Nicie Panetta’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Nicie Panetta (@nicie_panetta). Nicie lives north of Boston with her husband, their frisky orange cat, and her lazy but lovable paint pony. She used to have some empty space on her bookshelves. That is no longer the case.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

The Anthropocene

Almost a year ago, I started a weekly newsletter called Frugal Chariot. I write about books that I believe have something special to say about the troubled role of humans in the non-human world. I guess you could say that the fate of the earth and all that dwell within its embrace is my subject, but that books written by humans are my vehicle. “How frugal is the Chariot/ that bears a Human soul.” Thank you, Dorian for a chance to reflect here on my reading as a whole in 2021. [Ed – The pleasure is all mine!]

From the standpoint of literary merit and depth of meaning, my favorite book on the Anthropocene, which I haven’t yet written about for the newsletter, is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I ardently recommend it for the magisterial precision of his writing, for the prophetic nature of his insights, and for the great fighting heart that you can feel beating within the rather strict container of his style and tone. I did write about Lopez’s Horizon here.

From the standpoint of environmental news you can use, I would press into your hands Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson. The author, a leading entomologist, explains carefully and without histrionics why bugs are vitally important to all life on earth, and what we do know and don’t yet know about the extent and causes of insect population declines. He also has practical suggestions for individuals and for industry and government. This is an indispensable guide for the general reader to the way that the climate and biodiversity interrelate, and it’s also full of delight and discovery.

A quick request, if I may. I would be very grateful for any suggestions that EMJ readers might have for nature, place, and climate writing (does not have to be in book form) from underrepresented geographies, marginalized communities, and Indigenous writers. [Ed. – Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig’s Moon of Crusted Snow: two novels by Indigenous Canadians, dystopian clifi that foreground indigenous ways of knowing.] I am concerned that there are not enough voices from outside the Anglosphere and outside the OECD countries getting heard. My DMs are open and my email is Thanks in advance.

The Thing Is . . .

Because I am starting work on a climate-related place writing project [Ed. – Ooh, tease!], I have devoted much attention over the past year to treatments of the non-human, across my reading. The books that resonated most deeply for me often had a commitment to the thing-ness of things, to quiddity, to description. What follows are just a few examples of writings that I felt were exceptional on this score. Many if not most of these books came from recommendations provided by Learned Book Folks (LBFs) on Twitter, and I am so grateful. 

Two Writers’ Memoirs

Last year I read nearly forty memoirs. [Ed. — !] Deborah Levy’s Autobiographical Trilogy truly knocked my socks off. How could I never have heard of this writer! Thank you to Rebecca Hussey, for sending her my way. In the first volume, Levy makes highly effective use of narrative shear: a simple question from a stranger causes the floor of the present to buckle and give way to the past. In the two subsequent volumes, she uses totems of the everyday to represent the new phase of her life that begins after the end of her long marriage: a shed for writing, a heater for the shed, an electric bike to get around, a green pair of shoes for walking in Paris. 

It’s the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation. These objects, as they appear and reappear, create a syncopated rhythm that feels so true to the way we pass through time. Levy writes well about many things, including the closeness and strangeness of friendship, the commitments of motherhood (including the commitment to let go), the practicalities of being a writer, and most of all, what it is to be awake to life. Utterly captivating is this voyage on the inland sea of her mind: 

To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language.

Another writer’s memoir that is much less well known is Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of classics of historical fiction for children (including The Eagle of the Ninth). [Ed. – Just taking a moment here to remember how much that book meant to me.] Her account of growing up as an only child with chronic illness and disability is both sharp and glowing. Sutcliff’s portrait of her intense relationship with her mother is one of the best I’ve read, and the village communities of her childhood are brilliantly evoked. Heartbreak finds her, and she finds her way to a writing life. Aces. [Ed. – Sold to the man with too many books already!]

A Poet’s Playlist

Reading poetry has been a central preoccupation of my adult life. Because of my current interests and commitments, I am actually reading less poetry than I have in the past. But I did just finish Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in over a decade. The book is made up of distinct groupings of poems, including an ars poetica with the poet as spring cricket, a group about American history that serves as the text for a new song cycle, A Standing Witness, and eight very flashy “angry odes.” Here’s a poem from the final, quietly personal section, Dove’s translation of perhaps the most famous German poem:

Wayfarer’s Night Song

Above the mountaintops

all is still.

Among the treetops

you can feel

barely a breath—

birds in the forest, stripped of song.

