Monday, October 28, 2013

Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?

I finished reading Teju Cole's Open City for the third time last month, a couple weeks ahead of my reading group's fifteenth anniversary. Open City was our group's 96th book, and the first novel I've read three times through in a very long while. I won't be surprised if I pick it up again before too long. It's that good; I strongly recommend it.

There's something to be said for the view that the novel form is, first and foremost, a window into the human heart and mind. Novels tend to have protagonists, and the form -- unlike a play or a film -- permits a novelist to portray protagonists from the inside. To pick from authors I've happened to read in the past year, Per Petterson, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Tóibín, Paul Harding, and Jonathan Safran Foer are novelists whose work is powerful largely because it resonates and surprises in its internal portrayal of character.

But protagonists whose hearts and minds are not laid bare to the reader can be brilliantly effective as well. In Open City, Teju Cole's protagonist -- Julius -- remains opaque even  to himself, and still shepherds the reader through a moving, provocative tour of his world and ours.

In Open City the protagonist, who also narrates, paints a deep, idiosyncratic, and psychologically acute portrait of a world at the intersection of New York  City, Brussels, and his childhood home in Nigeria -- and at the intersection of Yoruban, American (native, native-born, and a complex stew of immigrants), Moroccan, and European cultures -- but does so without sharing much insight into himself. Julius lives in New York, and as the novel opens is in the last year of a fellowship in psychiatry. Beyond Julius' intellectual qualities -- he is learned, inquisitive, sensitive to nuances of individual experience, a quiet listener, a keen observer, an articulate docent in the living museum of culture and history -- there's little more the reader gets to know of his character.

As far as learned observation goes, Julius offers discourses on the New York Marathon that touch on Phidippides and the physiology of long-distance running; when he encounters paintings by an early adopter of American Sign Language, the deaf artist John Brewster, Jr., he draws cultural arcs relating this nineteenth century painter to John Milton, Ray Charles, Jorge Luis Borges, and Johannes Vermeer; when a frail former professor's apartment is invaded by bedbugs, Julius illuminates the hardiness and intelligence of these pestilent creatures by describing observations and vaguely sadistic experiments conducted by an early twentieth century physician, Charles A. R. Campbell. (As a marker of the depth of research undertaken by Mr. Cole, or the erudition Julius possesses if one prefers to look through Cole's fictional lens, the observations of that early twentieth century physician appear to be drawn from Dr. Campbell's 1925 book Bats, Mosquitoes and Dollars, specifically from the section titled My Observations on Bedbugs.)

Yet when it comes to self-knowledge, Julius fumbles, conceals, or misses altogether. He repeatedly refers to and interacts with a close friend, but never gives his name: why the obfuscation? Pulled by a longing to reconnect with his maternal grandmother, Julius travels in the dead of winter to Brussels, but only searches halfheartedly for his oma; instead of purposeful focus, he meanders and meditates; explores relationships that will not encumber him, that have no chance of developing at any depth; then he returns to New York.

In the end, he is confronted by Moji, the forgotten sister of a nearly-forgotten childhood friend, re-encountered by chance in a New York supermarket. Moji eventually tells a harrowing tale of Julius' youthful villainy -- describing an event Julius claims he does not remember, though he does not deny that it might have occurred as Moji accuses. The reader is left to flounder. Certitude does not register as a possibility. Instead, a disquieting realization dawns: did Julius weave his densely patterned tale as an apologia, precisely to cast doubt in the reader's mind that Moji's charges are true?
Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people's stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. [...]

And so, what does it mean when, in someone else's version, I am the villain? I am only too familiar with bad stories -- badly imagined, or badly told -- because I hear them frequently from patients. I know the tells of those who blame others, those who are unable to see that they themselves, and not the others, are the common thread in all their bad relationships. There are characteristic tics that reveal the essential falsehood of such narratives. But what Moji had said to me that morning, before I left John's place, and gone up on the George Washington Bridge, and walked the few miles back home, had nothing in common with such stories. She had said it as if, with all of her being, she were certain of its accuracy.
Julius seduces the reader with his voice from the very start of Open City, an observation I made last year in the post First sentences in fiction. The fluid course he follows through the warp and weft of observed character, artifact, memory, and forgotten history fascinates. Julius is a compelling protagonist not because we learn to see him. The reader is never permitted to do so. Julius is compelling because he draws the world he sees so vividly, at a layered depth that astonishes.

