08/13/14 5:00am
08/13/2014 5:00 AM |

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel
by Anya Ulinich
Penguin Books

Even for the most resolutely child-free among us, it’s easy enough to conjure up some version of the Brooklyn Parent. Partly due to real life interactions on the streets of, say, Park Slope, in which the Brooklyn Parent hovers over his or her special snowflake of a child, and partly due to fictional representations in novels such as Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth, in which obnoxious stereotypes abound and are tacitly (and predictably) promoted, the Brooklyn Parent has become a two-dimensional punchline, something no self-respecting person would ever want to be.

Except, you know, self-respecting people are parents in Brooklyn, and have complicated, multi-faceted lives apart from their role as parents. But those types of people have been conspicuously absent from contemporary literature, which is why I have spent no small amount of time wondering who would save the Brooklyn Parent from its superficial prison. And now it seems like the answer has finally arrived in the form of Anya Ulinich. With her beautifully rendered, impossibly funny, and at times heart-breaking graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Ulinich does something I had started to think was impossible: she shatters the trope and reinvents the notion of what it means to be a Brooklyn Parent.

In many ways, Lena Finkle is an eminently recognizable modern protagonist; she’s looking for love, disillusioned by financial struggles, has a troubled though ultimately loving relationship with her Russian immigrant parents, and has lots of really bad—and sometimes really good—sex. She is also a divorced mother of two girls who are bright and funny and happy but who are—and this is important—not the center of their mother’s universe. Instead, it is Lena Finkle who is the center of her own universe. And it’s not because she’s a narcissist or because she neglects her children, rather it’s because she’s an adult woman who can do and be more than one thing at a time. Lena Finkle can be a good mom and be someone who has sex with a slightly creepy guy she meets on OKCupid. Lena Finkle can be a good mom and have Skype-sex with her married, still-in-Russia high school boyfriend. Lena Finkle can be a good mom and make tons of mistakes and tons of good decisions because that is what all women can do, even if it doesn’t get written about that often, if at all.

Ulinich’s Lena Finkle isn’t just a repudiation of what we’ve been told is necessary to be a successful parent, she is also a repudiation of what we’re told we ought to be as successful women. Lena has messy, heartbreaking relationships. She has one-night stands with sketchy men with bad teeth and too many cats. She has vengeful thoughts about her ex-husband. But that’s ok. That’s real. Lena’s life is difficult—often ugly, but frequently beautiful. And in creating Lena, Ulinich has given us a respite from the facile representations of both Brooklyn parents and Brooklyn women, instead granting us access to a life that is beautiful not in spite of, but because of its complexity and its pain. Finally.

07/30/14 4:00am
by |
07/30/2014 4:00 AM |

Nobody is Ever Missing
By Catherine Lacey
(FSG Originals)

At some point, most of us have likely wondered what it might be like to run away from our lives. Catherine Lacey’s debut novel follows someone who does exactly that, but it becomes clear early on that the history she’s unconsciously fleeing will eventually catch up with her.

On its surface, Elyria’s life in New York City seems ideal: she works as a writer of soap operas, is married to a math professor who spends his evenings scratching away at a chalkboard, and her every material need seems easily met. In a move fit for one of her scripts, she abruptly abandons this life and flies to New Zealand on the flimsiest of invitations, one extended by an aging male poet who once mentioned, in passing, that she could come write on his remote farm. Any reasonable person would understand the offhanded nature of the invite, but when we meet Elyria, she is not any reasonable person; whether she realizes it or not, she’s haunted by her sister’s suicide, and the novel’s extensive flashbacks and ruminations explore how this event has come to define Elyria’s adult life—including that math professor husband, the last person to see Elyria’s sister alive.

Elyria’s trek is drawn in part from Lacey’s own experience traversing New Zealand while she herself was “trying to quit New York,” as she put it in one interview. Early on in the novel, Elyria tries to explain to one of the many people she encounters where it is she’s ultimately headed: “I pointed south, or I think I pointed south, but I could have pointed west, or even north, and what would it matter? If you made enough wrong and right turns it would take you to the same place.” Such is the nature of Elyria’s wanderings (and the bulk of the plot), but Lacey wisely chooses to structure the book using short chapters, which keeps the pacing swift even when we start to feel the drag of Elyria’s journey. The short chapters have the shape and feel of vignettes, and they allow Elyria to move back and forth in time as she fills us in on the backstory that pushed her to leave.

