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Two years ago, we ran a virtual book club devoted to reading Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City. This fall, Lethem published a new novel, Dissident Gardens, which takes us not to Brooklyn but to Queens, inspired by in part by the apartment that his grandmother had in the borough while he was growing up. The novel depicts the lives of three generations in a family whose life is devoted to the pursuit of Communism in America.
I’ve written a review of the novel for Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, The National, which you can find here.
And because, for length reasons, a few ideas ended up on the cutting room floor, I’ve written a post over at patell dot org expanding my account of the novel’s portrayal of the workings of ideology.
Fans of Chronic City will find a sly nod to that novel in Dissident Gardens in the form of a disparaging review of a folk album by one of the new novel’s protagonists.
In anticipation of the NYUAD Theater Program and Theater Mitu’s presentation of MD (Or, The Whale) later this week, the Program in Literature and Creative Writing is sponsoring a marathon reading of novel, which the play takes as its inspiration.
The reading should take around 24 hours total, spread out over 3 1/2 days. On Monday, 30 September, reading will run from 10am-5pm; Tuesday, 1 October, from 10am-6pm; Wednesday, 2 October, from 10am-5pm; and Thursday, 3 October, from 11am-1:30pm (UAE times; for NYC, subtract eight hours).
We’ll stream as much as possible here. Keep checking back to see if we’re on!
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.
Today’s installment in our book club discussion comes from long-time friend-of-the-blog Sunny Stalter, an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University. Her research examines technology in American literature and culture. Her book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, will be published by the University of Massachusetts this fall. Follow her on Twitter: @slstalter.
*Spoiler alert*: those who have not read Open City should be warned that I discuss its one major plot twist throughout this post.
Cultural historians of the city like to talk about the split between different spatial perspectives taken by recorders of urban life: David L. Pike distinguishes the “view from above” and the “view from below”; John Kasson sees writers and artists in nineteenth-century New York either taking a “bird’s-eye view” or a “mole’s eye view.” (Nineteenth-century New Yorkers thought about this division in another way, looking at New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.) But whatever you call it, this difference in perspective marks a difference in attitude: you’re either removed from the space you’re observing and thus detached, or you’re in the thick of things, up close and, often, implicated in what you’re observing. For the view from above, think about Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Pictorialist photograph The Octopus, with its godlike perspective of Madison Square Park. My favorite view from below can be seen in Walker Evans’s magisterial book of portraits, Many Are Called, where subway riders are framed singly or in pairs, shot by a man who sat across with them with a camera hidden in his coat. But the view from below need not be literally underground: the street-level observations of the flâneur and the urban sketch artist both qualify. Open City interests me because it moves so fluidly between the personal and the panoramic.
This idea of the view from above as detached, godlike, and (faux-)authoritative has helped me understand the one issue that most critics have found problematic in this otherwise much-lauded book: Moji’s revelation that when she and Julius were teenagers at a party, he raped her. Notably, the narrative does not use that word to describe what happened. Russian Army soldiers raped women during World War II including, presumably, Julius’s maternal grandmother. His own actions are described as “sexual abuse” and “forc[ing] himself” on Moji. She has told him everything that she remembers about this event and its aftermath while both of them watch the sun rise on the Hudson. After she has finished, she continues to stare in silence. Their scene does not read as a traumatic revelation from the outside, however: “Anyone who has come out onto the porch at that moment could not have imagined that we were doing anything other than enjoying the play of light on the river.” What looks like an abstract, aestheticizing gaze is instead a mute attempt to process trauma.
Or at least it is on Moji’s part. Julius is thinking high-flown thoughts worthy of his view, thoughts that only obliquely acknowledge the pain in front of him. We hear about a story he’d read in Albert Camus’s journals where Friedrich Nietzsche imitated the actions of ancient Roman, who thrust one hand into a fire to display his fearlessness. In Camus’s version, Nietzsche grabs a coal and burns himself proving the point to his friends, scarring his hand permanently. This is not the real story, though, as Julius later finds out: young Friedrich used matches, and an older student quickly knocked them off his hand. Julius understands the world through the lens of high culture, and in this moment we can see him thinking about the fallibility of memory and the way some painful things leave a permanent trace and others don’t. What would have been elegant contemplation elsewhere in the book, however, seems particularly cold here.
