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Palimpsest City

Teju Cole interviewed by Max Liu.

Teju Cole‘s debut novel, Open City, has won rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and established its author as a major new international voice. Like his narrator, Cole was born in Nigeria and lives in New York, but his book is universal in its scope and has profound things to say about how we all live today. It’s an extraordinary, timely reminder of the possibilities of fiction and his answers to my questions are almost as interesting as his novel.


3:AM: In another interview you said you had thought about “the problems of writing fiction” for a long time. But what about thinking while writing? Do you subscribe to Joan Didion‘s dictum, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down”?

Teju Cole: Yes, there’s truth in what Didion says. The shape the words end up taking are themselves the meaning of the words, they are retrospectively what we meant to say. There’s no way of knowing this until you register it in visible form. But the other side of this is that you do have some idea of where you are going. You know that this vignette and that vignette belong side by side, you know that a certain turn of phrase you’ve been saving will probably work best within a given section of the narrative. As in a jazz performance, writing lives or dies by what’s produced in that moment. But that moment is attended by long preparation.

3:AM: Increasingly, novels are praised for how much of the culture they manage to include. Open City is entirely contemporary and worldly and it includes a great deal. What are the possibilities and pitfalls of literary inclusiveness?

TC: In a sense, Open City is a kind of Wunderkammer, one of those little rooms assembled with bric-a-brac by Renaissance scholars. I don’t mean it as a term of praise: these cabinets of curiousities contained specific sorts of objects – maps, skulls (as memento mori), works of art, stuffed animals, natural history samples, and books – and Open City actually contains many of the same sort of objects. So, I don’t think it’s as simple as literary inclusiveness. That phrase, in fact, brings to mind David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Dave Eggers. They are keen to include and, in fact, itemize the present in all its gaudy multiplicity. My own literary interest is more about excavating the past, or sensing the past inside the present. This requires all kinds of exclusions and sleights of hand. There’s an admittedly antiquarian flavor to it, even though there’s enough of the present included to lull the reader. So, for a book set in 2006, Open City evades certain markers, while it embraces certain others. Julius doesn’t use a smartphone, and he doesn’t discuss contemporary US politics in any fine detail.

3:AM: You write: “All the city is a palimpsest.” Do you see a connection between the erasures in the world around us and the writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing involved in the production of a novel?

TC: Not explicitly, no. Compared to this enormous, relentless evolutionary activity in the built environment, writing is small potatoes.

3:AM: Open City succeeds in telling us what it’s like to be alive in America after 9/11. Is the failure of much fiction to get to grips with the temper of the last decade one reason why you discuss other art forms, as well as philosophy and literary criticism?

TC: Thank you. I hope it tells us some part of what it’s like. I tried to focus on a particular aspect of this historical moment: the failure of mourning. This is something I haven’t seen a great deal of in the writing around this disaster. And my view is that you write about disaster by writing around it, by writing allusively. There’s a reticence necessary when you consider the suffering of others. Into the space created by that reticence, you bring in those things that best help us confront ambiguity: music, painting, film, and so on.

3:AM: With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, I was reminded of Tolstoy‘s view that an event shouldn’t be written about until a decade later. What do you think?

TC: He’s probably right. It takes a few years to understand what we’ve lived through. At the moment, we’re still sort of mired in the irrelevant bullshit. There isn’t yet that public conversation about 9/11. Our biggest art forms are film and television, and there hasn’t been a great film about 9/11 yet, nor has there been a great television series. Something like The Wire gives us a rich and fully achieved picture of the wasteful, cruel War on Drugs; something like The White Ribbon gives a perspective on World War I that could only have been presented long after the event itself.

3:AM: James Wood makes a distinction between novels that happen to be set in New York and novels in which NY is present, almost as a character. Could Open City have emerged from any other city in the world?

TC: Not in this specific form. But all great cities are inhabited by ghosts. A book of this kind could probably be written about Jakarta, Manila, or London by anyone who had a feeling for the invisible truths of those places.


3:AM: Did you consider writing Open City as memoir, documentary fiction or psychogeography?

TC: It is a work of psychogeography, albeit in a less explicit sense than Iain Sinclair‘s or Will Self‘s. It had to be fiction though, because I needed that freedom of including whatever belonged, and cutting out whatever didn’t. The main fiction in it was matching Julius’ generous and self-concealing character to New York’s generous and self-concealing character. I think this also adds to my answer about New York’s personality in the book.

3:AM: There’s a formal suppleness about Open City that’s distinct from anything I’ve read before. It seems like a new type of novel that reaffirms the form as vital, forward-looking. Do you regard the novel as the form which best captures the multiplicity of contemporary life?

