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.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

August 26, 2010

The title of this book is, if you do not know, a reference to Superman. Superman’s Fortress of Solitiude has been a physical stronghold of varied significance and geographic location. My sense is that Lethem was probably making the reference to John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries comic book in which the Clark Kent persona is described as “The Fortress of Solitude”. I am not, nor have I ever been, a comic book fan, so this speculation is based on Wikipedia. Take it for what it is worth.

It is worth next to nothing, by the way. Because the Fortress of Solitude could also be Dylan Ebdus’s house on Dean Street in Brooklyn. The Dean Street house, like the Fortress, is occupied by The Parents. Occupied is selling it too strongly. Their spirits inhabit the place even if, technically, they do not exist there is a fully real and alive sense. Abraham spends most of his time working in his studio. Rachel becomes an even more ethereal presence. Superman’s parents are but statues, reminders. This parallel is equally compelling and also dervied from the Wikipedia articles on Superman and his lair, if you had not guessed.

Besides comic books, the fully prepared reader will be well versed in the music of the 1970s and 1980s, R&B and rap particularly, but not exclusively. Lethem’s alter ego and the narrator of the novel is Dylan, named after Bob Dylan (legendary folk singer, of course), a hero of his parents. His best friend for a time is Mingus Rude who is, presumably, named after Charles Mingus. Charles Mingus was a legendary jazz musician (the Kindle dictionary, rather than my own knowledge of music history, gave me that one). While Dylan Ebdus’s parents are not musicians, Mingus Rude’s father, Barret Rude, Jr., is a former soul vocalist. An entire section separating Dylan’s and Mingus’s childhood from their adulthood consists of fictional liner notes to an album collecting music by Barret Rude, Jr. Lethem has a deep appreciation for R&B music of the time and it shows through multiple references and an awareness which suffuses the work.

Finally, the cultural aspect that most gripped me: Lethem and I grew up at roughly the same time. The Fortress of Solitude is absolutely dazzling in yanking the reader back in time to a palpably real New York childhood. The games kids play, both psychological and ball-oriented, have you feeling like someone just outside the ring, watching. Maybe you’ll get picked, or picked on, next time. In the meantime, it is great fun watching Dylan make his way in this new world.

For, Brooklyn is new to Dylan. Abraham and Rachel decided to attempt a social experiment of some sort. They move to a rather blighted area of Brooklyn and enroll Dylan in the local public school. He is very nearly the only white child in the school. Even in the neighborhood, white children make only a brief, if potent, appearance:

And Dylan wondered guiltily why the white girls on skates hadn’t called to him instead. Knowledge of this heretical wish was his second wound. It wasn’t like the dead kitten: this time no one would judge wwhether Dylan had understood in the first place, whether he had forgotten after. Only himself. It was between Dylan and himself to consider forever whether to grasp that he’d felt a yearning preference already then, that before the years of seasons, the years of hours to come on the street, before Robert Woolfolk or Mingus Rude, before “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” before Intermediate School 293 or anything else, he’d wished, against his mother’s vision, for the Solver girls to sweep him away into an ecstasy of blondness and matching outfits, tightened laces, their wheels barely touching the slate, or only marking it with arrows pointing elsewhee, jet trails of escape.

The opening section is told in the third person with access to Dylan’s thoughts, but not others’. Dylan is precocious and bright and not entirely unlike the young Coetzee of Boyhood. I would be surprised if Lethem had not read Coetzee’s work prior to writing his own. And, too, he probably was influenced by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. It is no light thing, my comparing this work to those two masterpieces. Lethem is extremely talented, a standout of his generation. However, weeks after finishing this work, I am still unsure whether it will end up in my top ten reads of this year, much less that it is deserving as a spot on a list of twenty best novels of the 2000s. Its strong start is not enough for all that.

I am not from Brooklyn, so part of the strength of the start, for me, was the fascinating look at a childhood that was chronologically parallel to my own. The life of city kids was always mysterious to me, a different way of living. And so Dylan’s proves to be far removed from my own. While I would not trade my memories of herding cattle or playing in the hay barn for them, I am envious of street ball, block parties, and walking to school. But my particular, or peculiar, fascination with the lives of urban kids does not explain all of the appeal of the first half of the book.