Reviewers don’t like this plot point: at least two call it a misstep, and one ignores it altogether. They do so, I think, because they’ve enjoyed Julius’s company, his knowledgeable voice, even his occasionally wry detachment. But it’s a useful reminder of some of the major critiques that have been visited upon the flâneur figure in the past, especially his privilege to roam where women could not and to gaze at his surroundings in ways that women could not.
The last chapter finds Julius looking out over the Bowery from the office where he’s gone into private practice with a fellow psychiatrist. He thinks about bird migrations, which he watched from his apartment window in the novel’s first chapter. In the pages that follow, we see lots of scenes that ironically reverse the sense of authority and detachment usually ascribed to the view from above. The most literal comes when Julius attends a Mahler concert. Exiting from his fourth-floor balcony seat, he accidentally leaves Carnegie Hall through a fire door and finds himself outside on the scaffolding of the building as rain beats down. Here, the view from above is a vertiginous one; it even transforms into a view from below when he notices how many stars are visible above him.
After the concert, he takes the subway downtown to 23rd street, walks to Chelsea Piers, and joins a cruise that’s going to the Statue of Liberty. The tour guide tells them, or the narrator tells us, “The crown of the statue has remained close since late 2001, and even those visitors who come close to it are confined to looking upward at the statue; no one is permitted to climb up the 354 narrow steps and look out into the bay from the windows in the crown.” The vantage point that gives you that kind of view is too great a security risk. Michel de Certeau’s wonderful essay “Walking in the City” discusses that privileged view that one experienced from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, a view that “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.” For all of the clarifying that Julius does in his lovely, meditative voice, some things about the city remain opaque and unfixed.
As Bryan pointed out in last Monday’s post, Teju Cole’s novel Open City is about wandering: Cole’s Nigerian-American narrator, Julius, is a flâneur, both an observer and a participant in the life of the city, primarily New York, but also — for a set of chapters that rounds out the first half of the novel — Brussels.
The book, however, is much about conversation as it is about strolling the streets of the city, because Julius is constantly engaging in conversations with those that he meets. Conversation is the primary way in which Julius participates in the life of the city, and the conversations that he has are generally more than simple chat-chit. Instead, they are the kind of conversation that our colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah describes as a crucial component of any true cosmopolitanism.
Appiah thinks about conversation in a double way: first, “in its older meaning, of living together, association”; second, in its modern sense of talking with one another (see his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers). We must learn to talk with another in order to learn how to live with one another. So these must be serious conversations in which we listen carefully to what other people have to say with the willingness to change our minds about something very important to us if we found that our partner in conversation has a better idea or way of thinking than we do. We are, after all, fallible beings, so we need constantly to be on the lookout for ways either to correct errors in our modes of thinking of behavior or simply to improve them.
That embrace of cosmopolitan conversation strikes me as one of the primary characteristics of Cole’s novel. Julius frequently reproduces conversations that turn out to provide the opportunity for both him and us to hear other people’s points of view and stories at length. Sometimes (as in the case of the conversation with the bootblack that Bryan discussed) Julius doesn’t even comment on what he’s heard, letting us judge things for ourselves. Usually, however, the conversation will prove to have some kind of resonance later on.
Cosmopolitanism is about being willing to cross boundaries and to embrace difference — not to close or eradicate the gaps between peoples but to bridge them. I like the Brussels section of the novel precisely because Cole suddenly crosses the conceptual boundaries that he seemed to have set up for the novel, which up until this point has been about exploring New York and exploring the self — more precisely, exploring New York as a way of exploring the self. Occurring about a third of the way into the novel, the Brussels interlude gives Julius a change to pursue his flâneurie in a different city, which is thereby set up as a foil for New York. (Or, perhaps, the interlude serves the same dramatic function that plays-within-the-play serve in Shakespeare.)
