“Samples of My Common-place Book” — Walt Whitman (from Specimen Days)
I ought not to offer a record of these days, interests, recuperations, without including a certain old, well-thumb’d common-place book, filled with favorite excerpts, I carried in my pocket for three summers, and absorb’d over and over again, when the mood invited. I find so much in having a poem or fine suggestion sink into me (a little then goes a great ways) prepar’d by these vacant-sane and natural influences.
Samples of my common-place book down at the creek:
I have—says old Pindar—many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, though they need an interpreter to the thoughtless. Such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand. H. D. Thoreau.
If you hate a man, don’t kill him, but let him live.—Buddhistic.
Famous swords are made of refuse scraps, thought worthless.
Poetry is the only verity—the expression of a sound mind speaking after the ideal—and not after the apparent.—Emerson.
The form of oath among the Shoshone Indians is, “The earth hears me.
The sun hears me. Shall I lie?”
The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops—no, but the kind of a man the country turns out.—Emerson.
The whole wide ether is the eagle’s sway:
The whole earth is a brave man’s fatherland.—Euripides.
Spices crush’d, their pungence yield,
Trodden scents their sweets respire;
Would you have its strength reveal’d?
Cast the incense in the fire.
Matthew Arnold speaks of “the huge Mississippi of falsehood called
The wind blows north, the wind blows south,
The wind blows east and west;
No matter how the free wind blows,
Some ship will find it best.
Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.—Epictetus.
Victor Hugo makes a donkey meditate and apostrophize thus:
My brother, man, if you would know the truth,
We both are by the same dull walls shut in;
The gate is massive and the dungeon strong.
But you look through the key-hole out beyond,
And call this knowledge; yet have not at hand
The key wherein to turn the fatal lock.
“William Cullen Bryant surprised me once,” relates a writer in a New York paper, “by saying that prose was the natural language of composition, and he wonder’d how anybody came to write poetry.”
Farewell! I did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ’tis prized:
So angels walk’d unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized.—Hood.
John Burroughs, writing of Thoreau, says: “He improves with age—in fact requires age to take off a little of his asperity, and fully ripen him. The world likes a good hater and refuser almost as well as it likes a good lover and accepter—only it likes him farther off.”
Louise Michel at the burial of Blanqui, (1881.)
Blanqui drill’d his body to subjection to his grand conscience and his noble passions, and commencing as a young man, broke with all that is sybaritish in modern civilization. Without the power to sacrifice self, great ideas will never bear fruit.
Out of the leaping furnace flame
A mass of molten silver came;
Then, beaten into pieces three,
Went forth to meet its destiny.
The first a crucifix was made,
Within a soldier’s knapsack laid;
The second was a locket fair,
Where a mother kept her dead child’s hair;
The third—a bangle, bright and warm,
Around a faithless woman’s arm.
A mighty pain to love it is,
And’tis a pain that pain to miss;
But of all pain the greatest pain,
It is to love, but love in vain.
Maurice F. Egan on De Guerin.
A pagan heart, a Christian soul had he,
He followed Christ, yet for dead Pan he sigh’d,
Till earth and heaven met within his breast:
As if Theocritus in Sicily
Had come upon the Figure crucified,
And lost his gods in deep, Christ-given rest.
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me,
Is, leave the mind that now I bear,
And give me Liberty.—Emily Bronte.
I travel on not knowing,
I would not if I might;
I would rather walk with God in the dark,
Than go alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith
Than pick my way by sight
“The Offshore Pirate” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. From the western half of the sky the sun was shying little golden disks at the sea—if you gazed intently enough you could see them skip from wave tip to wave tip until they joined a broad collar of golden coin that was collecting half a mile out and would eventually be a dazzling sunset. About half-way between the Florida shore and the golden collar a white steam-yacht, very young and graceful, was riding at anchor and under a blue-and-white awning aft a yellow-haired girl reclined in a wicker settee reading The Revolt of the Angels, by Anatole France.
