Open City by Teju Cole

May 10, 2012

Perhaps the most enticing thing I can say about this Book Critics Circle Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner is that it pairs very nicely with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In my opinion, these were, by a wide margin, the two strongest novels of the 2012 Tournament of Books, though only Open City made it to the Finals.

The pairing works because both engage in issues relating to the construction of personal identity, guilt/culpability, and history. In blogging serendipity, both Whispering Gums and Pechorin’s Journal posted reviews of The Sense of an Ending on the same (April 25) day and both have sparked considerable discussion. If you have read A Sense of an Ending, or even if you haven’t, I recommend both reviews and the following discussions.

Open City warrants equal attention. Julius, the narrator, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. He has taken to walking around New York City aimlessly. Much of this novel is filled with his ruminations while walking, such as about bird migrations and whether his interest in bird migrations is connected to his new habit of wandering the streets. He considers what New York looks like from the perspective of geese and, importantly, when he sees no migrating geese from his apartment window:

I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.

There is, of course, more than birds. The passage is important because memory haunts this book and this is one of the first hints of its importance and malleability. The climax of this book is a revelation about the past that alters the reader’s understanding of everything that has gone before.

Along the way, Cole weaves his story with strands of fascinating minutia, from those birds to Herman Melville to classical music to Nabokov to the slave trade to terrorism and all manner of other things, literary and otherwise. The references are not just random bits thrown on the canvas, though, each is carefully selected for how it will impact the whole. Julius, telling this story in the first person, is not as aimless as his wanderings suggest. While he is “conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly”, he shows very little emotion throughout the novel. He gains some trust with his detachment, a reservedness that suggests open and objective reporting.

Julius is a wonderfully astute observer, which also strengthens his credibility. He highlights little details of city life in thoughtful, sometime humbling ways. A man walking home alone after finishing the marathon is, at first, pitied for having no friends or family to share in his accomplishment, but, as the marathoner and Julius walk beside each other, Julius considers the strength of will it takes to finish a marathon. He moves from the burst of energy at the end of the marathon to the pain of the “the nineteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-first mile[s].” Completing a marathon is, he says, “still remarkable no matter how many people do it now.” After having really considered marathoning, Julius realizes that the marathoner walking gingerly home was not a sad figure, but a triumphant one.

It was I, no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.

These little illuminations of the beauty of the routine make this novel sparkle. They also each build towards that radical late shift. The story of the marathoner provides a miniature of the bigger story: An initial scene creates a particular impression, in the case of the marathon it is the pitiful man trudging home anonymously, but reflection and revelation shift the meaning and, hence, the final impression that is left.

Whispering Gums (link above) makes an interesting connection between The Sense of an Ending and The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Open City is not really anything like that. Julius is, unlike Tony, not a bystander to life. He is sufficiently ambitious to make it from his native Nigeria to America through medical school and what appears to be a very solid, if not spectacular, career. Julius had to assert himself to make these things happen and he is much younger than Tony. Tony’s “melancholic tone” based on opportunities missed is absent here, but oddly mirrored in Julius’s clinical detachment from his own life.

The books are not exactly the same, however much the focus can turn to “what really happened?” Neither The Sense of an Ending (see Pechorin’s Journal link above) nor Open City are primarily concerned with presenting a mystery to be solved. The actual facts are, in at least some sense, irrelevant.

In Barnes’s work, this is because a major focus of the book is on how memory, all memory, is faulty. Constructing an “actual” past is a fool’s errand, in some ways, because, to borrow from Heisenberg’s insights into quantum physics, the mere recollection (observation) of one’s own memories alters them. It is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the essential variables of events in one’s past.

Cole has a slightly different focus. While I do not think this Copenhagen interpretation of memory is irrelevant to the story Julius tells, because there is some uncertainty there, it is more sideshow than main feature. Cole is more concerned with how personal narratives are constructed, particularly including value judgments, than with the unreliability of memory (or narrative). This is one of the more interesting parts of Barnes’s work too. After all, what really is interesting is how the recognition of the incompleteness of Tony’s memories reorders the value judgments placed on prior (undisputed) actions and inactions. Villians may be heros, or not. Cole confronts the reader with a similar principle of moral uncertainty. There are depths to be spelunked.