Just wait: before long

you, too, shall rest.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776

The World Wars

A surprise. After toting things up, literature in translation accounted for nearly 40% of the books I read in 2021. I think this was due to a combustion reaction between my obsession with the period that encompasses the two world wars and the constant stream of relevant book ideas from the LBFs. [Ed. – Vowing to make this acronym take off.] Those years set the courses of my parents’ lives. My parents were born in the 1920s and died when I was young. Reading about this era keeps me in touch with them. Each of these books changed me in some small or larger way.

In poetry, I read a lot of Rilke thanks to an epistolary seminar offered by Mark Wunderlich (look for his forthcoming book on Rilke). I keep returning to Rilke’s work, in which the non-human vibrates without cease, and the moment of the poem zaps into the eternal. Prosodic whiz Don Paterson dresses the Orpheus sonnets in a new formal fabric in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke.

Enthroned one: in the ancient understanding,

You were no more than a cup with a plain rim.

But for us you are the full-blown, infinite bloom,

The wholly indefatigable thing

From “Rose” 

My parents loved the word “indefatigable.” They were activists, and it was a mark of highest esteem if they used it to characterize someone. It’s a good word to keep in your pocket. See also, “staunch.”

In fiction, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) tells the story of the strange life and dumpster-filling death of a German lake house near Berlin, across the entire twentieth century. Erpenbeck is very good with lists of ordinary stuff (building materials, bath towels, regulations), inventories that are transformed into incantantions of frightening power. As we grapple with our direction as a species, stories with non-human protagonists and with plots that extend beyond the human lifespan have much to offer. Visitation is a notable example. There is also a brilliant novel about a medieval convent in East Anglia, but I read that in 2020. [Ed. – The editor cannot help but feel attacked by this reference to That Book He is Unable to Finish. YMMV.]

Natalia Ginzburg’s essays about her family’s tragic experiences in Fascist and postwar Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) was also a revelation of style for me. Her tonal restraint and the apparent simplicity of her sentences make the heavy chords truly plangent when she strikes them. “And perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” 

Salt Water by Josep Pla (translated by Peter Bush) is a travelogue of his adventures on the Spanish and French coasts in the early 20th century. This book features shipwrights, bandits, taverns, sardines, and bracing quaffs that mingle caffeine with alcohol. The book, written under house arrest and a censorship regime, might be an instruction manual for those writing in a time of rising authoritarianism. There is something to be said for going rogue, or at least knowing a few rogues. Pla says it.

Most of all, the discovery of Joseph Roth thanks to the crew at the Backlisted podcast truly made my reading year. Many EMJ readers (and certainly the editor) know his work far better than I do. [Ed. – The editor is overestimated.] But What I Saw (translated by Michael Hofman), The Hotel Years (ditto), and On the End of the World (translated by Will Stone) have set a high-water mark for me as to what is possible from a journalist writing in a short form to deadline. Roth was a Galician Jew who made it to Vienna for university, served in the Austrian army in WWI, and then moved to Berlin to write for newspapers. He also wrote fiction, including Job and The Radetsky March.

What I Saw, which collects his feuilletons about Weimar Berlin, is a book not so much of vignettes, but of micro-sagas. He makes fun of skyscrapers (“We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds . . . They will hear the clatter of typewriters and the ringing of telephones”), visits Berlin’s refugees (“Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms. In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow”), makes regular forays to the demimonde (“Albert’s Cellar has regulars of such fixed habits that they even have their mail sent there”), and charts the collapse of the Republic with rising alarm and grief (“It is not true that a murder is just a murder”). His farewell column of 1933, written fresh from his flight into exile in Paris, is almost unbearable reading. So many observers were blind to what Roth saw, or failed to report what they saw. All the books I have mentioned here make the case for the necessity of style, and how style gives writing access to power. Roth’s work is exemplary in this regard. I read in awe, and salute his legacy:

Month on month, week on week, day by day, hour by hour, it becomes ever more impossible to give expression to the inexpressible nature of this world. The circle of lies that the miscreants draw around their crimes paralyses the word and the writers who employ it. Yet a common obligation makes you persist to the last moment: that is to say to the last drop of ink . . .


I’m gradually working my way through Juliet Stevenson’s catalog (N.B. she reads the Levy trilogy brilliantly), and she never fails to bring clarity and spirit to a text. Other major delights have been Thandiwe Newton reading Jane Eyre (I’m excited for her War and Peace), Doc Brown reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (underrated, I aver), Chiwetel Ljiofor’s performance of Piranesi, and Prunella Scales’ reading of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.