She was about nineteen, slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity. Her feet, stockingless, and adorned rather than clad in blue-satin slippers which swung nonchalantly from her toes, were perched on the arm of a settee adjoining the one she occupied. And as she read she intermittently regaled herself by a faint application to her tongue of a half-lemon that she held in her hand. The other half, sucked dry, lay on the deck at her feet and rocked very gently to and fro at the almost imperceptible motion of the tide.
The second half-lemon was well-nigh pulpless and the golden collar had grown astonishing in width, when suddenly the drowsy silence which enveloped the yacht was broken by the sound of heavy footsteps and an elderly man topped with orderly gray hair and clad in a white-flannel suit appeared at the head of the companionway. There he paused for a moment until his eyes became accustomed to the sun, and then seeing the girl under the awning he uttered a long even grunt of disapproval.
If he had intended thereby to obtain a rise of any sort he was doomed to disappointment. The girl calmly turned over two pages, turned back one, raised the lemon mechanically to tasting distance, and then very faintly but quite unmistakably yawned.
“Ardita!” said the gray-haired man sternly.
Ardita uttered a small sound indicating nothing.
“Ardita!” he repeated. “Ardita!”
Ardita raised the lemon languidly, allowing three words to slip out before it reached her tongue.
“Oh, shut up.”
“Will you listen to me—or will I have to get a servant to hold you while I talk to you?”
The lemon descended very slowly and scornfully.
“Put it in writing.”
“Will you have the decency to close that abominable book and discard that damn lemon for two minutes?”
“Oh, can’t you lemme alone for a second?”
“Ardita, I have just received a telephone message from the shore——”
“Telephone?” She showed for the first time a faint interest.
“Yes, it was——”
“Do you mean to say,” she interrupted wonderingly, “‘at they let you run a wire out here?”
“Yes, and just now——”
“Won’t other boats bump into it?”
“No. It’s run along the bottom. Five min——”
“Well, I’ll be darned! Gosh! Science is golden or something—isn’t it?”
“Will you let me say what I started to?”
“Well it seems—well, I am up here—” He paused and swallowed several times distractedly. “Oh, yes. Young woman, Colonel Moreland has called up again to ask me to be sure to bring you in to dinner. His son Toby has come all the way from New York to meet you and he’s invited several other young people. For the last time, will you——”
“No,” said Ardita shortly, “I won’t. I came along on this darn cruise with the one idea of going to Palm Beach, and you knew it, and I absolutely refuse to meet any darn old colonel or any darn young Toby or any darn old young people or to set foot in any other darn old town in this crazy state. So you either take me to Palm Beach or else shut up and go away.”
“Very well. This is the last straw. In your infatuation for this man.—a man who is notorious for his excesses—a man your father would not have allowed to so much as mention your name—you have rejected the demi-monde rather than the circles in which you have presumably grown up. From now on——”
“I know,” interrupted Ardita ironically, “from now on you go your way and I go mine. I’ve heard that story before. You know I’d like nothing better.”
“From now on,” he announced grandiloquently, “you are no niece of mine. I——”
“O-o-o-oh!” The cry was wrung from Ardita with the agony of a lost soul. “Will you stop boring me! Will you go ‘way! Will you jump overboard and drown! Do you want me to throw this book at you!”
“If you dare do any——”
Smack! The Revolt of the Angels sailed through the air, missed its target by the length of a short nose, and bumped cheerfully down the companionway.
The gray-haired man made an instinctive step backward and then two cautious steps forward. Ardita jumped to her five feet four and stared at him defiantly, her gray eyes blazing.
“How dare you!” he cried.
“Because I darn please!”
“You’ve grown unbearable! Your disposition——”
“You’ve made me that way! No child ever has a bad disposition unless it’s her fancy’s fault! Whatever I am, you did it.”
FABER AND GWYER LTD. Publishers 24 Russell Square, London, W.C.1. 31st December, 1925
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Esqre., % Charles Scribners & Sons, New York City.
