Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I expected to like Teju Cole’s 2011 debut novel Open City because it belongs to a literary tradition I love—the flâneur novel, in which a narrator idly wanders city streets, his (and it’s usually his) thoughts digressing in step with his motion. But I ended up appreciating Open City most for the way it subverts that very form. It’s beyond cliché to compare Cole’s book to the works of W.G. Sebald, whose four brilliant novels of itinerant melancholy trace the lineages of 20th-century violence. Still, Cole’s prose and the project really are Sebaldian, much more so than most of the work that gets haphazardly compared to the German depressive. In Open City, as in Sebald’s books, a reticent man drifts about having long, even essayistic exchanges with others (often strangers) and noticing things about his milieu, especially the ways it’s built over and conceals brutal histories. But while Sebald figures his narrators’ post-Holocaust alienation as an almost metaphysical principle, transforming them into spectral vessels, Cole grounds us firmly in the life of his central character, Julius, a Nigerian-German psychiatrist completing a fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. We quickly get a sense of Julius’s aloofness, which borders on misanthropy: Early in his self-imposed walking regimen he experiences the human bustle of New York streets “as an incessant loudness,” and when he encounters a disabled man on the subway, he refuses him money because he finds the man’s performance of suffering distasteful. These displays undercut the romance of his detached tone; if his rich, melancholic riffs on philosophy, history, and music remain intoxicating, they also come to seem arrogant, even menacing.
When we arrive at Open City’s striking climactic turn, in which Julius is accused of an act of brutal violence and says nothing in response, the pretense of the novel’s form elegantly collapses. Cole prepares us for this by having Julius reflect on the difficulty of the psychiatric task of diagnosis, since “the mind is opaque to itself, and it’s hard to tell where, precisely, these areas of opacity are.” He compares it to the ophthalmological phenomenon of “an area at the back of the bulb of the eye, the optic disk, where the million or so ganglia of the optic nerve exit the eye. It is precisely there, where too many of the neurons associated with vision are clustered, that vision goes dead.” This evokes an earlier discussion of literary theorist Paul de Man’s notion of insight, which “can actually obscure other things” and become “a blindness.” In the same way, it is Julius’s obsessive observation and analysis that obfuscates his own participation in the violence of the world. The final pages offer what I read as a subtle revision of Dante—perhaps a proto-flâneur, even if his course was divinely set—in which Julius, hearing an ambulance “heading toward Times Square’s neon inferno,” looks up at the stars, and sees in them not glimpses of heaven, but instead all that he cannot see. His descent into hell has taken him nowhere.
Reading reviews of the novel, I was struck that most critics, even those who admired the novel, read it quite differently. James Wood, in a representative rave for The New Yorker, sees Julius’s “ordinary solipsism” as “an obstacle to understanding other people,” but ultimately “enabl[ing] liberal journeys of comprehension.” For Wood, Julius’s solipsism places limits on his knowledge but does not truly undermine it. Indeed, Wood writes that Julius’s “political inactivity has to do with his ability to see things so well.” But Wood passes over everything in the novel that suggests we might mistrust the quality of Julius’s vision. Perhaps aiming not to reveal too much, most of the writing on Open City I read made no mention of the consequential climax; the one major review that did, in The New York Times, presented it as a shoehorned twist rather than a culmination of subterranean currents. A fascinating article by scholar Pieter Vermeulen resonated much more with my own reading. Vermeulen argues that critics have missed that the novel “interrogrates rather than celebrates” the idea of “literary cosmopolitanism,” in which “productive alienation” (Wood’s term) generates understanding. He suggests that Julius is not a flâneur at all, but rather a “fugueur”—an amnesiac figure for whom, in the words of philosopher Ian Hacking, wandering is “less a voyage of self-discovery than an attempt to eliminate self.”
Aparna Gopalan (JC fellow): It used to be once a year, then every six months, and now every few weeks I find myself doomsday planning with my loved ones. When “it” happens—and the “it” could be anything, really: a typhoon, an armed mob, a nuclear missile—where will we run to? What will we take with us? What skills will we need to survive whatever it is we are running from? As we flee, how will we make sure that we both support others and protect ourselves from others?
Lately, these apocalypse-prep sessions have come to seem more and more like a reading group discussion of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. All our imaginary doomsday scenarios seem to echo the book’s protagonist Lauren Olamina’s flight from the ruins of her life in 2024 California. At the beginning of the book, Lauren is a disabled Black teenager living in a lower-middle class gated community. The walls protect Lauren and her family from the turmoil churning outside - armies of the homeless, the addicted (their drug is called “pyro” and causes pyromania), the poor, the armed, and others left to die amidst a total ecological and economic breakdown. But Lauren, precocious as she is, knows that the walls are only delaying the inevitable, and one day they will fall under the weight of the desperation of the masses outside. She keeps her bags packed, learns to fire a gun, invents a new religion that helps her get through the end of days, and tries against all odds to get her family to take her seriously.
