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coleToday’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.

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Halfway around the world from New York City, my 9/11/11 began in the most uncanny of ways. You can read about it over at patell.org. And you can read an alternative account of the same event over at mannahattamamma.com.

How did you mark the day?


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The other night I took a group of students to NYU’s Skirball Center to see a star-studded reading of Sarah Tuft’s play 110 Stories. A good chunk of the cast came from the HBO series The Wire. When I first saw it performed — I think it was in September 2003 — the cast had a liberal sprinkling of Sopranos actors. The concept — the play weaves a dozen or more first-person testimonials of 9/11 and the rescue effort — is emotionally wrenching if a little vexed in performance: the stories all come from ordinary New Yorkers but the draw (aside from fundraising for a worthy cause) is a stage full of famous people, some of whom are also New Yorkers who must have their own personal stories from that day, on hold while they read someone else’s. The two times I’ve seen 110 Stories I was there to support a friend who inadvertently wound up as one of Tuft’s character. She was “played” the first time around by Edie Falco. The other night Katie Holmes read her story.

My wife and I get a shout out at one point — and it’s kind of odd to hear Edie Falco or Katie Holmes call out your name on stage. Our friend’s story is stage-worthy largely because of a drama we initiated when we decided to take her kid from the elementary school where our daughters were also enrolled, which was a couple blocks from the World Trade Center. She hadn’t returned to pick him up for some reason and we didn’t feel comfortable leaving him behind when we evacuated. Most of the kids were already gone with parents, and we worried that if the building toppled it could crush the school. We were listed as emergency contacts, and so we told his teacher we would take him to our apartment on Water Street and meet his mother there. Our friend finally made it to the school just before the first tower collapsed. She exited through the cloud of debris, bound to find us. None of us had cell phones, and even if we’d had them they wouldn’t have worked.

Our morning on 9/11 was spent desperately trying to reunite our friend’s son with his mother. Before we could return to our apartment, the neighborhood was in lockdown and police told us to go north. The first tower collapsed while we were just above City Hall and, with tens of thousands of others, we turned and ran until we were well up Lafayette Street. We took refuge in my office at NYU and started phoning and emailing anyone we thought might be able to relay a message to her about our location. She, meanwhile, managed to talk her way through one police barricade, circumvented another by climbing a chain link fence, and made it to our apartment only to find it empty. She left us a note we discovered on the dinner table when we were finally allowed to return to our apartment over a month later.

Before we were all finally reunited, we received word by email that she somehow had learned where we were and knew that her son was safe. When she showed up at my office, covered in ash, she had a dust mask pulled up and sitting on top of her head and someone else’s blood on her shirt. She laid down on the floor outside my office, exhausted.

It still feels strange to tell that story. I first wrote it down two days later, in an account I only this week shared with our friend’s son. In that account, I mention that he and I emerged from the elementary school while jumpers were still falling from the towers, their clothes billowing like parachutes that for some reason refused to open. It’s without a doubt the most terrifying thing I’ve ever witnessed, even worse than the initial sight of the first plane soaring over my head and into the North tower only blocks away. Our friend’s son began to weep, and I lied and told him it was office furniture falling, not people.

What will he think when he reads my confession? How many times have I wondered if we did the right thing to get him out of there safely, thereby making our friend’s experience even more nightmarish than it would have been? I felt a strange detachment reading my own words last week when I opened up the file on my computer, the same sort of detachment that came while listening to Katie Holmes read my friend’s side of the story. Clearly this is a morning that continues to haunt all of us. For me, the wounds are less raw than they were at five years (“What opium is instilled into all disaster!” Emerson writes in “Experience”), but I’m much angrier than I was then: how much bloodshed, economic disaster, bigotry, and loss of civil liberties have we suffered — not just as a result of the attacks, but of our own government’s rush to war and the political legitimization of the right wing’s lunatic Tea Party fringe?

If I’m experiencing any hope on this ten year anniversary, it’s due to the resilience of the kids we were with that morning — our own, and our friend’s. Her son was on MSNBC this morning, a young college student, now much taller than I am, talking about how the events of 9/11 have made him an engaged world citizen, how they’ve compelled him to be more tolerant of different perspectives and experiences than he might have been otherwise. We’re meeting up with him and his mom in a couple hours, along with other people we spent parts of that day with, including some total strangers who opened their West Village condo to us a few hours that afternoon so we could make contact with friends and find a place to stay. We haven’t seen some of these people in ten years, but their generosity — and that of dozens of friends and family across the country who reached out to us in a time of need — has imperceptible influences on our lives every day. Thank you.

UPDATE: Here’s the MSNBC report featuring our friend’s son Ian:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Photo of WTC under construction shamelessly nabbed from Alex Smith’s Flaming Pablum.


9/11 Double Feature

I woke up yesterday morning hoping not to think too much, this year, about 9/11. The Internets put an end to that, though, in the form of emails from friends and family, blog posts, and the newspaper. Maybe it should be an unplugged day from here on out. Then again, the calls and emails from friends remind me that there’s a lot to celebrate — and to be grateful for.

So I stopped my whining about not wanting to remember (Emerson: “What opium is instilled in all disaster?”) and left the office a couple hours early to catch a matinée showing of Man on Wire.

What a perfect thing to do on the afternoon of a 9/11 anniversary. I have to admit, it was tough at first to watch all the footage of the Twin Towers being assembled. Those big waffle-wafers dangling from cranes look in retrospect like so much gingerbread! And the idea of being perched that high can’t help but bring the jumpers to mind. But something about Phillipe Petit’s giddy storytelling, the relentless egotism that fueled his wire-walking caper, and perhaps most of all the fact that he survived to tell the tale, ultimately constitutes a joyful remembrance of the buildings, even if 9/11 is never overtly referenced.

