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the alibi of fiction: james wood on teju cole

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I’ve not finished reading Teju Cole’s new Open City as I’ve been interrupted by review work and the like. So obviously I’ll withhold judgment on the novel itself. But for now it does seem to me worth noting that James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker is as clear a manifestation of what we might call the political unconscious of “liberal” fiction as is possible. Probably best to read the whole thing to contextualize what I’m about to quote, which comes at the end of the piece:

[The protagonist] is engaged but disengaged. He is curious about the lives of others, but that curiosity is perhaps purchased at the expense of commonality. (This contradiction is even more strongly felt in the work of V. S. Naipaul, whose influence is apparent in Cole’s book.) The city is “open,” but perhaps only in a negative way: full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another. One’s own small hardships—such as forgetting one’s A.T.M. card number, as Julius does, and being consumed by anxiety about it—may dominate a life as completely as someone else’s much larger hardships, because life is brutally one’s own, and not someone else’s, and is, alas, brutally banal. In a sad and eloquent passage, Julius suggests that perhaps it is sane to be solipsistic:

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 these stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. 

This is a brave admission about the limits of sympathy, coming as it does near the end of a book full of other people’s richly recorded stories. Julius is not heroic, but he is still the (mild) hero of his book. He is central to himself, in ways that are sane, forgivable, and familiar. And this selfish normality, this ordinary solipsism, this lucky, privileged equilibrium of the soul is an obstacle to understanding other people, even as it enables liberal journeys of comprehension. Julius sets out only to put people’s lives down on paper, and not to change them, as Farouq, his secret sharer and alter ego, would want to do. But then it is because Julius set out not to change Farouq’s life but to put it down on paper that we know Farouq so well.

In other words, Cole’s novel – whose protagonist is a half-Nigerian, half-German resident in psychiatry in New York – shows us, by the very act of looking at others, that our solipsism is nonetheless somehow not only terminal and excusable but also heroic. We look at others, others who are sometimes oppressed or angry or both, and in the very act of looking we learn that we can never truly see let alone try and connect but that that, in the end, is OK and probably even for the best. All this seeing is an alibi for itself. In short, the abbreviated version of Wood’s review would go something like this:

Valued New Yorker subscriber: read this elegant new novel by a young novelist, originally from Nigeria but now over here, and you too can move around your multicultural but gentrified neighborhood and all of those semi-interactions that you have with multi-hued cab drivers and shop keepers, utility workers and homeless people not only will become more vivid, they will further testify to the vivid youness of you, the heroism of your liberal quietude, the saintliness of your merely seeing. Even that which you see on the tv news – all those uncountable masses of often suffering others – will affirm in their difference and distance that you, sir or madam, are the hero of your own life, a self-contained monadic innocent amidst all that whatever and whomever out there in the fascinating world.

Again, I’d like to finish the book for myself, but this does make Cole’s novel sound like a candidate to replace McEwan’s Saturday as my permanent reference when it comes to what Ballard called conventional fiction’s “consular characters” and the ideological work that they do, despite the best of intentions. 

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 31, 2011 at 11:23 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction

10 Responses

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  1. I’ve not finished reading Teju Cole’s new Open City as I’ve been interrupted by review work and the like.


    August 31, 2011 at 12:59 pm

  2. Yep, that’s what I said… I was reading it, then I was assigned a novel to review that’s very very long, and so I’ve had to set it aside for the moment.


    August 31, 2011 at 1:01 pm

  3. I also “have not finished reading Teju Cole’s new Open City as I’ve been interrupted by review work and the like” – but I was enjoying its peripathetic mood, that seemed sebaldian with a twist, it was pleasing me.

    I was, like many, I suppose, led to the book because of the review – I thought it surprisingly generous for Wood’s standards. But I haven’t thought, not even for a moment, in terms of what you point to here, Ad-Man. But now that I’ve read you it makes sense, even though etc & so on

    My point being the trite one that this is criticism at work.


    August 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  4. By the way, I’ve been meaning to say that everyone should check out Teju Cole’s twitter feed ( He’s doing a sort of Nouvelles en trois lignes ( thing with the Lagos papers that very interesting indeed…. Definitely one of the smarter uses of twitter that I’ve yet come across….


    August 31, 2011 at 4:11 pm

  5. Lawks Wood is obtuse; his own (white) solipsism is blindingly bright there in his take on the plagiarism passage. It’s as if something like the “bet you can hail a cab though” line in The Inside Man went over his head.


    September 2, 2011 at 1:16 am

  6. I liked this response to Wood’s class narcissism a lot, and thought from your apt McEwan reference that you might be interested in Elaine Hadley’s diagnosis of Saturday as representative of a more general return in the “post-9/11” moment of patterns of fantasy characteristic of Victorian liberalism. From her “On a Darkling Plain: Victorian Liberalism and the Fantasy of Agency”:

    We can see throughout McEwan’s novel what I now recognize as not just a characteristically liberal aesthetic, but liberalism’s social aesthetic, a certain fantasy of an elegant, cognitive agency in the public square. Punctuating more central events in the text, Perowne is shown looking out the window of his chic real estate into a park. Nurses leaving a hospital, a young woman crying, a dispute between a couple: these moments of inscrutable humanity both gesture toward a vast social unknown and focus them within the thoughts of Perowne. In the face of the inscrutable, McEwan privileges Perowne’s habit of narration, his meditative attribution of agency, his thoughts about the social sublime that are more nearly alert to their status as thought than as anything else. This is, in fact, a classic Victorian liberal response to the world without—what I call a cognitive formalism that makes beautiful thought about humanity taken as a social whole, as when Arnold identifies with Sophocles, who “brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery”.


    September 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm

  7. Here’s some random guy giving a paper on Saturday that I think some of you might find interesting:


    September 3, 2011 at 7:33 am

  8. The random guy ends rather abruptly… He was worried about time even though he didn’t really need to. But take a look – it’s short.


    September 3, 2011 at 7:41 am

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