Dear Mr. Scott Fitzgerald,
The Great Gatsby with your charming and overpowering inscription arrived the very morning that I was leaving in some haste for a sea voyage advised by my doctor. I therefore left it behind and only read it on my return a few days ago. I have, however, now read it three times. I am not in the least influenced by your remark about myself when I say that it has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years.
When I have time I should like to write to you more fully and tell you exactly why it seems to me such a remarkable book. In fact it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James….
By the way, if you ever have any short stories which you think would be suitable for the Criterion I wish you would let me see them.
With many thanks, I am,
Yours very truly, T. S. Eliot
P.S. By a coincidence Gilbert Seldes in his New York Chronicle in the Criterion for January 14th has chosen your book for particular mention.
Josh Davis’s novel Vanishing Is the Last Art. Blurb:
Charlie Fell sells baseball cards with seemingly hallucinogenic properties out of his bedroom, takes road trips to places he loves (New York City) and loathes (Southern California), and trips over a series of romantic entanglements. When the young writer releases his first novel, his life begins to unravel as the fallout from his published inner-monologues drive him back inside his already frail mind
Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0′s blurb:
Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead’; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.
Full review on deck.
Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:
Publisher Random House’s blurb:
Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.
Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.
With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.
Read Shannon Mattern’s great essay “Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins” (published at Places). From the essay:
These new library projects might seem to emerge from a common culture and uphold a common mission — a flurry of press coverage in late 2011 represented them as a coherent “little library” movement. But in fact they don’t. They have varied aims and politics and assumptions about what a library is and who its publics are; their collections and services differ significantly; and their forms and functions vary from one locality to another. I want to attempt here to identify a loose, and inevitably leaky, typology of “little libraries” — to figure out where they’re coming from, how they relate to existing institutions that perform similar roles, and what impact they’re having on their communities.
George Boorujy’s marvelous paintings explore humanity’s paradoxical engagements and disengagements with “Nature” — a system that we are manifestly a part of, yet nevertheless philosophically define ourselves against. The first Boorujy painting I saw, a gorgeous bluebird, stunned me: simultaneously delicate and fierce, it emanates pride but also an ineffable quality that surpasses rational, systematic thought. The painting’s vivid colors and subject recalled to me Albrecht Dürer’s Wing of a Blue Roller. I soon found more of Boorujy’s work at the P.P.O.W. Gallery home to the artist’s second solo show, Blood Memory (535 W. 22nd St., NYC, March 15th — April 14th). Blood Memory continues Boorujy’s depiction of animals and landscapes, subjects that resonate with his extensive travels across the US as well as his background in marine biology, a subject the New Jersey native initially pursued at the University of Miami before switching to a BFA. He completed his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Boorujy is based out of Brooklyn; he paints and teaches, and works a project called New York Pelagic, where he launches original drawings of water birds (along with a questionnaire) in glass bottles into New York waterways. Check out his website.
I was thrilled to talk to George over a series of emails: he was personable, funny, and very generous. He ended his first email with one of the best sign-offs I’ve ever read: “I’m gonna go drink in the shower now.” Like many folks of delicate sensibilities and fine upbringing, I too enjoy shower beers. We rapped about Florida, ecology, Swamplandia!, the arts and sciences, the Hipster Mujahideen, the possibility of a racist ibis, and much more.
Biblioklept: Tell us about your solo show at the P.P.O.W. Gallery. It’s called Blood Memory—what kind of pieces are you showing?
George Boorujy: Animals. Surprise! But really this is the most purely animal show or body of work that I’ve done. I think there’s only one piece that isn’t of an animal. They’re mostly portrait type pieces, some quite large. I’m finishing up a lynx which is 6 by 11 feet. It sort of looks like Goya’s Colossus. There’s a black white-tailed doe, a meadowlark, a blue jay, a ram, a pronghorn, a frigate bird, a cormorant, another few deer, a Burmese python (hi Florida!). And a mountain. I always seem to need a mountain.
Biblioklept: Your past work has often focused on animals and landscapes, often with implicit ecological arguments. I know you initially studied marine biology in school—how did that course of study influence your art?