Julius decides to spend all his vacation time on a trip to Brussels in part because he has a vague hope of finding his oma, his maternal grandmother, a German woman who has moved to Brussels, whom Julius has met only once, when he was a boy in Nigeria. He doesn’t find her. What he does find are two interlocutors. The first is an “elderly lady” on the plane over who has suffered a recent loss and turns out to be a retired gastrointestinal surgeon; Julius arranges to meet her again in Brussels shortly before he returns to the U.S.
The second is Farouq, an immigrant from Morocco who works at the internet cafe that Julius visits and turns out to be an aspiring professional translator. Farouq had once sought to become a professor of comparative literature in the belief that that writing and studying literature might serve as a counterweight to the kind of oppression embodied, in his view, by the king of Morocco. His dream is dashed when his master’s thesis on Gaston Batchelard’s Poetics of Space is summarily dismissed by the examining committee at his university in Brussels for plagiarism, a charge that Farouq vehemently denies: “The only possibilities are that they refused to believe my command of English and theory or, and I think this is even more likely, that they were punishing me for world events in which I had played no role.” As a result, Farouq has become disenchanted with the possibilities offered by Europe and Western Enlightenment: readers of this site or viewers of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing will find his comments on the relative merits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King interesting (let’s just say that his views resonate with those that Lee expresses in the book that was published to accompany the film.
Farouq says that become a translator is his “practical project,” but “the deeper one” is what he calls “the difference thing”: figuring out how to get Westerners to accept difference with out orientalizing non-Westerners. From Edward Said’s writing he has learned that “difference as orientalist entertaintment is allowed,but difference with its own intrinsic value, no.” The position that Farouq ultimately stakes is what Appiah what describe as “multiculturalism” — respect for difference coupled with an aversion to change. Farouq conceives of cultural change only as the requirement that non-Westerners must change to accommodate the West: “There’s always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has noble ideas; I disagree with that expectation,” Farouq tells Julius.
Over the course of several conversations, Farouq talks with Julius about Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohamed Choukri, Benedict Anderson, Francis Fukuyama, and a number of other writers, as well as about European racism, the politics of Palestine, and global terrorism. Farouq’s recounting of his experiences leads Julius to reconsider the presence of racism in Belgium, and he finds himself becoming a little more cautious than he had been, given his own outward appearance.
The conversations with Farouq, however, are framed by Julius’s encounters with Dr. Maillotte, the retired gastrointestinal surgeon, and when they meet for lunch, she quickly dismisses Farouq’s point of view, calling him one of “these young men who go around as if the world is an offense to them.” She calls them “complainers,” and her account reminded me of the political theorist Wendy’s account of Wounded Attachments,” in which identity is formed by a sense of woundedness (see her 1995 book States of Injury).
Julius is bothered by the rapidity with which Dr. Maillotte diagnoses Farouq, but he doesn’t fully disagree, having himself earlier diagnosed Farouq as “thwarted.” Sympathetic as he is to Farouq’s point of view, Julius comes to realize that Farouq has more to learn if he is to realize his “deeper project.”
Julius’s remedy? Once back in the States, he sends Farouq a book.
It’s Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
Teju Cole reads from Open City and discusses urban experience at Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2012.
More book club discussion from Cyrus on Friday.
From its first sentence I had a hunch that Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) would have been a perfect fit for the Writing New York syllabus Cyrus and I tinkered with for almost a decade, and when we eventually take up the course again — Inshalla — I take very seriously the possibility of using this novel to close the semester. Our final text has varied over time: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, most often, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The final emphasis on sunshine and shadow, utopia or dystopia, varies depending on how we end, but Kushner’s plays, more than any thing else we teach, have seemed to wrap up some big narratives that run through our course: the relationship between performance/theater and urban life; the legacies of immigration; the real-world force of imaginative acts (especially ways of imagining the city itself); the meanings and uses of history; and issues of identity (consent v. descent), assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. Something about Open City, from the start, promised to take up most of these issues but also others: the impact of 9/11; New York as global city; and — another favorite trope in New York and other urban writing — the appeals of flânerie.