TC: Thanks, glad the book struck you that way. Yes, there’s a relaying of internal states that only a novel can achieve. In my view, the novel is one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world. America and Africa collaborated to give the world jazz. We’ll call it even. The strange thing, though, is that most people who write novels these days seem to be aware of only a fraction of its possibilities. Kundera goes on and on about this, and I never tire of reading him on the subject, because I agree very deeply with it. At the emergence of the modern novel with Rabelais and Cervantes, all kinds of things were possible in a long-form prose work. Within a couple of hundred years, most of those possibilities were abandoned in favor of a text that efficiently transmitted sentiments. Joyce and Woolf broke it open again but, after them, the novel went back to the safe precincts it occupies till this day. It’s too bad. I’m grateful for the likes of Kundera, Murnane, Markson, Berger, and, in his recent work, Coetzee. But no matter how celebrated they are, critics still consider them askance. Elizabeth Costello, for example, is a great novel, but it got quite a critical panning when it was published. The complaint was that it was simply a book of speeches, without the machinery of conventional fiction. Markson’s books are compilations of facts and alleged facts, very artfully. The Australian Gerald Murnane, a genius on the level of Beckett, is known in Australia and Sweden but almost nowhere else. And I loved Reality Hunger, David Shields‘ recent novel take on the art of the novel.

3:AM: You write that atrocity today is “uniquely well organised.” Must the novelist reorganise his/her text in response?

TC: The novelist loses, every time. Politics is insidious, the modern conduct of war (from shoulder-launched rockets to drone strikes) is insidious. Someone presses a button in California and twenty people are incinerated at a wedding in Pakistan. The killer is spared the sight of the corpses. The novelist can’t successfully depict such horrifying reality. But she can, and must, try, to bear witness. There are many ways of doing this; the mode I prefer is indirect.

3:AM: What role does echo play in Open City?

TC: Echo is very important to me. I love the repetition of motifs, or the slight alteration of what’s been said before. This is part of how one creates a mood, a psychological caul, in fact, around the reader. Not all coincidence has to be loaded with meaning. Sometimes, things simply recur because that’s how it is in life, that’s how the mood gets in. It’s good to subtly overdo it too, as Nabokov does, as Sebald does. It’s a good way to intensify that region of localized weather that we call a novel.

3:AM: The accusation that Moji makes against Julius: many critics have ignored it but it struck me as a huge moment that completely debunked my (perhaps complacent) understanding of the character. Is it ‘true’?

TC: Oh, it’s absolutely true. I can’t imagine Julius’ story without it. I knew right from the beginning the book would end like that: a three vicious thwacks of the hammer, and then a soft exit to strings. I’m attracted, in art, to things that trouble the complacency of the viewer or reader. I was interested in that move that went from “He’s one of us” to “Is he one of us?” Many people were upset that I put Julius through that. But there’s no such thing as a right to remain untroubled.

3:AM: You’ve been compared to Sebald, V.S. Naipaul, Joyce, but which writers do you admire and how have they influenced you?

TC: Sebald, Naipaul, and Joyce are three of my biggest influences, all of them for their formal freedom and their ability to create mood. So those comparisons are immensely flattering and, of course, unearned. Joyce’s writing in Dubliners contains some of the most unshowily beautiful sentences in the English language. I learned from him that if you write a good, clean line of English, you can get under a reader’s skin. The reader won’t even know why, but there you are. Didion, Berger, the many others I mentioned above, and many, many poets I haven’t mentioned. Writers of this calibre are the moving targets the rest of us are always chasing.

3:AM: The book is set in the final years of the Bush presidency. But is it more a novel of Obama’s America? I ask because in Obama you have a president whose own background reflects the type of identity politics that Julius negotiates.

TC: It’s an Obama book, certainly. I was delighted, and astonished, to hear recently that he was reading it. It’s a book about a new kind of American reality, one that takes diversity for granted. It doesn’t celebrate diversity, actually, it just says: this is how we live now. You don’t bring in a gay character as a way of commenting on gay issues. You have one there because he’s real, and that’s his life, no less so than your life is yours. Julius is a mixed-race American, with a deceased African father; he’s highly articulate, at home in ambiguities, Columbia-affiliated, and negotiating his identity on the streets of New York. Thinking through that litany, it’s fair to say Julius might have more in common with Obama than with me. And I was tempted to have Julius, somewhere in the book, catch a glimpse of the senator from Illinois on a TV screen. I really thought about it. But it seemed too heavy a touch, and I left it out.

3:AM: Open City strikes me as a hopeful book. Are you hopeful about America, the world?

TC: I’m not hopeful about America, and I’m not hopeful about the world, no. Life goes on and, for those of us who are lucky, there’s a great deal to enjoy in it. But will things get better for most people? I don’t know. I don’t see the evidence. Still, there’s that faint glimmer of hope we feel when we sense, in other people, the same kind of attentiveness to life that we take comfort in. Why else would anyone watch Haneke films or read Sebald? The material is grim, but it’s redeemed by the quality of the attention.

3:AM: Can you tell me about your next book?

TC: I’m writing a non-fiction narrative of contemporary Lagos.


Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 16th, 2011.