Campus Duds

I read two campus novels that were cruel about women. Lucky Jim (despite one of the great hangover scenes in 20th-century literature) was chalk on a blackboard with its hatchet job on Monica Jones. Pictures of an Institution is also extravagantly mean about Mary McCarthy, who, to be fair, probably gave as good as she got. But who needs it? I’m with Pnin all day long. [Ed. – Amen!] Haven’t read Stoner yet. [Ed. – Don’t do it.]

Unclassifiable Wisdom

Alice Oswald’s Oxford Poetry Lectures on YouTube have been landmark events for me. Water, a pebble, Ainu epics: whatever the topic, she is riveting, incisively lyrical, somehow in touch with worlds beyond our ken. 

August Macke, Promenade II, 1913


This year I will be paying special attention to structure, so if you have books that you think are brilliantly structured, please do be in touch.

In addition to reading for Frugal Chariot, and I have the following projects on deck:

  • Re-reads of The Iliad, The Odyssey and a few other classical texts
  • Fiction of Joseph Roth and the forthcoming biography by Keiron Pim [Ed. — Can’t wait for that one.]
  • Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (I have to admit that I’m not wowed by Pointed Roofs so far, but I am giving it a fair hearing)
  • The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Lonesome Dove (you rave, I read!) [Ed. – Thumbs up emoji]
  • Moby Dick with #APSTogether
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Teju Cole
  • More poetry! 

I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!

Open City–Teju Cole (2011)

On the admittedly stringent criterion of Walter Benjamin—“All great literature either founds a genre or dissolves one”—Teju Cole’s Open City is not great. That distinction would have to go to the works of W. G. Sebald, the writer to whom Cole is so obviously indebted. But even if Cole’s book isn’t great on Benjamin’s terms it is really good. It even does some things Sebald’s do not, even though, to Cole’s own dismay—he has said that he isn’t particularly interested in novels—those things have to do with bringing a certain novelistic idea of character to Sebald’s model.

If you don’t know Sebald’s work, I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. But I bet you do, especially if your first language is English. Even though Sebald wrote in German (despite living most of his life in England), he has been championed by the English speaking literary world, which has almost universally taken his work to be something entirely new and compelling. Personally, I think interest in him has been a little overstated (he flatters critics by seeming so open to interpretation and thus has received more attention than other, less accommodating writers might) but he’s certainly pretty terrific. His influence on younger writers, even though his untimely death left his corpus smaller than it should have been, only continues to grow. One of the things that makes him so influential, and so open to critical canonization, is that his work is characterized by a series of distinctive elements: solitary, old-fashioned, even courtly first-person narrators, all of whom seem to be versions of Sebald himself, rather as the narrator of the Recherche seems to be a version of Proust; a digressive yet highly patterned style composed of complex, sinuous sentences; a melancholy fascination with the various crimes of the Western modernity.

We find these qualities in Open City. Its narrator, Julius, who is completing his residency in psychiatry at a hospital in New York after coming to the US from his native Nigeria as a teenager, takes long walks through his adopted city (the walk as an analogue for a certain idea of style being the conceit of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). These walks enable extended meditations on an array of erudite, even recondite subject matter, the various strands of which can all be grouped under the concept of change: changes of light, of seasons, of the almost physiological ebb and flow of the city, of the history of the city and the socio-material system of which (through immigration and trade, for example) it is a part. The narrator doesn’t simply bemoan those changes, but he does dwell at length upon the loss that accompanies them, especially in its most painful and even traumatic instances (also true of The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants.) In so dong, he reveals himself as a cultured sophisticate, a modern-day flaneur, fond of Mahler and Peter Altenberg.

Yet Open City is more straightforwardly fictional than anything by Sebald; it gestures, not always convincingly, at something approaching a plot: in addition to walking around New York, the narrator completes his studies and begins to work in his field, pays infrequent visits to an old professor from college, takes a vacation to Brussels, survives a mugging. One other important thing happens, about which more in a moment; the implications of this events have everything to do with Cole’s particular use of first person narration.