GB: I think my brain is somewhat organized like a school where arts and sciences are lumped together. So I’m using the practice of art instead of the practice of science to explore the things I’m interested in. Art and science are very similar in many ways. They are often both a pursuit of the truth. Just different tools and methods are used. Although I am an environmentalist (whatever that actually means) I try not to have any explicit agenda with the work. I want it to stir the viewer or trigger something within them, but not give them an answer or a specific point of view. If I make a piece that shows a manipulated landscape, I’m not necessarily saying it is wrong to manipulate the landscape. We all do it, and we all take advantage of fossil fuels – I love fossil fuels! They’re amazing and we should respect them more and conserve them more – I just want to show what is. Same goes for the treatment of an animal. I’m sure they’re stand-ins for something in my deep sub-conscious, but they are also just what they are, with all attendant veins and ticks and dust in their fur.
Biblioklept: How do you make your animals look so imperious, so proud?
GB: I think maybe it’s because I make them big. I try to actually give them a very indifferent expression so that people can read whatever they want into it. I suppose there is an inherent pride in the form of the animal itself because it is the result of millions of years of evolution that have made it this far. A lot of people think they look sad, which isn’t intended either. I was leaving the studio a few months back when I had a lot of them up and they all looked very judgmental. But then it was better the next day.
Biblioklept: Let’s shift to people for a moment (although people are animals too, of course). In works like Moraine and Hunters there’s a sense—at least for me—of distance, or almost intrusion (even voyeurism, if I’m being honest). I find your picture of Lincoln fascinating too. I’m curious about how you actually create these pictures: How do you plan them? How do you execute them? What motivates them?
GB: I’m happy that you felt like a voyeur. I never want the pieces to be just observations, I want them to be interactions. Those two pieces in particular could have ended up looking like dioramas or re-enactments or something if there wasn’t the eye contact and the acknowledgement of the viewer. In Hunters, there’s even a small boy hailing the viewer on the right hand side. As though the viewer was coming up in a canoe or something.
As much as I love to draw people, it’s tricky. As soon as you see someone you immediately jump to, “Who’s that? What’s her deal?” We have so much baggage and built in signifiers that it’s difficult to represent someone as a human not of a particular era or class or culture. I wanted both of those pieces to look as though they could be taking place a thousand years in the future or ten thousand years in the past. Hence, no clothes. But no clothes in situations where there would be no clothes – on the beach (a clue there with the title, Moraine, as in a glacial moraine. I live in Brooklyn down the hill from a glacial moraine, and really all of Long Island is a glacial moraine), or in the case of Hunters, people who have just come out of the water or are doing something in the water. I had to be careful with how to depict the men – one of which is me – would they be bearded? I was afraid they’d look too caveman-ish, or too much like the Hipster Muhajideen (I coined that by the way). I wanted them to be kempt as I wasn’t interested in depicting a post apocalyptic scenario or a definable Paleolithic one either. I also like the play between the indifferent expressions on the men and the smiling hailing boy.
As far as creating them, with the animals I usually make a sculpture first and then make the two-dimensional image out of that because there would be no pictures of the animals in the poses and situations that I put them. With the people, I took some pictures of myself and my friends. Then I changed some things here and there. The girls are my sister and her childhood best friend – but they weren’t naked! They had on bathing suits! And the guys are me and my friend, although it’s my body both times because I changed my mind on a pose. Nudity is a funny thing – I wanted to show them naked, but not in a sexy way. So that’s why they’re pretty modest, even though I guess you can see my dick in the one.
That same issue came up with the Lincoln piece. Originally I thought about doing him full body. But then I knew people would just be looking at his penis, which wasn’t the point. It’s easy to be sensationalistic. Harder to go for the slow burn. And I love the slow burn. Not saying that I always get there, but I am more interested in that generally. I looked at as many pictures of Lincoln that I could find and then came up with a good amalgam. With him it was almost the opposite of what I do when depicting people. Instead of going for neutrality, I was interested in showing one of the most recognizable figures as what he – and all of us – was. A human, an animal. It’s sort of like what I’m always doing, trying to make people re-see what they have seen a million times. Like, what was Lincoln? What does a jack-rabbit really look like? What are we? What are these other beings, what makes a horse?.