Adult idealism hovers in the background of the child’s-eye Brooklyn. Gentrification, Rachel’s determination to raise Dylan in a racially enlightened manner, and Abraham’s commitment to art are all interesting and important sidelines. Each is essential, if not as thrilling as a well-tossed spaldeen. The beauty and success of the first half of the novel is that these larger, more political, themes are woven into the story of Dylan’s boyhood. They never overpower, only accentuate his experiences. In other words, this first half is never didactic.

The first third of the novel swings between Dylan’s perspective and several others in the neighborhood, including Isabelle Vendle (a prime mover in the gentrification process of Gowanus Hill), Barrett Rude, Jr., and Dylan’s parents. Lethem styles prose with the best of them while deftly managing these varying perspectives and the story. I was always disappointed to put the book down while reading this first section. This is despite the fact that some comic book powers may or may not seep out of the panels into Dylan’s world. I am not really into superpowers in my bildungsromans, but, as with the politics, they are used to enhance the richness of the world without being overly intrusive.

For one example, and on a theme that recurs throughout:

His mother had instilled this doubleness: there were things Rachel and Dylan could say to one another and then there was the official language of the world, which, though narrowed and artificial, had to be mastered in the cause of the world’s manipulation. Rachel made Dylan know that the world shouldn’t know everything he thought about it. And it certainly shouldn’t know her words – asshole, pothead, gay, pretentious, sexy, grass – nor should the bearers of nicknames know the nicknames: Mr. Memory, Pepe le Peu, Susie Cube, Captain Vague, Vendlemachine.

His father’s nickname was The Collector.

Dylan spends the entire book trying to navigate between the various worlds he is forced or chooses to inhabit. Not to belabor the quotes, but there is another, this one occuring in a scene involving a confrontation between two neighborhood rivals, “each kid” being the observers of this confrontation:

Each kid wondered and had to consider the possibility that he alone didn’t know, that the lines of force were visible to the others. The Dean Street kids were widened in that instant, a gasp of breath went in and out of the lung of summer just then. It made you dizzy to taste the new air.

I have hardly mentioned the plot at all, but, with a reclusive artist as a father, a drug-addicted sort-of-ex-singer for a neighbor, and a racial identity to grapple with, there is plenty of story for the first half. Lethem writes it so well, you’ll feel almost as if you’ve lived it too.

Then came the liner notes. It is a fairly short section, interesting enough. It ties the first and last pieces together, gives a nice interlude between childhood and young adulthood.

Part Three is ominously entitled “Prisonaires”. The reference is to a group of prison singers who hit the charts from prison, it’s a story grown-Dylan is pitching movie execs. The scene opens with Dylan packing to go to California for his father, and to pitch the movie. Dylan Ebdus is older, but hip. He is comfortable moving between worlds now.

Entry points between zones are hidden until they aren’t, until they become as obvious as a lit kitchen door in a club’s alley, behind which three young women from Walla Walla pool an evening’s tips. And as so often in my experience, passage between was eased by alcohol or marijuana or cocaine, those boundary medicines. Line, Mr. Mildly Weird Older? Of course I’d like a line, and to cross one too, please.

He is haunted by his past, though. He moves between worlds, but never feels fully part of any of them. On Dean Street he was the white kid, at college he was the public school kid, and in life he is struggling to make sense of his own life.

The weakness of the second half is in the fact that Dylan spends it trying to understand his life, explain it, come to terms with why Dean Street was the way it was. His musings leave a number of excellent snippets of prose for the reader. But the story loses momentum. It frustates partly because Dylan is frustrated, which is a good thing, but, and this is the less good, party because exposition does the work in the second half where the story carried the first. Dylan struggles almost as much with his own life as he does with “The Prisonaires”, a musical group whose lead, rather than ending in a fiery crash or cocaine-fueled heart attack or familial bullet, simply fades into, not death, but a quiet, non-descript existence. Dylan wants explanation, the reader wants a story.

