I got quite a shock when I opened the latest New Yorker and discovered a long rave review by the extremely prestigious James Wood of “Teju Cole’s prismatic début novel, Open City.” Teju Cole? My Teju Cole? I shouldn’t have been surprised; he’d told me a year or two ago that he had a novel coming out from Random House, but I’ve been distracted by other things and lost track, and now here it was. Of course, it’s not actually his début novel, a distinction that belongs to His prior work, which he says was a novella rather than a novel, was Every Day is for the Thief (which I reviewed here)., but never mind, Teju must be over the moon—it’s hard to imagine a better review:

…Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it…
…This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person. And how very subtle of Teju Cole to suggest, at the same time—but with barely an authorial whisper—that perhaps Farouq leans too heavily on his theoretical texts, and that this was the real cause of the plagiarism charge. … And how delicately Cole has Julius pulsate, in contradictory directions, sometimes toward Farouq, in fellow feeling, and sometimes away from him, never really settling in one position.

I very much look forward to reading it, and I congratulate a fine writer on having so deservedly hit the big time.
Meanwhile, I’m reading Konstantin Simonov‘s 1959 WWII novel Zhivye i myortvye (The Living and the Dead), and I have to thank Sashura for recommending it to me—I’m devouring it faster than I have any previous Russian novel I’ve read, thanks to a combination of relatively simple prose and page-turning action. And at night my wife and I have moved on to P.G. Wodehouse; she loved Something Fresh, so we’re sticking with Blandings and moving on to Summer Lightning. Reading Wodehouse aloud is a constant delight.


  1. I was just about to commend Open City to you; I’ll have some thoughts on it up on my blog on Monday.
    Basically, Open City is a really fantastic and thoughtful (dare I say Proustian) exploration of subjectivity–I don’t think I’ve ever felt as understood by a writer, except maybe Musil–but it’s almost plotless, so your experience depends completely on how well you can relate to the protagonist.

  2. That said, it’s not true that it’s entirely plotless; in fact, the one significant event in the plot, which Cole brilliantly has take place off-camera, should largely determine your response to the novel. It’s too easy to take the sympathetic-Hamlet-type-protagonist for granted, and you can only really start thinking about what the novel says once you figure out what kind of narrator he really is.

  3. Yes, it’s so jazzing to see Teju rocket up like that! The reviews have been terrific. And we can say we knew him back when 🙂
    Brinkley Manor, I think, was the first Wodehouse I read aloud to my wife: that would have what, 36 years ago? And I plan to read her another Bingo Little story tonight 🙂

  4. I live among the Nigerians on my block in Midtown Manhattan…my friend Gorah who runs a shoe store on my block has told me many a gory story about the Nigerian and Senegalese hustlers coming to New York City and dealing in their vast rip-off world marketing schemes mostly backed by criminal elements in China and Singapore. A very intriguing world going on daily right here on NYC’s Midtown street corners. One thing I’ve noticed among the “spotters” who stand around on the corners: they are all connected by cell phones, on which they are jabbering in Senegalese French and Nigerian English every minute they’re doing their spotting–warning the various hustlers up and down the street of the uniformed cops and undercover cops (FBI/Interpol undercover guys all over the place) who are in a constant move against these guys–but there are also a lot of Senegalese and Nigerian women working the streets with the men. I’ve probably come across Teju in my neighborhood before. What was that Nigerian writer who once worked with us?–I thought I’d never forget his name–worked for Vintage and then got a teaching spot out at Minnesota, I think–remember he was working on HIS big novel at the time about Nigerian life in NYC.
    I noticed in one review of Cole’s “first” novel they mentioned that Random House loved the book because of its movie potentiality–as this reviewer said it’s the way publishers pick new novels these days–and I think I read where Cole has already been offered a movie deal. I think it’s a crying shame that novelists must now write their novels in terms of movie potentiality rather than in terms of the actual writing style and its readability and reading-involved excitement of a person-to-person relationship with the writer. Oh well, I don’t see any other way for a novelist to get published in this new high-speed world so, hell, write as though your novel is moving-pictorially imaginable. I, of course, as an unpublished novelist, am professionally jealous as hell, though I’m always excited to see a “first” novelist pull a literary rabbit out of his bag of writing tricks. New York City is so fascinating a place for novelists–remember John O’Hara wrote a novel based on letters before, Pal Joey. One of my favorite first novels is O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara that he wrote in a room in the old Pickwick Hotel–it was in the East Fifties. I actually know of two other first novels written in rooms in NYC cheap hotels–
    ur fiend and meanly jealous unpublished novelist,

  5. Simonov
    I am glad you like The Living and the Dead – looking forward to read your take on it.
    How Teju’s name is pronounced?

  6. John Emerson says

    An author who sometimes reminds me of Wodehouse (and the Wilde of “Being Ernest”) is Saki. A bit more uneven, perhaps, but if you run out of PG you’ve got a fallback.

  7. John Emerson says

    Not only do novelists write for Hollywood, but they have to resign themselves to seeing their book butchered, and they usually need a lot of smarts and determination if they hope to get much money out of it. The original author ranks below the scriptwriter, who ranks below the lighting director.
    Actually, I’ve heard that the Coen’s True Grit exceptionally followed the novel, by contrast to the John Wayne True Grit.

  8. Sashura: I believe it’s TEH-joo.
    John Emerson: Yes, I’ve loved Saki since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I’ll add him to the list of potential nighttime reading.

  9. Has the reviewer never heard of the novel written in the form of a diary? Mr. Wood apparently doesn’t believe in the concept. What a load of treacle he otherwise spews. “Mysteriously, wonderfully…” alright already, fawning in public is for deer. Further afield, “how delicately Cole has Julius pulsate…in fellow feeling”, well shiver me timbers! How can “critical and literary theory” be flourished? The question is intentionally rhetorical. Not much relief knowing that contemporary fiction has come to that. Elsewehere he speaks of the “whole context of a person”. Is that the new, literately correct way of saying the writer knows how to create believable character, dialogue and situation without recourse to academic gobbledygook? Let the deconstruction continue, the like-minded pat the initiates on the back and the centre crumbles ever more.

  10. How can “critical and literary theory” be flourished?
    I’ll actually buy “flourish,” given definition 8: “to brandish dramatically; gesticulate with: a conductor flourishing his baton for the crescendo.” But I’m with you on the review as a whole. It’s half-baked and overwrought. More and more, Wood seems to have bought into his own hype.

  11. Still excited for the novel, though.

  12. Yes, you notice I called him “prestigious” rather than, say, “perceptive,” and by “better review” I mean “more likely to do the reviewed author some good.”

  13. There are so many fussy sentences that just don’t say very much. “At these moments, and, indeed, throughout Open City, one has the sense of a productive alienation, whereby Cole (or Julius) is able to see, with an outsider’s eyes, a slightly different, or somewhat transfigured, city.” Slightly, somewhat, or, or: he’s not being precise; he’s just stuttering, importantly.
    “The modern city as unacknowledged palimpsest might seem a familiar theme, were it not renovated by Julius’s attention to the contemporary, in particular to those in danger of becoming modern victims of prosperous urban forgetfulness or carelessness.” The rest of the paragraph is about the narrator visiting a detainee at JFK — a victim of the War on Terror, I assume, though I have no idea how that’s supposed to freshen a tired theme, if it even is. I’m guessing Wood just liked having such a sophisticated concern.
    But yeah, you’re right, if he gives a deserving author a leg up, he’s still done a good thing. I’m just shocked at how much worse the writing has become since his LRB days.

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