Biblioklept: What are you reading now?
GB: This seems like a set-up but I actually am reading that biography of Audubon by Rhodes. It is such a good read. Tracing Audubon really traces the beginning of the country, and that guy got around. So you get these really interesting portraits of cities we know today in their infancy, and cities that were once prominent but are now considered backwaters. And the countryside and rivers before they were drastically changed. I often think about how weird it is that when my grandfather was a child we still had passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. That’s not so very long ago. Now the parakeets I see are introduced monk parakeets or escaped pets. If they become established then it will be less than a geological blip where we didn’t have parakeets here. The life between introduced and native is an interesting one to ponder.
Biblioklept: As we’re on birds, it seems like a good time to bring up your New York Pelagic project. You put original drawings of birds along with questionnaires in bottles and set them loose on New York waterways. Your blog discusses the motivations and goals behind the project in detail, but maybe you could give our readers a brief overview of your expectations? Is it difficult seeing your original work float away?
GB: It’s funny, I really had no idea what to expect. I was afraid none would ever be found. But, depending on how you count it, four or five have been found out of… 15? I actually have to update the blog and do some counting. So that’s a pretty good ration considering. I didn’t expect the project to become such an exploration of the city, I’ll tell you that much. But honestly, the history of New York is so amazing, and so rich, that you can’t pick your nose without flicking a booger on an old Dutch millstone or some such thing. And it is compelling. I didn’t expect to get so writer-y. I’ve never really written before, and it’s actually pretty fun. And as far as responses I was hoping people would be excited and happy. Which, except for once, they were.
As far as letting the work go, it is surprisingly easy. I thought I’d be more sad about it. But in actuality I’ve done some of them twice to make sure the one in the bottle is really good, not just middling. I want people to find something beautiful. And even if it never gets found there’s something very satisfying about letting something I’ve worked hard on go away. Christ, I ain’t no Buddhist, but there’s something zen about it I suppose. Maybe it’s a good foil to the other work I do which is so labor intensive and made to be seen and hopefully preserved. There’s also something so nice about it being pictures of seabirds that go (mostly) missing. We don’t see then really, just the gulls in the parking lot for most of us. The large majority of them live in habitats that don’t really overlap with ours.
Biblioklept: Let’s talk Florida — you went to Miami, I went to UF in Gainesville, and I live in Northeast Florida now, which is basically a different state than South Florida . . .
GB: Miami is totally a different country. From North Florida and from the rest of the U.S. I was always bummed about not doing a semester abroad when I was there, but then realized that going there is basically eight semesters abroad. So funny that you went to UF. Our big rivals were the Seminoles of course. Which I remember some people used to refer to as the Semen Holes. Which wasn’t as disturbing as a t-shirt I remember of our mascot — an ibis of all things! – jerking off on a Seminole Indian. I would kill for that shirt now, no matter how many racist nightmares it would induce. If an ibis can be racist against a Native American . . .
I love Florida in all it’s David Lynchian beauty. Hmmm . . . this brings me to something that I read recently having to do with Florida – [Karen Russell's] Swamplandia! I hated it. And for very specific reasons. She is trying desperately to be funny, but she’s not. And it really brings down the whole thing.Every character in the book is trying so hard to out-quirk the next. There’s no straight man. Not that there has to be per se, but there is no anchor to the book. And I like flawed characters, but none of hers are particularly likeable. Even with all their quirks—in defter hands it would work. But like I said, she’s just not a funny writer and it seems like she thinks she has to be. Which is a shame, because there’s an interlude in the book (which I think was in The New Yorker) which is beautiful. So well written and evocative and moody. And well told. It’s not funny, but not everything has to be. I wish she had just expanded that into a whole novel instead of crowbarring a bunch of kooks around it. But now I’m listening to State of Wonder as I finish up a painting for the show and it is excellent.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
GB: I thought I hadn’t, but then I realized I had. And this seems almost like a plant as well. It was a Swedish publication about Seabirds. And I really passively stole it from the New York Public Library. I honestly think I was the only one who ever took it out. And then I kept bringing it back late. And then one time it was so late that they just billed me for it as a lost book. I could have returned it, but it was only like 14 bucks! Over the years I had probably paid 20 in late fees on it already. Wait—maybe I didn’t steal one because I paid the 14 bucks. But it was somehow dishonest.
