Teju Cole

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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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0318_tejucoleToday’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.

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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.

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