I really can’t think about what Cole is up to in this book without thinking about what Sebald sought to do in his. In fact, I think that’s what Cole wants me to do. He’s so overt in acknowledging his source that he is saved from being merely derivative. Sometimes I had the sense that Cole was messing about with me, so faithfully did he seem to allude to Sebald. So, for example, the narrator’s meditations about subways, underground cities, the Egyptian Heliopolis, in which we find the line “I thought too, about the numberless dead, in forgotten cities, necropoli, catacombs” offer a pitch-perfect parody of Sebaldian concerns. (He’s thinking these things as his plane circles Brussels; isn’t there a similar scene in Saturn in which the narrator’s plane can’t land due to fog or something?) His description of “the dead returning” echoes the famous line in The Emigrants, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

Less overt, but more important, both in terms of the homage to Sebald and to the concerns of the book itself, is an extended scene from the middle of the book set in a quiet but overflowing shop in Chinatown. Gazing at the tschotchkes crowding the shelves, the narrator experiences a curious doubling that conflates different times and places:

Standing there in that quiet, mote-filled shop, with the ceiling fans creaking overhead, and the wood-paneled walls disclosing nothing of our century, I felt as if I had stumbled into a kink in time and place, that I could easily have been in any one of the many countries to which Chinese merchants had traveled and, for as long trade had been global, set up their goods for sale.

I think your feelings about Cole can be calibrated by your reaction to that “mote-filled.” If it seems precious or stilted to you, you’re probably going to be put off by this book. But if it seems elegant or atmospheric, you’re probably going to admire it. Either way, this passage offers the book’s narrative and structural modus operandi in miniature. Julian’s peregrinations around New York invariably lead him to just such “kinks,” forgotten, abandoned, even fenced-off spaces (sometimes even within otherwise bustling areas like Wall Street and Battery Park) in which he is vouchsafed glimpses into the city’s past. These spaces are usually prompted by memorials of the kind most city-goers pass by (forgotten statues, plaques and the like which paradoxically allow us to forget what they memorialize), but sometimes they are summoned by memories of things he’s read or studied. Frequently these places and moments are connected to the city’s painful relation to globalization: encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, slavers and slaves, settlers and the nonhuman animal world they encroached upon.

The book thus reveals a pervasive substrate of pain under New York’s glittering, cultured, and moneyed façade; perhaps in keeping with the narrator’s profession of psychiatry this latent-manifest opposition abruptly turns personal and psychological at the end of the book. Despite all this unacknowledged pain, these unexamined traumas, the book isn’t depressing or despairing. Walking helps the narrator, responds to some need inside him; it’s as existential and even instinctive as the migrations of the birds he tracks throughout the book. And he’s always stumbling upon extraordinary things: a silent gallery full of paintings by the deaf painter John Brewster in the American Folk Art Museum (isn’t that the one that’s about to be torn down?), a woman davening in the apartment across the way, a secluded fire escape at Carnegie Hall.

The scene in Chinatown offers another such moment of surprising discovery. As the narrator muses amongst its wares, his attention is caught by the sight and sound of a Chinese brass marching band coming down the street. The narrator is immediately reminded of the songs he used to sing at his boarding school in Nigeria. He reflects:

Whether [the music] expressed some civic pride or solemnized a funeral I could not tell, but so closely did the melody match my memory of those boyhood morning assemblies that I experienced the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who, in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall, could clearly see the world doubled in on itself. I could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began. This point-for-point imitation, of each porcelain vase, of each dull spot of shine on each stained teak chair, extended as far as where my reversed self had, as I had, halted itself in midturn. And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, began to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone. (My emphasis)

An immediate reference here (alluded to directly elsewhere in the book) is Borges’s lovely and sinister parable about the cartographers of the realm, those overweening researchers who make a map of the kingdom so commensurate to its dimensions that it suffocates everyone who lives there. The point of this little tale isn’t to follow the King’s example in the conclusion and banish representation. Instead, it’s to suggest that copies oughtn’t to pretend to be more than what they are. What’s valuable about a copy (or model, any representation at all) is that it is at once like the thing it copies and not like it. In the difference lies the possibility of understanding something about the thing itself.

I think the narrator comes to a similar conclusion in the passage’s final sentence, though it’s hard to be sure. This passage is confusing—it is, after all, about the vertigo of the mise-en-abime. (And the use of the word “reflection,” primed by the mirrored wall but of course also naming the mental activity which the narrator is always performing, combined with the suggestion that “reflection alone” equals death, would seem to trouble our feelings about the narrator.) The strangest moment for me in this passage is the unmotivated comparison of the narrator’s blissful disorientation to the doubling experienced by a person “in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall.” (I’ve italicized it in the quotation.) Where on earth does this metaphor come from? Whose experience is it to routinely wander around stately old houses? (If anything, it sounds like something that would happen in a book by Sebald.) And what sort of peculiar mirrored wall would such houses regularly have? The metaphor is so strange that it lingers on, infecting the rest of the passage. It seems as tough the narrator returns to his current location—the store in Chinatown—in his next sentence, where he describes the porcelain vases and the teak chairs, but it’s hard not to furnish that imagined old house with these objects. Yet why would the narrator insert himself (“I”) in the generalized metaphor (“one”)? I honestly don’t know what’s gong on here.

