Teju Cole, Open City
Whatever blogs once were, they are now places to conduct online arguments, which is a problem for me because, hand on heart, I don’t write to argue or persuade, even if the writing sometimes takes that form. It makes me hesitant even to take up a blog-present writer like Cole, because it will look as if I’m stepping into the fray to make pronouncements. As if I were to come out and say: Cole may be one of the best minds of his generation, and when such a mind turns its attention to a novel and it ends up like this, it shows what a time we’re in for novels.
The book is one damn thing after another. It’s hardly fiction; not because it’s autobiographical, not because it’s “essayistic,” but because it’s journalistic. The first person is a peg to hang sentences on, a bit of binding agent to stick the facts together. Its discussions of Deleuze on interstices, or Native Americans in New York, or Euro-Arab opinions on Palestine, or bedbugs, or what have you, are all pithy and informative, just like a New Yorker article. And as in a New Yorker article, there is always a reliable twinge of pathos which never distracts from the next slideshow. I won’t say that an intelligent person’s brain dump is valueless, but by God, isn’t the Internet now full of intelligent people’s brain dumps? I have to think that the author’s talent as a journalist, his fluency on Twitterfor that matter, his comfort with academic shoptalkall collude.
A writer makes a careful, conscious determination that present spiritual conditions require a hollowed-out speaker with no significant history, no individuating traits and no opportunity to make consequential decisions. (His status as immigrant American, medical man, etc., is not individuating; it’s representative.) He has a job, he talks to people, he considers cultural history, he has sex, he gets mugged. Boxes are checked. There is a curious, atypical scene near the end where another character may actually call him out on his hollowness, and so indict the book’s entire form. I’d like to take it that way, since it does make the book more interesting. But it doesn’t give any more retroactive pleasure in having read it.
I’ve had my cake. But I don’t have a comment thread. Never more than one foot in the water. And this book has had a happy enough career that it doesn’t need me on either side.