories of two immigrants – a Dutch banker and a Trinidadian entrepreneur cum gangster – and their experience of cricket in New York, Netherland offers the possibility of a cosmopolitan vision of America. Rothberg, however, doesn’t want to remain on US soil. He worries that novels focused on immigrants within the US run the risk of maintaining national boundaries. He calls for a post-9/11 literature that moves abroad and interrogates what the meaning of the US not only for its citizens but also for others outside of its national borders.
What would these scholars make of Teju Cole’s Open City?
Early in Open City, Julius finds himself in an alley – “not one’s preferred route to any destination … all brick walls and shut-up doors.” It seems to deny entry, movement, the legibility that De Certeau’s view from 110th floor of the World Trade Center offers. But then the alley gives way to a view of “a great black building,” the distant tower swathed in black netting, and then to a vast, empty space that was “the ruins of the World Trade Center.” Julius begins to reflect on the site — “a metonym of its disaster” – but then finds himself in one of the conversations that punctuate his walking in New York and abroad. When he returns to his walk, he reflects on the other city walkers he sees, the memorial to fallen police officers, the individuals who pedal on their stationary bikes as they look out from a gym onto the 9/11 construction site. In his view of the cityscape and its visitors and inhabitants, he reflects on the historical persistence of atrocity and on the creative destruction that marked the construction of the World Trade Center, thereby resisting any possible sense of historical or national exceptionalism.
But this is just a brief moment in Cole’s novel, which wanders through space, time, and voice. Julius does not simply encounter or engage with others: Faroq, Professor Saito, Dr. Maillotte, etc. The novel inhabits the multiple voices and narratives of Julius as well as these individuals. It allows them to comment on New York, the US, and the world both in the post 9/11 era and before, in ways that are both political and deeply personal. The novel, then, fulfills Rothberg’s call for “a centrifugal mapping that charts the outward movement of American power.” And yet it does more than that. In its migrations through history and memory, it offers multiple “cognitive maps” that de-center the politics and power of the contemporary US. Consider this passage, which reflects on the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan:
The squabble about the construction of the monument did not interest me. There was certainly no chance that six acres of prime real estate in lower Manhattan would be razed and rededicated as holy ground. What I was steeped in, on that warm morning, was the echo across centuries, of slavery in New York. At the Negro Burial Ground, as it was then known, and others like it on the eastern seaboard, excavated bodies bore traces of suffering: blunt trauma, grievous bodily harm. … How difficult it was, from the point of view of the twenty-first century, to fully believe that these people, with the difficult lives they were forced to live, were truly people, complex in all their dimensions as we are, fond of pleasures, shy of suffering, attached to their families. (221)
Cole’s novel faces the anxiety of the post 9/11 era, often emerging in Julius’s experiences of being read, most often racially, as he walks the city. But, as Julius reads the city, its inhabitants, and its history, the novel does something else; it engages with difference on a fundamental level. While it reckons with the complexities of power, nations, and atrocity, as Gray and Rothberg would have it, Open City also insists on interrogating individuals, their histories and memories, their rich or vexed emotions, always in their idiosyncratic contexts.
In an interview, Cole commented :
This is a book set five years after 9/11. There’s a public response to 9/11 that’s the most well-known, and for me the most agitating being that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. That was a response, a significant part of it. There was an invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion of Iraq, and enhanced security in all parts of public life. Those were the three main responses. But there was something else going on, especially for those of us who were in New York before, during, and after the attacks on the Twin Towers.
It’s the “something else going on” that makes Cole’s novel a post-9/11 novel of a different and new sort.