It occurred to me during my third read of the novel that the author is rendering in a kind of slow motion the world of deeply particular information that seems universally accessible now that most in the developed world, and many elsewhere, have the world's libraries at our fingertips, the intertubes in our pockets for many of us, or -- paraphrasing Samuel R. Delany from one of that author's poetic titles, stars in [our] pocket[s] like grains of sand. A world in which, as Julius does, one might stumble on a monument a few blocks from New York's City Hall that "turned out to be [...] a memorial for the site of an African burial ground" and be able (by the grace of Google, Wikipedia, and the like) to know almost effortlessly that:
Into this earth had been interred the bodies of some fifteen to twenty thousand blacks, most of them slaves, but then the land had been built over and the people of the city had forgotten that it was a burial ground. It had passed into private and civic ownership. [...] In the green grass and bright sun, in the shadow of government and the marketplace, I had no purchase on who these people were whose corpses, between the 1690s and 1795, had been laid to rest beneath my feet. It was here, on the outskirts of the city at the time, north of Wall Street and so outside civilization as it was then defined, that blacks were allowed to bury their dead. Then the dead return when, in 1991, construction of a building on Broadway and Duane brought human remains to the surface. They had been buried in white shrouds. The coffins that were discovered, some four hundred of them, were almost all found to have been oriented toward the east.
But the method and ease by which we 21st Centurions can punch up information on our smartphones and iThings is not the same as knowledge, let alone the wisdom that comes of scholarship. I am far from the first to see kinship between the work of Teju Cole and that of the late W. G. Sebald, whose life extended less than a decade into the era of the World Wide Web, and whose work is also filled with discursive historical and quasi-historical tangents (cf., for example, Miguel Syjuco in the NY Times on 25 Feb 2011, These Crowded Streets).

Both these novelists offer their readers a dizzying view of the depth and breadth of foundation beneath each of our hurried, modern moments, the burial grounds beneath our shiny new buildings, the obsession and power and villainy and grief that is forgotten with each sweep of our Earth around its Sun ... Google and Wikipedia be damned. It is the authors' poetic selection and ordering of these views that builds their aggregate power, not the now-trivial fact of information available on-demand.

Perhaps the finest insight I've been granted into Open City came from a member of my reading group, P--, who is also a friend and a colleague. At one point during our group's meeting earlier this month we were discussing the novel's title, and the prominence of Brussels in it, and the fact that Belgium declared Brussels an "open city" in 1940, suffering the invasion of Nazi Germany in order to spare the city and its people the worst ravages of war.

In declaring itself defenseless, Brussels surrendered its identity in order to save its corporeal life and lives, gave itself up in order to preserve its accreted, built and living history. Perhaps, P-- suggested, Julius is himself a kind of open city: he has given up his self, his personality, an identity that could have been revealed in the novel he inhabits, but is not -- in order to direct a reader's gaze toward long and powerful tides of human culture and history.

It worked for me.

Teju Cole is, according to his web site, currently working on a non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos. I expect it will be well worth reading.

Thanks to Teju Cole for the author photo made available on his website.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
First sentences in fiction
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

Friday, October 18, 2013

Radical conservatism vs the radical left

I've been mesmerized by the meltdown in D.C. these past couple weeks, how about you? Am I glad it's over? Heck yeah.

If only it were over....