At the risk of unduly domesticating the wildness of this textual moment I do wonder if the function of this moment is to suggest that the narrator might be a bit mad. The more we pursue this thought, the more we find to support it. Indeed, there seems to be something troubling wrong with Julius. To be sure, plenty of things might license his despair: ominous changes in the climate, the whole almost-buried history of violence and oppression that New York is built upon, the aftermath of 9/11, not to mention events from his personal life, like the recent break of up of his relationship with his girlfriend, the casual forms of racism he encounters in daily life, the death of a mentor from college, the unexpected suicide of a patient. But these events pale in relation to the most shocking thing that happens in the book, more shocking even than his being mugged, or his visits to a detention facility in Queens where would-be immigrants are held and “processed” for deportation.

If you haven’t read Open City and think that you might (and I hope it’s clear by now that I think you should) maybe you’ll want to stop reading here.

Two thirds of the way through the book, Julius runs into the sister of an old classmate of his from Nigeria who is now an investor on Wall Street. Moji is introduced as a ghost from the past (“apparition” is the narrator’s word), and that seems sinister in light of later revelations: in this book in which so much that happens is generated via what Proust called involuntary memory there are some very important things, it seems, that the narrator does not want to remember. At first it seems that Moji will disappear from the book: the meeting is desultory, for the narrator seemingly inconsequential, another tedious daily interaction to be navigated and then forgotten. But later we see her with the narrator and some friends having a picnic in Central Park. The two walk to the subway station; the atmosphere between them is uncomfortable. Is the narrator attracted to her? Why is she so irritable? Still later, she invites him to a party at her boyfriend’s apartment. The narrator is one of several guests who, we learn very near the end of the book, several pages after the description of the party itself, spend the night at the apartment. In the morning, the narrator and Moji are briefly alone, and she tells or reminds him that many years earlier, eighteen to be precise, when she was fifteen and he fourteen, he raped her at a party and then acted as if nothing had happened, to the point of pretending not to recognize her when they met all these years later.

The narrator tells us that Moji continues speaking for “six or seven minutes,” describing the details of what happened at that long-ago party, and of the hurtful aftereffects of his actions on her life. She concludes:

I don’t think you’ve changed at all, Julius. Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them. You forced yourself on me eighteen years ago because you could get away with it, and I suppose you did get away with it. But not in my heart, you didn’t. I have cursed you too many times to count. And maybe it is not something you would do today, but then again, I didn’t think it was something you would do back then either. It only needs to happen once. But will you say something now? Will you say something?

Julius will not. He gets up to leave, but not before telling us what he thought of in that moment: a story told by Camus about something that the young Nietzsche did, namely, mimicking the action of the Roman hero Scaevola, who put his hand in a fire rather than give up his accomplices to a crime. (This material is presented as convolutedly as I have here.) He adds that a few days later he looked up the story and found he hadn’t remembered it quite right.

And that’s it, even though there are another ten or fifteen pages in the book. He never returns to the incident. He neither denies it nor explains it nor admits to it. We could take his reaction—his silence, his rather preposterous, complicated memory—as a sign that the book wants to condemn him. And the “facts” of the anecdote from Camus, and the more important fact of misremembering them could be taken as a suggestion that our relation to the past (whether as individuals or as nations) can only be untrustworthy and self-serving.

But Cole’s bombshell (that is, Moji’s accusation) is so serious, so enormous, and, in its introduction of the personal and psychological history of the narrator, so apparently out of keeping with the predominantly public emphases of the story that it threatens to fracture his book irreparably. Which I suppose is part of the point. But I’m not sure what Cole is going for here. Is he aiming to be less like Sebald than I thought and more like, say, Nabokov or Ishiguro? Is his aim to make us reassess the narrator we have been led to identify with on the basis of a sophisticated and cultured exterior that only papers over the heart of darkness beating beneath the skin?