Something I hadn’t expected, though: The film is as much about memory — about the 30 years that separate the event and the retelling we witness — as it is about the original events.  It’s also about art. And most surprising of all it’s about the relationships among the people who plotted with Petit and helped him pull it off — about the damage done by an ego large enough to think up such a spectacular stunt. I’m not sure the storytellers intended it to go that way, but the film making itself is masterful, and I think the director ultimately put together a much richer story than the adventure narrative he may have set out to recount.

Much later in the evening, SSW and I went to see a film one of her high school friends (from an exchange student experience in Germany) had a hand in making. Able Danger, showing for the next week or so at Two Boots Pioneer Theater, may be the only film in existence that can claim the generic designation as “9/11 action comedy/noir homage.” Its central character is based on Sander Hicks, owner of Brooklyn coffee shop/publishing house Vox Pop, which features prominently in the film, along with other neighborhood landmarks.

Reimagining Hicks as a hipster/geek superhero/secret agent, the film asks what would happen if Hicks’s self-published book,  The Big Wedding: 9/11, The Whistle Blowers, and the Cover Up, actually resulted in the FBI and neo-Nazi nutjobs chasing him through Brooklyn on his bike. The comedic referencing of Maltese Falcons, MacGuffin devices, Great Whatsits and other noir staples take the edge off what could have slipped too close to paranoid “truthie” earnestness, though there’s enough of the latter to send you home from a fun night at an indie film and deep into Google’s recesses.

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This summer’s New York novels to date — the books, that is, I’ve
consumed on my vacation: Richard Price’s Lush Life, Don DeLillo’s
Falling Man, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and about half of Kevin
Baker’s Dreamland.

All but the last are post-9/11 novels; I’m thinking hard, in
particular, about similarities and differences between DeLillo’s and
O’Neill’s — why the prose is more satisfying in one but the other more
satisfying overall, and what they each do with 9/11.

But reading Baker, finally, has me thinking, too, of fiction and
history, one of DeLillo’s favorite topics (and mine too). I’ll have
more to say about all of the above novels over the next while, but for
now here’s a bit from an essay DeLillo published in the Times Book
back in ’97, around the time Underworld came out. I’m trying to
think about how well his description holds up in a new century, when
poststructuralism has finally started to lose its grip on academic
imagination but when DeLillo’s old ruminations on terrorists and novelists are heralded as prophetic and prescient (even as his new, post-9/11 novels are panned); and I’m trying to think about how well his ideas apply to
fiction — Baker’s, say — that unabashedly takes on the generic label
“historical fiction.”

Fiction does not obey reality even in the most
spare and semidocumentary work. Realistic dialogue is what we have agreed to call certain arrays of spoken
exchange that in fact have little or no connection with the way people speak. There is a deep density of convention
that allows us to accept highly stylized work as true to life. Fiction is true to a thousand things but rarely to clinical
lived experience. Ultimately it obeys the mysterious mandates of the self (the writer’s) and of all the people and
things that have surrounded him all his life and all the styles he has tried out and all the fiction (of other writers)
he has read and not read. At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession,
superstition and awe.

Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history.

. . .

Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s
life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional

Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers
us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that
allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate.

The language of a
novel — E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” say — can be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past.
The tonal prose creates its own landscape, psychology and patterns of behavior. It is stronger than the
weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is
exposed as merely contingent. In “Ragtime,” history and mock history tool along together. They form a kind of
syncopated reality in which diverse human voices ultimately come into conflict with a single uninflected voice, the
monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line. In this novel, language is a democratic

Find the full essay here.
To be continued … maybe when I’ve consumed a few more 9/11 novels, or
at least when I’m ready to come back to Baker’s thoughts on similar
topics, as promised way back when

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Last weekend, the DUMBO Arts Council sponsored its eleventh annual arts festival, which I’ve attended for several years running. I plan to write at length about a couple NY-related projects I came across, one of which really has me excited, but for now I wanted to post this photo a friend took:


This neon work, one half of an installation by the Canadian-born, New York-based artist Juozas Cernius, was mounted over one exit from the waterfront park between the bridges. The other half of the piece, mounted on the other side of the gate (that is, over the entrance), said “GOD IS GREAT.”

I love this piece for a million reasons. Why hadn’t anyone ever thought to say “God Was Great” before? It’s such a funny sentiment: Sure, God was good back in the day, before he sold out. Or, God was great in bed last night. Or God was great, and then humans had to go and ruin it.

I’d seen this photo before I showed up there Saturday. In context I found the piece to be even more interesting. Unless you entered the park, you only ever saw the “GOD IS GREAT” side from the street. The sign looked a little like the entrance to a Christian theme park, with all the families with dogs and baby strollers milling around on the lawn inside.

But the other thing through that gate, of course, is the hole in the sky where the WTC used to be. (Why’s it on my mind so much this week?) It’s hard not to be in that park and spend some time looking across the river. What does it mean to situate your religious theme park across from Manhattan? (Of course the Jehovah’s Witness HQ was in DUMBO long before the neighborhood picked up that acronym and became, as one friend put it, a paradise for yuppies.) Are you safe on Brooklyn’s shores, protected from the evil metropolis beyond?

When you turn around to leave the park though, and get the “GOD WAS GREAT” side, it’s hard — at least it’s hard for me — not to associate the sentiment with 9/11 itself. God was great, and then he had to go and provide an excuse for religious fanatics to fly planes into towers full of people. It’s a funny sign, but with a hell of a bitter bite.  

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