“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place to set out into the city,” the book begins. James Wood suggests Sebald as Cole’s model here, an influence Cole himself isn’t shy about, although he’s also given nods to Calvino. But the first thing I thought about as I tried to ease myself into a relationship with Cole’s narrator, Julius, was Rousseau’s posthumous Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), which like Open City serves as a meditation on psychology and memory as much as it dwells on political theory or current events. Rousseau described his book, a sort of coda to his Confessions, as “a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint.” Rousseau was more obsessed with his public reputation than Julius appears to be, perhaps, but the digressive character of both books, which seek to recreate thought processes and external stimuli, come off feeling like the books’ production processes actually form a significant portion of their contents. If Open City feels digressive it’s because it’s about digression, as a habit of mind, an educational program, a psychological defense.
Julius never reveals too much about the means by which he acquires knowledge about the city, or art, or music, with the exceptions of a quick nod to Internet radio, his current book list, and some descriptions of his formal education, including his friendship with a former teacher. But it feels like Julius’s habits must be somewhat in harmony with Cole’s own writing process. (That said, I don’t really feel the need to assume too much about Julius is autobiographical. I like Cole’s comments, on the misguided conflation of Julius/Cole, from this interview, in which he acknowledges a passion for Mahler he shares with his character: “I could not write about Mahler in that way if I did not have an interest in Mahler. Julius probably knows more about Mahler than I do (laughs). But he knows a lot less about jazz and hip hop than I do. So he’s not me.”)
If the novel’s episodic structure is a significant component of its content, this suggests a lot about the book’s take on issues of temporality and history. Julius’s thoughts — his stimulation to new knowledge about the place he inhabits, his recall of episodes from the past — depend as much on his “aimless wandering” as anything else. But perhaps we should speculate about a gap between Julius’s habits and Cole’s. Julius simply recalls things: he encounters runners from the New York Marathon while walking near the Park and remembers an anecdote about “Phidippides’ collapse,” the instant death of the first marathoner. He comments in detail on the classical music playing at a Tower Records fire sale. Are these details Cole just had in his arsenal? Or, more likely, is his own research underwriting Julius’s apparently brilliant marshaling of dozens of historical details? It’s not hard to imagine early versions of some of these sketches being drafted on the fly, out and about, in a writer’s notebook, then fleshed out with aid of research later. You walk, you think, you notice things. You probably take notes on street names, peculiar buildings, historical details recorded on plaques here and there, odd architectural details that suggest the past lives of some buildings, the CD being played in a store you wander into, the details of Alexander Hamilton’s epitaph, and then you do a bunch of Googling when you get home to deepen your understanding of where you’ve been and what those places had been and seen before you got there. Reminds me a little of our friend David Freeland‘s approach in Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.
It’s this obsession with New York’s history and the curiosity — and expertise — of the flâneur that appeals most to me about Julius. How could it not, when a walk near Trinity Church almost inevitably winds up with the magnetic pull to the waterfront and thoughts on Melville? We’re to assume that Julius, or Cole, or both, perhaps, has become a New Yorker by way of this relentless curiosity about the city’s past, about the island’s prior occupants, and through a whole lot of reading. And yet Julius’s curiosity also leads him to take in the stories of other current inhabitants, including the histories that brought them here, which often have to do with warfare or conflict on other parts of the globe. Julius has a thing for New York history, but the boundaries of that history for him are extraordinarily capacious.
One of my favorite passages in the book — the one that really sold me on the whole thing — comes fairly early. It offers an extreme take on the kind of stuff I’m talking about here, historical obsessions and personal identity and whatnot. But it also suggests something beyond Google-gained insights about surroundings. It’s one of the weirdest and, to me at least, most beautiful episodes in the novel. The fifth chapter begins with a moving narrative of a Liberian prisoner, held indefinitely in a Queens prison for attempting to enter the country with a false passport. (“The lawyer they assigned to me said I might have had a chance before 9/11.” And later: “I don’t want to go back anywhere, he said. I want to stay in this country, I want to be in America and work.”) This episode, which has received a fair amount of attention from critics, is followed by one less examined but equally moving: Julius’s encounter with a “a Haitian man in the underground catacombs of Penn Station” who offers to shine Julius’s shoes. In spite of his antipathy to the traditional shoe-shiner’s set-up — the “elevated chairs in the shops and hav[ing] someone kneel before me” — Julius goes ahead and makes himself a customer anyway on the old man’s insistence.