Frank Rich wrote a terrific putting-things-in-perspective article this week on the recurrence of government sabotage by red-blooded Americans: The Furies Never End in New York Magazine. His premise is that the Tea Party, now sinking lower and lower in the (oh so ephemeral) polls, are not the pariahs in the country at large and outliers even in their own party that coastal in-tuh-lectual types would like to believe. Nope. Rich wrote:
Would that this were so, and that the extralegal rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, a Supreme Court–sanctified law of the land, would send the rebels, not the country, off a cliff. Off the cliff they may well have gone in this year’s failed coup, but like Wile E. Coyote, they will quickly climb back up to fight another day. That’s what happened after the double-header shutdowns of 1995–96, which presaged Newt Gingrich’s beheading but in the long run advanced the rebels’ cause. It’s what always happens. The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree. So deeply rooted are these furies in our national culture that their consistency and tenacity should be the envy of other native political movements.
I found this perspective provocative and intriguing (it goes on for quite a few words; Rich's article is long, and worth reading). It helped me to focus my own ambivalent feelings about the whole ugly mess. Because -- surprisingly perhaps, given that I profoundly disagree with most of the far right's objectives (we agree on radically reducing government snooping) -- my feelings are ambivalent.

The thing is, as a lifelong activist on the left edge of this country's political spectrum, I have to admire the Tea Party's ability to make waves.

Yeah, I think the teabaggers' positions are for the most part idiotic, hypocritical, and socially corrosive; but to be fair a whole lot of so-called "moderates" -- and pretty much everybody to the right of them -- thought the same of quite a few positions I took before they became middle-of-the-road:
  • that the U.S. should get out of Vietnam (and shouldn't have gone to war there in the first place);
  • that South African apartheid demanded active, material international opposition;
  • that same-sex lovers should be treated by others with respect, should be equally safe in public and private spaces, and should enjoy the same civil rights as opposite-sex lovers;
  • that both the 21st century Afghanistan and Iraq wars were mistakes from the get-go
... and so on.

Seriously. When I threw down on each of those issues, my position was regarded as, well, kind of wacky at best. Well to the left of mainstream.

Now? Not so much.

But the you've got to be kidding side of my ambivalence, the side most of the country took as the right wing of the G.O.P. took the government hostage and the POTUS (finally) stood his ground, left me mildly uncomfortable. I questioned how I could credibly wag my finger at tactics that I've encouraged, and used myself, and organize others to use ... in support of ending a war, or dismantling apartheid, or making safe space to be queer, or any others of the issues I've agitated for or against myself over the years.

And here I have to reveal my reformist tendencies (sorry, revolutionary comrades: I'm middle-aged now).

See, I've pretty much always understood, even when I was bellowing rage at, say, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on the barricades in front of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, that the practical, useful role of the fringe left in the most wealthy and -- in many respects and for many if not most individuals -- the most politically permissive nation of the 20th (and now 21st) century ... the actually effective role of people willing to rage at barricades and occupy buildings and blockade bridges is to push the agenda and discourse of those who hold actual power in one or another direction.

It also helps to make the people who walk picket lines and march on Washington look more reasonable to the vast middle-of-the-road. There's a spectrum, and somebody's got to hang out in the infrared.

At no time during my rage-at-the-barricades days (or since, as it happens) did I hold any more political power than the next woman or man willing to kick up a fuss. Not that we tell ourselves that in organizing meetings. Not that we don't allow ourselves to dream. But aside from enthusiastic youth and the delusional-left (and there is a delusional left in this country, just like there's a delusional right), the activists I worked and work with understand the bigger picture.

The difference between the variants of political activism in which I participate and the actions of the Tea Partiers that forced a sixteen day shutdown of the government this month, the Tea Partiers who seemed ready and willing and able to wreck the global economy by letting the U.S. default on its (legislated) debts -- that difference was pithily articulated in the hallowed pages of the New York Times about a week ago.

From last week's article Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.:
As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.


Joe Echevarria, the chief executive of Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, said, "I'm a Republican by definition and by registration, but the party seems to have split into two factions."

While both parties have extreme elements, he suggested, only in the G.O.P. did the extreme element exercise real power. "The extreme right has 90 seats in the House," Mr. Echevarria said. "Occupy Wall Street has no seats."
Uh, yeah. That's just about right. And right from the mouth of the C.E.O. of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, the largest professional services network in the world by revenue and by the number of professionals (if Wikipedia is to be believed).