And amid all this, those delightful observations of small things:

The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.

I will leave with one last, sort of spoilerish conjecture. I am not sure of the meaning of those last 175 dead wrens. That so many birds died despite the fact that “the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark” suggests something sinister about the flame, about the statue of liberty itself. Freedom comes up several times in the book. Julius finds freedom in his wanderings, there is the story of the shoeshiner who purchases the freedom of his sister, his wife, and himself, and the Brussels discussion of freedom, including the comparisons of freedom in Europe with that in America. American freedom “form[s] and sharpen[s]” people in unique ways, Julius suggests. For some, of course, the contact with American freedom is radicalizing.

I have not formed a clear idea of how this sinister side of American freedom fits in with the story-altering revelation. Julius is very careful to construct this portrait of a respectable, if disconcertingly aloof, man who cares about the arts, philosophy, history, and his fellow man. He is always polite, if not very warm, and he has come from difficult circumstances in Nigeria to success in America. That final detail brings new meaning to his demeanor, making it seem frosty rather than reserved.

My first impulse had been to equate the disorienting light of the Statute of Liberty to our own impulse to believe in our goodness. Like the promises of America, our own freedom of memory can disorient and destroy. The flame can guide some to safety and opportunity, others it destroys.

The error I have made, I think, is in trying too hard to boil Cole’s excellently crafted ending into a nicely summarized philosophical point. The birds simply are dead and the emotions there are quite similar to the emotions upon learning that final fact about Julius (and his own reaction to it). There is an inchoate sadness; the tragedy feels unfinished, an explanation is needed. But all we have are wrens, dead for reasons unknown.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

May 1, 2012

I have already griped about some of the slips of detail in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel. Errors of detail shake the trust an author must have from her readers. I was shaken by some of Ward’s specifics, but stirred by others.

The beautiful evocations of late childhood in Salvage the Bones offset the mistakes of tractors that drive like cars and oddly formal playground basketball. Ward deftly sculpts mental images of those things she knows best.

A fifteen year-old* girl named Esch narrates this novel of a struggling black family in rural Mississippi. The family consists of four children (Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior; three boys and a girl) and two largely absent parents. Esch’s mother died giving birth to the baby, Junior, and her father is usually unavailable in any productive sense due to perpetual drunkenness. With the tragedy of their mother’s death behind them by several years, we watch this kids as Hurricane Katrina, twelve days away at the start of the novel, looms ever larger over their lives.

The older siblings are all preoccupied with something outside the family: Randall is trying to obtain a basketball scholarship, Skeetah’s pet pit bull (China) is pregnant, Esch is in love with and pregnant by a handsome boy named Manny. Junior tags along with whoever will let him.

Ward captures sibling dynamics and the harshness of life for Esch and her brothers while capturing the bigness of teenage life, as it is experienced by teens, at least. When the older kids and some friends go camping, Skeetah shoots a squirrel for dinner. At the campsite, Skeetah butchers the small animal. He starts by cutting off the head, then:

He pitches the head into the underbrush like a ball…

On an adventure to a nearby farm, the reader feels like he too is crouching on the edge of the pasture watching Skeetah making his way past cows to a barn. Memories of playing in sheets hung on a clothesline feel almost like the reader’s own:

Mama washed all the sheets for both houses at once, and there was so much bedding that Daddy had to hand extra lines…The sheets were so thin we could almost see through them. They made cloudy rooms, and we played hide-and-seek in them. In the winter, they made our faces wet and achingly cold, but in the summer, it was so hot the sheets didn’t stay wet long, but we smashed our faces into them anyway, trying to find the hidden cool….[W]e let our hands hover over them, shoved our noses into them to see if we could see the other person running down the next billowing hallway.

