The Pleasure of a Hazy Genre

Teju Cole: I’d read an article or two by him, and was impressed enough to keep an eye out for his books whenever I’d wander into a store. But until the other day, the timing just never worked out; I always had some more pressing purchase to make, and not enough funds to bring in another book, especially since I’d always only find Cole’s stuff new. I should have realized early on that said fact might just be due to his stuff being the kind of high-quality writing you don’t want to part with once you’ve got your hands on it.

And so, one of my favorite local purveyors of the written word came to my rescue, when they featured a lone, new copy of Open City on their $5 bargain shelf. But I’ll have to admit to being irritated at first; like many a New Yorker, or a transplant to the city, Cole is pretty heavy on the geographical name-dropping during the first part of the book, assuming that describing his walking routes by listing the streets and parks and buildings he passes will be enough for the non-native to form a picture of the scene. Yes, we know you’re in the know about New York City; congratulations on being so sophisticated and hip. The rest of us bumpkins who don’t do more than visit every now and then will meet you at the next point in the narrative containing a description that can give us a real clue about what you’d like us to be feeling and seeing.

The New New York, John Charles Van Dyke and Joseph Pennell, via Wikimedia Commons.

The New New York, John Charles Van Dyke and Joseph Pennell, via Wikimedia Commons.

I also couldn’t initially figure out what this book was supposed to be; fictional foot-based travelogue? A search for family? But then I stopped trying to shove the piece into a genre or agenda, and let myself enjoy Cole’s really beautiful writing style– and found myself happily amazed to feel as if W.G. Sebald had handed him the task of continuing his projects of crossing unmarked boundaries between memories and contemporary life and history, giving no easy clues about whether certain events actually happened or not.

Speaking of one of those occurrences, one of the things I ended up appreciating about Open City, in line with its constituting an ambiguous method of storytelling, was its leaving open-ended just what happened in the wake of our being informed about something terrible for which the narrator seems to have been responsible (but maybe not?). Towards the end, a piece of information punches full throttle into our emotional gut– and then nothing more is said about it, leaving us to wonder what really went on, and to ponder the protagonist’s sometime emotional detachment, hints of which glimpse out of the narrative from time to time.

Because I may be about to veer off into unrelated territory, I’ll sum up the review section of this post by saying I can’t wait to read more of Cole– and if I’m lucky enough, to imbibe even a little of his own way with words. But here we go: sudden transition.

(Transition Indicator, to make it official, or maybe to indicate a mere unrelated afterthought)

Early on, Cole has one of his characters talk about the way in which things he’s read have lodged in his mind: “Now I don’t remember the exact words of them anymore, it’s been too long, but I need only the environment created by the poems.”* The man does go on to say that just a line or two will allow him to recall “what the poem says, what it means,” a gift that goes much further than my own frequent inability to tell a person what I absolutely loved about a certain work, or even what it was about– only that the feeling that came with reading it, and even the place and/or time in which I read it, is strikingly unique and easily identifiable. And so although I can’t go further than recognizing “the environment created by” certain works that continue to hold a solid place in my heart and mind, the relief of seeing someone who’d be able, I think, to understand my faultily loving brain, was great enough to make me give a shout-out to that scene, and to the man who put it on paper.


*Teju Cole, Open City (New York: Random House, 2011), 14.


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