Wednesday, 11 April 2012


I know it was warmer this time last year as I remember hiding mini-Easter eggs - like giant jewels - under rocks for my nephews (my mother lives right on the coast) and one rolled deep into a cavernous gap and we couldn't retrieve it. Today, I read in my diary - which I keep haphazardly, I can't read my writing anyway when I go back - that I'd read 'Brokeback Mountain' last Easter. Then I remembered I'd read the short story in my mother's garden, it was warm and sunny.

This Easter holiday, we chittered indoors (it was raining and an absence of nephews),  I was reading Open City by Teju Cole (the paperback) and Dirt Music by Tim Winton (on Kindle), flipping between them. Am halfway through both.

Open City has been showered with five star reviews - and Cole has received  numerous awards for it. Such lavish praise (almost) weighs heavily on you as a reader, you feel guilty - flawed even - for not absolutely loving the book. I confess to being bored, I find Julius, the main character, a young Nigerian (half German) doctor who walks the streets of New York to unwind, unlikeable, over-earnest, he has virtually no sense of humour. There are no moments of lightness (so far).

This gets weary.

My impression is that Teju Cole has tipped every observation he's ever had onto the carpet, and strung them together to make a novel - the  'random' characters that Julius meets are just mouthpieces for these observations, no real point, and they appear too briefly for us to care about them. I honestly find myself wishing that Julius would just go into a  store and buy some groceries without having profound, weighty exchanges with whoever he finds to talk to. I want the guy in the store to say Have a nice day! and for that to be that. Also, Julius' working life is so pushed into the margins, I don't believe he actually is a doctor/psychiatrist (though I read that Cole himself studied medicine for a year).

There are moments when you are engaged,  a detained immigrant's story that touched me, and yet Julius tells us he doesn't ever go back to visit him at the detention centre (which I found cold), though he had only gone because Nagère, his now ex-girlfriend, had suggested it. And I am curious about what happened with Nagère, she intrigues me.

So, yes, I will keep reading - the writing is immaculate, if not compelling if that makes sense - even although this Independent reviewer has - rather thoughtlessly - revealed what happens at the end (don't read this if you want to read the novel, it's kind of spoiled it for me). Also, I keep seeing comparisons with WG Sebald, whom I've never read, and I wonder too if you need to have appreciated Sebald to fully appreciate this novel. I've looked up Teju Cole's website and I love his photographs. I just wish I could like the book more, I feel a bit like I have failed (especially when you read the reviews on his site).

(Also,  struck me that my Elizabeth Blackadder bookmark matches the Open City black and yellow cover. I like that detail, strangely reassuring.)

I've been reading another short story, 'The Parade of Ghosts', which you will not hear about elsewhere, my 10-year-old nephew's class work. His points of view are all over the place (naturally, how can they not be at this age) and the influence of television evident, but the story brought me such pleasure, poetry, really. Boys captured by 'silky, vile ghosts' and made to live in invisible underground cages. Just imagining him making this stuff up gives me such a kick. And lines like: 'He had eaten dinner, a big roast chicken with potatoes, and strong gravy alongside big, sweet orange carrots'.


Digitalesse said...

I love hearing about your nephew's story, it sounds wonderful.

I'm not familiar with Teju Cole's book, but I know what you mean when you find that a book, film, CD or whatever doesn't live up to the hype. Sometimes we just don't see it and then we wonder whether it's the emperor's new clothes that we're not seeing. Sometimes a book is merely good, and that's good enough.

I loved the BW photography of NYC.

nmj said...

Hey Dig, Yes, I love the sweet, orange carrots, such poetry. And strong gravy.


I should maybe withhold judgement of Open City til I have finished it, but I just feel frustrated that reading it feels a bit like homework.

Again, not everyone has loved it, I am hot the only one to have reservations, but I do feel I am missing something, and it vexes me!

I also think, sometimes, massive literary praise can become like a juggernaut, unstoppable, critics are almost afraid to say, well, that's not how I feel for fear of seeming stupid that they don't get it.

But as I say the writing cannot be faulted, it is pristine, but I want books that I can't leave alone til the last page is turned. And I want more of Julius, what makes him tick, but we don't get this, we just get these constant tangents and monologues from strangers which can seem sterile.

How are you feeling? I hope you are getting over your relapse.

I am a bit pummelled myself, I fear a slump coming on, I hate to say, flashes of bad pain in bones which I don't like a jot.

susan t. landry said...

i want more of your nephew's writing--pooh on that hoity toity literary stuff. give me big, roasted chickens and silky vile ghosts ANY day.

strong gravy....

take care of your dear self, your bad painful bones,

Crafty Green Poet said...

I think sometimes its good to not enjoy a book that is over-hyped, it proves independence of spirit!

I've not read Teju Cole's book. I've never quiet 'got' Sebald and I'm not sure I'd recommend reading his work as an in into anyone else's.

nmj said...

Hey Susan, Thank you, I will pass on your praise to wee nephew. I'm looking forward to part two of his story, it's a work in progress. Hopefully, the bad bones will pass soon, it goes with the territory, but sometimes it can still take you by surprise just how crap you can feel.

Hey Juliet, Was only half serious about needing to appreciate Sebald to appreciate Teju! Just that I see the comparison over and over again.

I just read this review, which is much more even, praising the writing while acknowledging weaknesses in the novel.

Interestingly, this review also reveals the 'twist' at the end, some critics seem to avoid spoiling it, others don't seem bothered! Maybe because it is a novel of ideas, rather than plot. Still, it is not the lack of plot that bothers me, more the lack of a sense of a real human being at the centre of things.

There is a lovely section I just finished about Julius stealing a Coke from the fridge when he is a child in Nigeria. These are the moments that keep me reading. It's also a tiring book to read, a lot of mental energy needed to absorb the words and maybe that irks me. A little goes a long way. Is it worth it? I always have to ask myself.

Digitalesse said...

NMJ, things are looking up now on the R-issue. I've had a course of antibiotics, a bit overdue, but at least I received treatment (eventually) and my energy levels are slowly recovering. The excruciating digestive pain I had in the run up the infectious episode is going to be investigated, but I won't dwell on it. We can't have your blog turning into an ME group meeting or a SAGA club bus run.

I had a look at the reviews on Amazon for Open City and the lower rating reviews say pretty much the same as you do—that it was boring and the character is under-developed and superficial. I sometimes wonder whether critics jump on a bandwagon just because they want to be seen to be the champion of whatever is becoming 'hip' or 'edgy' or whatever. I felt that way about music journalists in my youth when they would champion an artist/band who made mediocre records. I really hate the idea of 'tastemakers' and 'opinion formers' but that's another rant for another day.

I hope you and those bones are keeping well.

nmj said...

Glad you are on the up, my dear! No fears of mentioning your symptoms, you - and I - do it so seldom, it is fine now and then. Sometimes I think I should talk more on here of how bad I can feel, but I would bore myself stupid - and others. And I have TSoM for that (not to bore, to inform ;)).

Know what you mean about mediocre bands, though I would never call Teju Cole's novel mediocre, if it were I would not be persevering! Between the walls of information/monologues there are gorgeous chunks of narrative, but my main feeling is still that the book is longwinded and pretentious.