“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall . . .” begins Julius, the perspicacious narrator of Teju Cole’s admirable and excellent début Open City. That opening “And” is significant, an immediate signal to the reader that this novel will refuse to align itself along (or even against) traditional arcs of plot and character development. We will meet Julius in media res, and we will leave him there, and along the way there will be learning and suffering and compassion and strange bubbles of ambiguity that threaten to burst out of the narrative.
As noted, Open City begins with Julius’s peripatetic voyages; he walks the night streets of New York City to ostensibly relieve the “tightly regulated mental environment of work.” Julius is completing his psychiatry fellowship at a hospital, and the work takes a toll on him, whether he admits it or not. In these night walks—and elsewhere and always throughout the novel—Julius shares his sharp observations, both concrete and historical. No detail is too small for his fine lens, nor does he fail to link these details to the raw information that rumbles through his mind: riffs on biology, history, art, music, philosophy, and psychology interweave the narrative. Julius maps the terrain of New York City against its strange, mutating history; like a 21st century Ishmael, he attempts to measure it in every facet—its architecture, its rhythms, its spirit. And if there is one thread that ties Julius’s riffs together it is the nightmare of history:
But atrocity is nothing new, not to humans, not to animals. The difference is that in our time it is uniquely well organized, carried out with pens, train carriages, ledgers, barbed wire, work camps, gas. And this late contribution, the absence of bodies. No bodies were visible, except the falling ones, on the day America’s ticker stopped.
Open City is the best 9/11 novel I’ve read, but it doesn’t set out to be a 9/11 novel, nor does it dwell on that day. Instead, Cole captures something of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, and at the same time situates it in historical context. When Julius remarks on the recent past, the concrete data of history writhes under the surface. He remarks that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center “was not the first erasure on the site,” and goes on to detail the 1960s cityscapes that preceded the WTC. Before those, there was Washington Market. Then Julius embarks, via imagination, into the pre-Colombian space of the people we now call Indians or Native Americans. “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories,” he concludes, peering at the non-site that simultaneously anchors these memory-spaces.
Julius’s line, like the lines that comprise New York City (and perhaps, if we feel the spirit of its democratic project, America itself) is a mixed one, heterogeneous and multicultural. Julius’s father, now dead, was an important man in Nigeria, where Julius enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. Julius’s mother—they are now estranged—is German. He remarks repeatedly about his German grandmother’s own displacements during WWII, reflecting at one point that, from a historical perspective, it was likely impossible that she escaped Cossack rape.
Even though he sometimes seems reticent to do so, Julius delves into the strange violence that marks his lineage. He recalls a childhood fascination with Idi Amin; as a boy, he and his cousins would watch the gory film The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin repeatedly: ” . . . we enjoyed the shock of it, its powerful and stylized realism and each time we had nothing to do, we watched the film again.”
Fascinated horror evinces repeatedly in Open City. In just one example, Julius believes he sees “the body of a lynched man dangling from a tree”; as he moves closer to inspect, he realizes that it is merely canvas floating from a construction scaffold. Perhaps so attuned to history’s grand catalog of spectacular atrocity, Julius finds it lurking in places where it does not necessarily evince.
In turn, despite his profession as psychiatrist, Julius is wary of human sympathy. Throughout the novel, dark-skinned men engage him by calling him “brother.” He almost always deflects these attempts at connection, and internally remarks them as fatuous, or naïve, or false. This is not to say though that Julius doesn’t make significant (if often transitory) connections.