I am rambling, but this is a huge book which, frankly, ambles over much territory. Lethem deserves credit for trying to talk about race in a novel, in a way that doesn’t insultingly patronize its readers and its characters. Yes, I am talking about a recent bestseller that shall not be named. There are not easy answers here. That is Dylan’s and Lethem’s problem. They both flail about, trying to find answers, but, both are still a little afraid because this is dangerous territory. Just as there are codes on the street by which Dylan knows both that he will be yoked and how to play his role in the yoking, there are rules in society for talking about race. Dylan and Lethem both struggle a bit. It is probably one reason they spend so much time in the second half trying to explain. But, for all that effort, I don’t think the second half is either as engrossing or as enlightening as the first half of the novel.

Now I am rambling. The book is good. I have struggled with what to say. I am going with this first draft. Part of my problem is that I wanted the novel to mean more to me than it does. Another part is that the first half was so outstanding, the grown Dylan could only disappoint. My disappointment should be gauged against my expectations and my first half experience. Oh, and if you like books set in New York, this one gives a look with depth at particular moment in time. In all, the novel is outstanding.

Lethem is for real.

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, Volume 1) by Paul Auster

July 19, 2010

I had been intending to read Paul Auster for some time when Sasha, in the comments to my review of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Auter’s wife, suggested several of us read The New York Trilogy at the same time. I thought it was a great idea and, so, have started with City of Glass. I will be picking up the second in the trilogy, Ghosts, from the library within the next couple days. It is getting on two weeks since I fiished it and since Sasha posted her reaction.

The book began by promising me it would be one of my favorites, at least of the year. It ended leaving me confused and wondering whether I had been taken advantage of.

Much later, when he was able to think about things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.

My understanding is that Paul Auster has an continuing interest in this idea of chance. Another of his novels is, after all, named The Music of Chance. Sarah, of A Rat in the Book Pile, reviewed that one and was, in a sense, my first introduction to Auster. With that review and this first of The New York Trilogy, I am certain I have too little to say or add to a conversation about Auster.

That theme of chance definitely suffuses his work. Sarah used this quote from The Music of Chance regarding a character’s choice of ramps on a highway:

It was a sudden, unpremeditated decision, but in the brief time that elapsed between the two ramps, Nashe understood that there was no difference, that both ramps were finally the same.

In City of Glass, the ostensible protagonist, Daniel Quinn, has been hired to keep Peter Stillman the son safe from Peter Stillman the father. His plan is to intercept Stillman the elder at the train station. He has an outdated picture of the man and knows on which train the man will arrive. Of course, two candidates show up and Quinn, on impulse, chooses to follow the poor and broken one rather than the wealthy and assured one.

There was no way to know: not this, not anything.

These two scenes are strikingly similar. In both, the character is faced with a split-second choice. In both, the character decides the choice makes little difference.

And, finally, that is my impression of the book. There are multiple available interpretations of the storyline, who is real, who is not, what happens, what does not. I do not have the tools I should to achieve any depth in this analysis because I have not read Don Quixote. This book relies heavily on Don Quixote. To the extent I am supposed to say whether you should read this work or not: You should. The exegesis on Don Quixote is worth the trouble to find and read the book. Quinn and Stillman have a conversation about Don Quixote and Cervantes. They discuss how Cervantes “goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author” of Don Quixote when, in fact, close examination of the novel demonstrates he must be. Part of Cervantes’s scheme is to insist that everything in the book really happened, when, really, it is a work of imagination that is “an attack on the dangers of make-believe.”

Paul Auster does a very similar thing in this work. Late in the book, our narrator tells us:

Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention.

The parallel is not a result of my imagining. Quinn/Auster makes the connection explicitly. Daniel Quinn shares initials with Don Quixote.

He picked up his pen and wrote his initials, D.Q. (for Daniel Quinn), on the first page. It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks. He stopped to consider this fact for a moment but then dismissed it as irrelevant.

Yet, this novel is presented in the form of a mystery and the astute reader will have noticed Quinn’s earlier observation:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.

For the less astute, Quinn makes the connection explicitly shortly after putting his initials in the notebook.

This comparatively slight book is packed with ideas. In addition to the rabbit-hole of reality vs. unreality, fate vs. chance, and chance as fate, there is the theme of doubling. Siri Hustvedt, in What I Loved, gave us the artist Bill Wechsler who was preoccupied with self-portraits, doubling, and ambiguity. Bill even says: “In my work, I want to create doubt. Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Bill is Paul who is Quinn who is William Wilson and Don Quixote and Cervantes and Paul Auster.