There is much to love about this book. The characters are very strong. Esch and her siblings are excellently round characters. Skeetah, particularly, strolls out of the book as a fully formed person. Ward has great talent.

Despite my praise, I do feel the need to point out that there were aspects I found distracting (small details amiss), the sort of thing that tips off inhabitants of The Matrix to the artificiality of their world. Not everyone notices, of course. The strengths of characterization and story, which are considerable, override the minor failings for many. Shoehorning the story into twelve days did not work so well for me and gave too much focus to the hurricane. This is not a “Hurricane Katrina” book. I think the book would be stronger if it placed less focus on the storm.

It is not a perfect book. I liked it, though. I loved it best when it was about kids making their way in a teenage world or remembering a few short years ago when they were playing in “billowing hallways”. This is not the “Great American Novel”, but, if you read it, the characters are so real that you will genuinely hurt along with them.

*The promotional materials say “she’s fourteen”, but the math does not seem to work. Junior “is seven, and he is curious” while Esch was “eight [and] of no help” when her mother dies giving birth to Junior. Esch cannot be fourteen because she must turn fifteen on or before Junior’s seventh birthday (on his first birthday, she had to be nine, etc.). (This is also the summer after her tenth-grade year which, ordinarly, means an American student is fifteen or sixteen.) Bloomsbury how can you not know the age of the protagonist of the novel you publish?

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

April 24, 2012

I will be brief, because this novel has received widely laudatory coverage and I do not have much to say about it. Magical realism tends to have too much magic and too little realism for my taste. The mix here, though, was not bad. I also did not find, as others have, that the novel felt like two short stories (“The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife”) duct-taped together to form a novel. Perhaps the most I can say is that I was not particularly moved.

Obreht has some beautiful imagery and intriguing ideas on offer. For the imagery, try this:

[H]e was the kind of boy who caught bumblebees in jars and then harnessed them carefully with films from cassette tapes so that it was not uncommon to see him walking down the main road with dozens of them rising around him like tiny, insane balloons while the film flashed wildly in the sun.

I also enjoyed the “sour little shudders” of a boy’s heart and the need, in cold and snow, “to wipe the sting out of his eyes”. Obreht paints exquisite details into her novel.

As for ideas, one of her most important characters is “the deathless man” who has been cursed with the inability to die. This idea has been often used before, though Simone de Beauvoir explored it with the most philosophical rigor in All Men Are Mortal. De Beauvoir uses Raimon Fosca, an immortal character, to examine what mortality means for our ethical systems and how it shapes human experience. In her rendering, immortality presents problems of its own, demonstrating that frustrations with limited time are, in some ways, based on false assumptions. The darkness and the light at the heart of existentialism is further explored through Fosca’s inability to create any lasting progress or improvements in the world. Whether man dies or not, meaning is ephemeral.

Obreht takes a light approach in bending the venerable myth of a man cursed with immortality to her purposes. Partly, this is by giving the deathles man a supporting, rather than leading, role. Natalia, Obreht’s narrator, learns from her grandfather’s interactions with the deathless man the lesson of hope in death. The deathless man proves that death need not be feared because there is something afterwards, something even to be longed for by one who knows best what to expect. Death, in other words, is not really death.

The primary problem with death, in Obreht’s telling, is that people are always worried they missed something that would have prolonged their life.

”But the greatest fear is that of uncertainty,” Gavran Gaile is saying. “They are uncertain about meeting my uncle, of course. But they are uncertain, above all, of their own inaction: have they done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?”

I am not sure this could be written or believed by anyone over the age of forty. By that age, denial of mortality is generally no longer really possible. The greatest fears tend, then, to be those with which de Beauvoir and her character Fosca engage. The question is not so much “have I done enough to avoid death”, but “have I done enough with my life?” The brilliance of All Men Are Mortal is that Fosca’s life demonstrates that the thing we tend to mean when we ask that question is not really all that important. There is no monument a person can erect to herself that will insulate her from annihilation. All accomplishment is, in the longest of runs, illusory. Ozymandias may have been the king of all kings, but boasts of eternal greatness are always mocked by time. Impermanent beings must satisfy themselves with evanescent significance.