One of the organizing principles of Open City comes in the form of Julius’s infrequent visits to the home of his former English professor, Dr. Saito, who is slowly dying. Saito’s own memories float into Julius—this technique repeats throughout the novel—and we learn that he was interned as a young man during WWII; the sad fact is another ugly kink in the line of American history that Julius attempts to trace.
Julius also befriends Dr. Maillotte, an aging surgeon on a flight to Brussels, where he spends a few weeks of Christmas vacation, ostensibly looking for his oma (a task he performs half-heartedly at best). As Julius daydreams, Dr. Maillotte, European émigré, finds a place within his vision of family members and friends:
I saw her at fifteen, in September 1944, sitting on a rampart in the Brussels sun, delirious with happiness at the invaders’ retreat. I saw Junichiro Saito on the same day, aged thirty-one or thirty-two, unhappy, in internment, in an arid room in a fenced compound in Idaho, far away from his books. Out there on that day, also, were all four of my own grandparents: the Nigerians, the Germans. Three were gone by now, for sure. But what of the fourth, my oma? I saw them all, even the one I had never seen in real life, saw all of them in the middle of that day in September sixty-two years ago, with their eyes open as if shut, mercifully seeing nothing of the brutal half century ahead and better yet, hardly anything at all of all that was happening in their world, the corpse-filled cities, camps, beaches, and fields, the unspeakable worldwide disorder that very moment.
In Brussels, Julius meets Farouq, an angry young man with intellectual, Marxist tendencies. Farouq believes in a theory of “difference” and finds himself at odds with both the dominant Belgian culture and with Western culture in general. Julius’s conversations with Farouq are a highlight of the novel; they help to further contextualize the drama of diaspora in the post-9/11 world. Later, Julius finds a counterweight to some of Farouq’s extreme positions over a late lunch with Dr. Maillotte, who suggests that “For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous.” There’s a sense of reserved moderation to her critique—not outright dismissal nor condemnation, but simply a recognition that there are “an endless variety of difficulties in the world.”
Julius seems to tacitly agree with Maillotte’s assessment. His reluctance to accept brotherhood based on skin color alone speaks to a deeper rejection of simplicity, of tribe mentality, of homogeneity; it also highlights his essential alienation. At the same time, he’s acutely aware of how skin color matters, how identity can be thrust upon people, despite what claims to agency we might make. In search of the line that will connect him to his part of the American story, Julius finds unlikely “brothers” in Farouq, Maillotte, and Saito.
But let us not attribute to Julius a greater spirit than Cole affords him: Open City is a novel rich in ambiguity, with Julius’s own personal failures the most ambiguous element of all. While this is hardly a novel that revolves on plot twists, I hesitate to illustrate my point further for fear of clouding other readers’ perceptions; suffice to say that part of the strange, cruel pleasure of Open City is tracing the gaps in Julius’s character, his failures as a professional healer—and his failures to remark or reflect upon these failures.
But isn’t this the way for all of us? If history is a nightmare that we try to awake from—or, more aptly in a post-9/11 world, a nightmare that we awake to, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek—then there is also the consolation and danger that time will free us from the memory of so much atrocity, that our collective memory will allow those concrete details to slip away, replaced with larger emblems and avatars that neatly smooth out all the wrinkles of ambiguity. “I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life,” Julius wonders at one point; later, Saito points out that “There are towns whose names evoke a real horror in you because you have learned to link those names with atrocities, but, for the generation that follows yours, those names will mean nothing; forgetting doesn’t take long.” Julius’s mission then is to witness and remark upon the historical realities, the nitty-gritty details that we slowly edge out of the greater narrative. And Cole? Well, he gives us a novel that calls attention to these concrete details while simultaneously exploring the dangerous subjectivity behind any storytelling.
If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend, saying, Hey, you there, read this, we need to talk about this. Very highly recommended.
Open City is new in trade paperpack from Random House.