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real.

Yes, and I did too. And, again, my central problem with this novel is that there is too much. I am not up to the task. I have to read more. There is a map of Daniel Quinn’s wanderings that I need to sketch. I will read it again. It is entertaining. It is amusing.

And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book – to be amused.

P.S. Many, many thanks to Sasha for reading it at the same time, making me feel less alone in my confusion, and for posting first. I am sorry I have not been much help with the confuzzlement (nice word), but I can give you the condolence that I am terribly confuzzled too.

[Fixed a broken link and corrected a “the” to “they”. 19-Jul-2010]

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

January 20, 2010

Colum McCann won the National Book Award for this book. The fact does not scream injustice. This is a very nice book. It is well-written; it has a serviceable central metaphor. I doubt more than a few have been offended by it. It is not controversial. It takes no real risks. This book does not feel like a walk on a tightrope, but seems firmly planted on safe narrative territory.

The collection of storylines is, as has been pointed out before, reminiscent of the technique used in the movies Crash, Babel, and Traffic. Each of the storylines is connected to Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers in 1974 which is used as a metaphor throughout. In discussing the novel, McCann has stated “that the metaphor translates well into the real-life experiences of people everywhere, as he believes that all are in some sense walking their lives on a tightrope, with equally high stakes, only most people’s tight-ropes are not quite as sensational or dramatic, and are concealed to most, being only 1” off the ground.”

The stakes, though, are not the same for everyone. Some people really do play a game of higher stakes, others play it safe. Despite crafting the novel as a convergence on a single point, McCann takes no real risks here. He even gives prime real estate to a hooker with a caring heart, though she disclaims any such goodness:

Some of these assholes think you got a heart of gold. No one’s got a heart of gold. I don’t got no heart of gold, no way. Not even Corrie. Even Corrie went for that Spanish broad with the dumb little tattoo on her ankle.

She has a soft spot for her granddaughters, the priest, and the poetry of Rumi. She is extremely remorseful regarding her failures as a mother and tries to make up for those failings. Yes, it may be true that no one has a heart of gold, but Tillie is what people mean when they talk about the golden-hearted hooker. She means well. She makes bad choices, she has been a disaster as a parent, and she loves people. She is too damaged and flawed to make good choices, but she means to do right by those with whom she interacts. Perhaps to reassure the reader, she is more the victim than the perpetrator with respect to the central crime in her storyline. We see enough of her flaws not to groan, but neither is she a risky departure from the set type.

Throughout the novel, there is a failure to take risks with characters. The computer hacker is nerdy and awkward with women; the artist is a flaky narcissist; the judge is a supercilious striver; the grieving wealthy mother and the grieving working class mother fit their roles in familiar ways. In short, while the characters are not simply stereotypical caricatures, neither are they particularly original. Partly, this is a consequence, no doubt, of the fact that most people are not terribly original. Partly, it is a consequence of McCann keeping his tightrope close to the ground.

My own lack of enthusiasm for this otherwise fine novel may be due to having recently read: The Vagrants which questions on a much deeper level the issue of whether caring intentions, unbending principles, or pragmatism are ever properly labeled “good” or “evil” outside of context; Summertime which delves deeply into a single character through multiple perspectives with much more originality; and Pnin, the language of which outshines McCann’s very fine but not breathtaking prose. In each of these works, the authors mixed in the unexpected and took risks, quite successfully in at least two of the three. McCann’s revelations slide into place smoothly but not surprisingly.

For instance, inspired by a photo of the daredevil, McCann writes:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

There are nice touches here such as the multiple layers to the sentence starting “One small scrap…” Even so, there is no jolt, no epiphany. Mostly, this book is an elegant statement of things we already know and, mostly, know we know.

The tricks McCann pulls on his low slung tightrope are skillful and entertaining. Kimbofo at Reading Matters and Kevin of KFC fame both pull representative quotes that demonstrate some of the beauty of McCann’s language. In all, this is a good book. It is nice. It is enjoyable. It is not a book for the ages. Kevin accurately summarized the feeling of having read it when he described it as “2009’s version of Netherland”.