It sure made me rethink Julius. (And reading some other critics who claim to have found him bombastic and self-serving from the start it made me question what unpleasant parts of me were responding so warmly to him.) As I did, I started to think more carefully about some of his otherwise harmless or understandable actions: the narrator’s brusque dismissal of a man who he suspects is trying to pick him up; his exhaustion at other Africans and even African Americans who seek some kind of solidarity with him based on some shared relation to an imagined motherland, a response that comes to a head at the post office when a clerk asks him if he will meet to talk about his negritude-inspired poetry, a scenario that ends with the narrator agreeing to do so yet silently resolving never to visit that post office again; and, perhaps most pertinently, his experience in Brussels of picking up a woman for what seems like a mutually satisfying one-night stand but, in the light of the later accusation, is perhaps really only an ominous self-serving delusion. I began to indict him in my mind, and asked myself, if he’s not sinister, if he’s not guilty, why doesn’t he say anything, either to Moji or to us? It occurred to me that the book’s otherwise puzzling title, which I’d previously taken to refer to his encounters with New York, Brussels, and Lagos, might refer to his personality. For an open city, I learn from Wikipedia, is one that its leaders have given up defending. Is Julius’s silence a capitulation, an expression of defeat?

There is something ingenious in the way the ending demands we return to the beginning, re-reading for clues that might cast some light, if nothing so consoling as an answer, on Moji’s claims. But there is also something manipulative and unearned about it, too, as if Cole hadn’t played by the rules of novels. It’s fine to cast doubt on a character we’ve been forced to identify with, even on the very qualities of identification itself. But shouldn’t we have a sense earlier on that this is coming? I don’t know why I feel this way. Maybe I’m just upset and embarrassed at having been caught out liking a rapist. Is there any way we can read the book and think he didn’t do it? Wouldn’t thinking he didn’t put us in the position of blaming the victim? Of course, it is only too true that perfectly good people do get accused of things they haven’t done, do get caught in the crossfire of other people’s ignorance or need for attention or what have you. But if the book wants to be about false accusations, it needs to reflect on that possibility more clearly than it has. (Maybe there are examples of false accusations in the book that I hadn’t thought of. Even as I write this I’m reminded of the experience of Julius’s college mentor, Professor Saito, during the war, when he and his family were interned by the US government simply by virtue of their Japanese heritage.)

After all, Open City is so carefully constructed that it would make sense that this revelation has in fact been prepared for. But I wasn’t prepared; I was genuinely shocked. It makes we wonder about the relation between literary form and shocking events. Can a shocking event that isn’t prepared for be experienced by readers as anything other than a misstep, or, worse, a violation of the contract between reader and writer? (Woolf explored similar questions in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.) Or are we to read these shock as a mimesis of the effect of trauma itself—in other words, is Cole trying traumatize readers, by making them go through an overwhelming experience that by definition cannot be prepared for?

If you have thoughts about the ending, please share. The problems, like the passage describing the narrator’s experience in Chinatown, only get more complex the longer I consider them. The greatness of Open City might not be Benjamin’s greatness. But there’s clearly a lot to think about in this book, alongside a lot of gorgeous writing.

The day after I finished Open City I swung by the library (have I already told you how much I love the Central Arkansas Library System?) to pick up Teju’s new book, Every Day is for the Thief. (It’s both new and old: written before Open City but published in Nigeria it has been revised (though how extensively is unclear) and published in the US.) Thief is a much slighter book, in all ways: I read in two short sittings and enjoyed its insights into contemporary Nigeria and the emigrant’s dilemma, but I found the book too uncertain of its own aims. Is it reportage, an indictment of Nigerian corruption? Is it autobiography, of a fractured and multi-racial family? It’s never clear, but the muddled quality of the book works best when it mirrors the uncertainty, even guilty conscience of the person who has returned to a home he no longer belongs in. In The New York Review of Books, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who liked it more than I did, interestingly described the relation between Cole’s two books as “two very different experiments with the same character, run in parallel rather than in a series.” Note the importance to this reading of character. Again, this seems a grafting of a different kind of literary mode on to a Sebaldian one. For the most part, the Sebald influence is less apparent here, but the book does include photos, as Sebald’s famously do, though in Cole’s case they are his own. (I didn’t find they added much to the text.)

I read somewhere that Cole wrote these two books as ways of avoiding writing the art history dissertation he had embarked upon. All I can say about that is that if my own dissertation procrastination had been even a tenth as productive I would have been extraordinarily pleased with myself. Given the greater scope and sophistication of Open City the only question, to which I eagerly await an answer, is what Cole has in him next. In the meantime, his enjoyable twitter feed will have to tide me over.