What happens next is rather extraordinary, even in a book that consists almost entirely of reverie. As the man begins to tell Julius his story, betraying the trace of a Caribbean French accent, we gradually get the sense that he didn’t flee Haiti in the twentieth century at all, but in the 1790s. He is, according to his own account, a refugee from the Haitian Revolution, a survivor of New York’s nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemics, a resident of the racially mixed neighborhoods around the Five Points, a freeman who purchased his sister’s freedom before purchasing his own, the proprietor of a school for free blacks. All of this passes us by almost imperceptibly as Julius narrates. I had to go back and read the man’s story twice, since nothing in the novel to that point — and nothing, really, in what comes after, either — brushes this close to magical realism. Julius hardly seems to notice anything odd with the man’s story. He lets the man finish the shine, heads outside, tightens his scarf against the cold, and notices various signs of the war in Iraq. If he worried he’d been time-traveling, he doesn’t betray it. Instead, he continues to imagine he’s stumbled into the New York of the Civil War Draft Riots. He narrates rather matter-of-factly:
That afternoon, during which I flitted in and out of myself, when time became elastic and voices cut out of the past into the present, the heart of the city was gripped by what seemed to be a commotion from an earlier time. I feared being caught up in what, it seemed to me, were draft riots. The people I saw were all men, hurrying along under leafless trees, sidestepping the fallen police barrier near me, and others, farther away. There was some kind of scuffle two hundred yards down the street, again strangely noiseless, and a huddled knot of men opened up to reveal two brawlers being separated and pulled away from their fight. What I saw next gave me a fright: in the farther distance, beyond the listless crowd, the body of a lynched man dangled from a tree. The figure was slender, dressed from head to toe in black, reflecting no light.
Unlike his encounter with the bootblack, this situation resolves itself, rationally, “into a less ominous thing: dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold, twirling in the wind.” But the temporal rip that allowed Julius to hear the voice of a past citizen, to listen to a story — akin to the Liberian prisoner’s — that’s too easily forgotten, provides us with a sense of how history works for Cole. His city is a palimpsest, as commentators on the novel have repeatedly pointed out. But it’s up to us — our obligation, even — to do the hard work of reading through those layers.
Anyone else have favorite/key moments so far?
Looking for one last, fantastic read before summer ends? This year I’ve been pitching Teju Cole’s 2011 award-winning novel Open City to anyone who’ll listen. It’s brief but still feels bursting with detailed observation, beautifully written, and as important a novel I’ve read about global politics and local identity in a long, long time. Set in New York in the middle of the last decade, the book ambles through city streets — and a quick trip to Brussels — with its narrator, Julius, a Nigerian-born medical student studying at Columbia. The novel’s sensibilities are cosmopolitan — in Appiah’s sense of the term — and so Julius’s flânerie tends to take him to the places where cultures collide, combine, and create something new. But the book is also deeply interested in the idea of history: how the spaces around us were produced, how they produce us, and how we interact, often unknowingly, with their past inhabitants.
In short, it’s a book Cyrus and I would be likely to use in the final weeks of our Writing New York course. The class is still on hiatus while we teach in Abu Dhabi, but we’re committed to blogging again this fall, so hold us to it. Starting next week, we’ll be running several posts on the book. If you’ve read it — or if you grab it in time for a plane or the beach this week — we’d love to hear your thoughts.
New Yorker review here; great 3AM Magazine interview here; and a PBS Art Beat conversation here. (We nabbed their graphic, above.) Also highly recommended: Teju Cole on Twitter. Here’s a blurb he filmed for Leonard Lopate’s club last year:
Last week, I had the privilege of participating in “The Final Pursuit,” a panel discussion at Plymouth University celebrating the “Moby-Dick Big Read” project. My co-panelists were Peninsula Arts director Sarah Chapman; “Big Read” co-curators Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne; Anthony Caleshu, professor of poetry at Plymouth University; Zeb Soanes, the “voice” of BBC Radio 4; and musician and author David Rothenberg.
For a more detailed account, take a look over at patell.org.