Obreht, meanwhile, demonstrates admirable skill, but never delivers the sort of depth her premise suggests. The deathless man serves as a kindly guide across the Styx. One needn’t fear death, because a friendly man awaits. He will start you on the path to find your previously departed loved ones. You will meet them again. Death is not death, but a mere transition. Obreht’s is too facile a solution to the unpleasantness of finitude.

The Tiger’s Wife is a promise to us that Obreht is an author worth reading now for the greatness she will give us in the future. This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest: Winner

March 30, 2012

The fact that my prediction The Tiger’s Wife was off does not make me sad, nor does The Sense of an Ending‘s failure to even make the Finals. But for Open City, my second favorite book in the Tournament, to fall three votes short of glory hurts. The Sisters Brothers is entertaining, but I really do not think it Rooster-worthy. But my opinions don’t count, nor are they particularly in line with the judges’ opinions, as my results show. Others of you fared better and you are who this post is for.

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard: Final Standings
March 30, 2012

Match update:
Match 1, Zombie Round: The Sisters Brothers defeated Lightning Rods
Match 2, Zombie Round: Open City defeated The Art of Fielding
Championship Match: ​The Sisters Brothers 10, Open City 6

AMY C. with a more than shabby 31.

She picked the winner and enough points along the way to secure all of the glory. She was also the first entrant this year which means she would have won on the final tie-break if anyone had come close to matching her picking prowess.

Congratulations, Amy, both on your win and on seeing your favorite book of the Tournament take the crown. Well done. I will e-mail you to find out your prize selections.

The Bridesmaids:

2. Elizabeth L. 16 (She would have won by one point (24-23) over Amy and Brad (#3) if Open City had triumphed.)

3. Brad M. 15

4. Andrew B. 14 (The Art of Fielding)
Felicity 14

The next closest competitors had twelve (12) points, making me feel slightly less ashamed of my ridiculous ten (10). An unprecedented number failed to crack double digits (over half the field). My suggestion for next year: Pick the opposite of what you expect to happen, unless your name is Amy.

The Caboose:

Kathy 1 ***New Record!***

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard: Semifinals Concluded

March 27, 2012

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard: Semifinals Match 1
March 26, 2012

Match update:
Match 2, Semifinals: Open City defeated ​The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers selected as a Zombie.
The Art of Fielding selected as a Zombie.

Leaders (Predicted Champ, if alive):
1. Amy C. 15 (The Sisters Brothers)

2. Andrew B. 14 (The Art of Fielding)
Felicity 14

4. Mike R. 12
Elizabeth L. 12 (Open City)
Alike K. 12

The race is really down to three, unless Lightning Rods wins. I am not sure who takes the glory in that case. So, someone other the three leaders with horses still racing might have a chance. Good luck to all, but especially to Elizabeth because I want Open City to win.

The Caboose:

Kathy 1 ***New Record!***

Congratulations! You have set a bar so low that it will be nearly impossible for anyone else to get under (to KfC’s dismay). Of course, I would have said that about Sarah’s 2 last year. You make the TOB Contest version of the 2008 Detoit Lions seem possible. Thanks for that. But it took 30 years for an NFL team to manage 0-16, so your record could stand for a long, long time.

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard: Semifinals Match 1

March 26, 2012

Match update:
Match 3, Round 2: The Sisters Brothers defeated Swamplandia!
Match 4, Round 2: Open City defeated ​The Marriage Plot
Match 1, Semifinals: Lightning Rods defeated 1Q84

1. Felicity 12
Mike R. 12

3. Amy C. 11

4. Andrew B. 10
Elizabeth L. 10

To give everyone not on this board hope, some of those with a mere five points can still best both of today’s co-leaders in some scenarios. (For instance, Zach could still pull in 20 out of the 22 remaining points.) In other words, the leaderboard will change dramatically before the week ends. One thing we know, though, I won’t be making an appearance on it.