One night, Lauren’s predictions come true in the worst, grisliest possible way as her neighborhood is attacked by gangs of pyromaniacs. Her family dies before her eyes. But even through her horror, Lauren’s survival training kicks in and she flees, joining the thousands who walk down I-101 in search of food, safety, hope: a life. Lauren navigates burning forests, escapes debt slavery, survives shootouts on the road, robs provisions from ruined neighborhoods, struggles to afford water priced like diamonds, runs into orphaned children lost in the woods, and faces again and again the vexed question of whether other people are enemies or allies, dead-weights or assets in her frenzied quest for survival. Her journey feels like one that is inevitably coming for all of us. If we are to reap what we have sown, Octavia Butler has at least offered us the comfort of knowing exactly how devastating a reaping is coming for us all.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): Recently, I consumed two pieces of media which had completely different content but a common thread: by the end of each, I sat back and thought, “WOW, I see what you did there. Magnificent.” A slow build-up; subtle until it wasn’t.
The first was the film “Official Competition,” whose Rotten Tomatoes profile reads: “Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas star as two egomaniacs commissioned by a millionaire to make a movie together in this sharp comedy skewering wealth, art, and pride.” I’d argue that nearly everyone in the film is an egomaniac: the pharmaceutical tycoon (who appears only in choice moments to further the plot, and in one scene of great comedy) looking for a project to sanitize his public legacy; Cruz, eccentric and brilliant as Lola, the director of the film-inside-a-film; Banderas as Félix, a global celebrity who drives to the first day of rehearsals in a neon convertible, making out with a younger woman; and Oscar Martínez as Iván, an acting professor who takes his vocation, and himself, very seriously. Lola hand-picks Félix and Iván—renowned stars in their own circuits who have never acted opposite each other before—to play the roles of two feuding brothers. In a series of rehearsals, she uses the tension in the actors’ relationship to fuel their artistry; over the course of the film, the levity darkens. I promise you’ll want to see the rest for yourself.
The second piece of art I found with that same element of methodical genius in weaving a story together was Peking Duck, a fiction piece by Ling Ma recently published in The New Yorker. The narrator of the story is a creative writer whose parents immigrated to the US from China when she was young, and the piece goes back and forth between her memories, her current day in a writer’s workshop, and then (seemingly) to a version of the story that she presented in that workshop. The final section is written from the perspective of her mother, the main antagonist throughout; the work as a whole ambles along patiently, until it pierces.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): A confession: my attachment to James Joyce has an intensely personal reason. For Joyce, dates were sacred, two of them in particular. First, June 16th, now known as Bloomsday, which was the day in 1904 when Joyce first went out with his companion and later wife Nora Barnacle, and the day the events in Ulysses take place. Joyce’s other holy date was February 2nd, his birthday. February 2nd is also my birthday (I turned seventy the day the book turned a hundred), as well as that of my son. I have nothing in common with Joyce but a birthday and virtual blindness, but the connection remains. And so I’ve read the book three times though I’ll likely never do so again.
Ulysses was published a hundred years ago, on February 2nd, 1922, the author’s fortieth birthday. The novel was the subject of a truly astounding exhibition at the Morgan Library, One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The Morgan has mounted, in a single room, a comprehensive collection of documents, manuscripts, books, magazines, paintings, photos, paintings, and even a store sign from the original Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Taken together, the items tell the story of Joyce’s writing life, dedication, and sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices he imposed on his family in his dedication to his art.
Joyce knew early on that he was fated to live away from his natal Dublin and that his fate was to never be understood. At twenty-two he wrote a lengthy poem printed as a broadside (which he was unable to pay for and so went undistributed) called “The Holy Office,” in which he said in the final stanza: “I stand the self-doomed, unafraid/unfollowed, friendless, and alone.” But he was not alone in his travels, accompanied by his faithful Nora (the exhibition includes one of the many salacious letters he wrote when they were apart), as well as their two children.
The exhibition follows Joyce on peregrinations to Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. The brilliantly conceived and executed catalog of the show tracks Joyce’s itinerary, featuring his passport, a letter from the ever-generous Ezra Pound offering advice on getting his poetry published, and another from Sylvia Beach who saw to the publication of Ulysses when no one else, including Virginia Woolf and her Hogarth press, would.
Anyone interested in Joyce, Ulysses, or just literature, can only be grateful to the Morgan for bringing together manuscript pages, corrected galleys, and addenda to the galleys, providing us with a near-perfect imager of the incredible work involved in the creation of the most difficult book in world literature.
More people love Ulysses than have ever read it. One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is so gripping that its success at bringing people to the actual work is all but certain. Reading Ulysses is not a test. You will miss many things in it, and that’s fine. Most people get things wrong about the book. For example, despite evidence to the contrary, the main character Leopold Bloom is assumed to be Jewish. But read it anyway: feel the thrill of the language, and experience the joy and affirmation of Molly’s soliloquy that ends the book.
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