Sure, Elizabeth Warren gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but she ain't OWS by a longshot. She was a professor at Harvard Law before she got elected Senator. And now ... she's a Senator (a Senator I would vote to re-elect in a Massachusetts minute if I lived in the state she represented).

So the difference between my left-fringe activism and the so-called Tea Party's: is it success?

Well, I don't think so. Look again at that bulleted list of erstwhile-fringe issues earlier in this post. I'd say that over the time the arc of history has bent toward the left-fringe in each of those cases.

The difference is power. The Tea Party had -- and has -- real power, in the form of those ninety seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And they weren't afraid to use it. I'm far from convinced they'll be afraid to use it again.

It's almost a tautology to say that a large majority of U.S. citizens inhabits the middle of the political spectrum. That middle is movable, certainly. In past decades it has located itself well to the left of its current spread. I'd like to believe it'll scooch over that way again, and I do my small, sometimes fringey part to induce just that.

But if the actual activist left -- I'm not talking about center-rightists like the POTUS who are rhetorical victims of idjuts who wouldn't know a socialist if one came right up to them and offered to share a sandwich -- if the actual activist left held and exercised power in the way the Tea Party did these past several weeks? We'd be in the same doghouse the Tea Party inhabits now. Worse, because Deloitte's CEO and his comrades would have been (are) hounding us from the get-go.

This is not a call for lefties to give up. Heck no. Real activists don't ever give up. We're constitutionally incapable of it. That, indeed, is Frank Rich's thesis.

So what's Frank Rich's prescription? Here, from the conclusion of that same New York Magazine article (bold emphasis is mine):
Some Democrats nonetheless cling to the hope that electoral Armageddon will purge the GOP of its radicals, a wish that is far less likely to be fulfilled now than it was after Goldwater’s landslide defeat, when liberalism was still enjoying the last sunny days of its postwar idyll. This was also the liberal hope after Gingrich’s political demise of 1998. But his revolution, whatever its embarrassments, hypocrisies, and failures, did nudge the country toward the right: It’s what pushed Clinton to announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” and to adopt policy modulations that tamped down New Deal–Great Society liberalism. The right has only gained strength within the GOP ever since. Roughly half of the party’s current House population was first elected in 2010 or 2012, in the crucible of the tea-party revolt. While it’s Beltway conventional wisdom that these Republicans don’t know how to govern, the real issue is that they don’t want to govern. That’s their whole point, and they are sticking to it.

Dwindling coastal Republicans of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion like Peter King nonetheless keep hoping that the extremists will by some unspecified alchemy lose out to the adults in their party. Tune in to Morning Joe, that echo chamber of Northeast-corridor greenroom centrism hosted by Joe Scarborough, a chastened former firebrand of the Gingrich revolution, and you’ll hear the ultimate version of this fantasy: Somehow Chris Christie will parlay his popularity in the blue state of New Jersey into leading the national party back to sanity and perhaps even into the White House.

To believe this you not only have to believe in miracles, but you also have to talk yourself into buying the prevailing bipartisan canard, endorsed by King and Obama alike, that the radicals are just a rump within the GOP (“one faction of one party in one house of Congress,” in the president’s reckoning). In reality, the one third of the Republican House caucus in rebel hands and the electorate it represents are no more likely to surrender at this point than the third of the states that seceded from the Union for much the same ideological reasons in 1860–61. Unless and until the other two thirds of the GOP summons the guts to actually fight and win the civil war that is raging in its own camp, the rest of us, and the health of our democracy, will continue to be held hostage.
We'll see what the G.O.P. does with the next several months. In the meantime, you might want to lay in a supply of USDA-inspected foodstuffs, get some visits in to national monuments, download images sent home from Mars by the Curiosity -- to stock up on whatever you like about government.

'Cuz January's right around the corner.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Making a world where queer kids thrive
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire

Thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image of anarchist protesters at the Republication National Convention in 2008; and to cometstarmoon for the image of a Tea Party protester in April 2009.