The Caboose (max in parentheses):

K 1 (3)
Neighbors73 3 (19)

Only two are in contention for the booby prize. K cannot score more than three points. One more correct pick dooms Neighbors73’s chance at ignominy. She could actually climb onto the leaderboard if The Art of Fielding snags a Zombie spot like a lazy fly ball. Meanwhile, K has a chance to set a new record, besting the impressive 2 scored last year.

Unofficial 2012 TOB Contest Leaderboard: Match 2, Round 2

March 21, 2012

Match update:
Match 1, Round 2: Lightning Rods defeated The Sense of an Ending
Match 2, Round 2: 1Q84​ defeated ​The Tiger’s Wife

1. Mike R. 10
Felicity 10

3. Darren G. 9
Jeremy Z. 9

5. Alice K. 8
Andrew B. 8
Elizabeth L. 8

I am entirely out of the running for bragging rights. My maximum score is now 12 (oops) 10. Unfortunately for the co-leaders, they picked the same ultimate winner I did: The Tiger’s Wife. As a result, if you picked a book to win it all that still has a chance, you still have a chance.

[The following added at the behest of Kevin from Canada (I had considered it already, so he gets credit, but I’m to blame.)]

The Caboose (max in parentheses):

K 1 (9)
J 3 (21)
KfC 4 (12)
L 4 (12)
J 4 (12)
S 4 (16)

me 6 (10)

There are others with 5 and 6 points, I just wanted to point out how poorly my prognosticating turned out to be. I should have picked the books I wanted to advance. I then would have been able to blame the judges’ bad taste. As it is, I have shown I am no good at predicting TOB judges’ behavior.

If The Marriage Plot takes a dive and finds no Zombie love, last place is securely in possession of the third K (in addition to Kevin and myself). Even with some undead help, s/he might be too far back to…um…worst.

On the chance that someone might not want to be identified as having opinions out of sync with the TOB judges (which is no shame), I have tried to give as little identifying information as possible. KfC is (and I am) excepted as we’ve made a point of publicly outing ourselves for low scoring.

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard: End of Round 1

March 20, 2012

Match update:
Match 7, Round 1: The Marriage Plot defeated Green Girl
Match 8, Round 1: Open City​ defeated ​The Art of Fielding

Darren G. 7
Jeremy Z. 7
Wilson K. 7

Alice K. 6
Andrew B. 6
Elizabeth L. 6
Felicity 6
Gary D. 6
Jamie B. 6
Mike R. 6
Kerry (me) 6

No one is perfect anymore and more than half the field is within two points of the lead. Each correct pick in Round Two is worth two. There will be a single leader after the next match as the three entrants at the top after Round One have each picked a different winner for today’s match.

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard: Match 6, Round 1

March 15, 2012

Match update:
Match 5, Round 1: The Sisters Brothers defeated State of Wonder
Match 6, Round 1: Swamplandia!​ defeated ​The Cat’s Table

Jeremy Z. 6
Darren G. 6
Mike R. 6
Alice K. 6

Felicity 5
Wilson K. 5
Elizabeth L. 5
Gary D. 5
Andrew B. 5
Kerry (me) 5

The leaders have remained perfect and will tomorrow too, but their number must dwindle. Two have picked the underdog Green Girl.

Fifth place is hotly contested and plenty of entrants have three and four points. Enjoy!

Unofficial TOB 2012 Contest Leaderboard Update: Round 1, Match 4

March 14, 2012

Match update:
Match 3, Round 1: 1Q84 defeated The Last Brother
Match 4, Round 1: The Tiger’s Wife defeated The Stranger’s Child

Jeremy Z. 4
Darren G. 4
Mike R. 4
Felicity 4
Alice K. 4

The top 5 are all perfect, for now. Four out of five have gone with The Sisters Brothers in today’s matchup. (Whereas the overall field was more closely divided.) Either one player will separate from the pack, or there will continue to be a logjam of perfection. Congratulations to the five perfect scores.

Good luck to everyone else. There is still plenty of time to catch up.