Plot is clearly secondary here; this novel is chiefly (and ambitiously) concerned with interiority. The sparse and meandering action stands in stark contrast to Elyria’s own rich introspection, which tumbles and spins in a largely stream-of-consciousness delivery. The voice is built out of very long sentences, their clauses strung together with and, elegantly conveying the sense of Elyria’s unraveling. There are instances when this choice trumps clarity, but it replicates what Elyria is experiencing: a kind of disorientation, a self-inflicted tailspin into possible madness. We, like her, are captivated by the descent, helpless to watch and wander along.

07/16/14 4:00am
07/16/2014 4:00 AM |

By Emily Gould
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Near the end of Emily Gould’s engaging debut novel Friendship, a jaded older woman gives protagonist Amy Schein this advice:

“Honey, I was just like you. I lived my twenties in New York City, thought I’d be a little Joanie Didion, packing my suitcase for reporting jobs with a leotard and a bottle of bourbon and two pairs of nylons or whatever… Do you know what’s glamorous about living in New York City and having no money? After you’re thirty, exactly nothing.”

The passage is perfectly representative of a novel that lives in that place where “shrill, seething ambition” collides with ugly reality; it’s smart and funny, but also wrenchingly accurate. There’s an edge of cruelty in play, a tinge of acidity that runs through what otherwise might seem like another carefree jaunt through the well-trodden precincts of hipster angst.

As most denizens of these parts have probably gathered by now— Friendship having been down an extraordinarily long pre-publication runway, courtesy of FSG and others—Gould’s novel charts the bond between two young women navigating the professional and personal tectonics of late-twenties life in Brooklyn circa 2007. In some ways the book is dangerously underpowered: In lieu of nuanced psychological depth, Schein and her perennial second-fiddle wing-person Bev Tunney are assigned sets of quirks and tics, and the relentlessly slangy, chattery dialogue grows wearisome, although I’m haunted by the suspicion that it is actually hyper-accurate socio-linguistic mimicry. If so, God help us.

Three elements of Gould’s novel, though, power it past its limitations and save it from being simply updated Candace Bushnell. The first is that the plot, after chirping along somewhat predictably for two-hundred-odd pages, suddenly veers off in a direction that struck me as genuinely harrowing and unpredictable. The second is the obvious but somehow still essential fact that this book is proudly and unapologetically about two women who do not end up competing for or otherwise sacrificing their integrity in the pursuit of men. This may seem unremarkable, but such depictions are, somewhat inexplicably, quite rare: A casual and profoundly unscientific survey suggests that the number of books that pass the famous Bechdel test is dismally low. In a perfect world, a book that offers a warm and emotionally honest depiction of a friendship between young women should not need to be cause for celebration. In ours, it is.

The third element of Friendship that I found deeply admirable, even heroic, is the subtle but unmistakable current of bracing feminist anger that thrums just under its otherwise breezy surface. It’s nothing so crude as that the men in the novel are creeps, although several are. It’s that Bev and Amy exist in a world where double standards and cultural and structural biases still reign, a realization which salts the narrative in subtle and unmistakable ways. If such a concept is somehow distasteful to you, then go read a book about the Civil War or something. There will always be plenty of those, even in Brooklyn.

07/02/14 4:00am
07/02/2014 4:00 AM |

Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio

To adapt to the reality of death, we are endlessly devising ways to deny or escape it. As children, we deny it with the help of parental reassurances and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, whether sandman or demon. Or in Shane Jones’s case, a novel. His third novel, Crystal Eaters, demonstrates his natural aptitude as a nefelibata: one who lives in the cloud of their own imagination or dreams. He detoxifies the reality of death by taunting it, challenging it with visual daredevilry. In the impossible universe of Crystal Eaters, humans are at the mercy of their own tetragonal systems—stacks of crystals deplete in incidents of sickness or physical trauma, reinforcing the notion that one carries within the spores of one’s own demise. Every action, from falling off a bike to the common cold, can deplete a person’s crystal count. Aging is a terror in and of itself. A mirror for today’s obsessions, wrinkle creams and raw diets cannot prevent the the inevitable crystal depletion in Crystal Eaters. Only the rare black crystal can stall death with its distracting myth of immortality, but it also brings out a varicolored insanity in those who ingest it.

The novel’s central character is Remy, who suffers from a severe bouts of disassociation. Her family life is in critical condition. She mourns for her dying mother. Her father is emotionally withdrawn, expressing himself in outbursts of rage. Her brother, Pants McDonovan, an inmate at Ellsworth Correctional, holds court as the keeper of technicolor dreams. Remy, when not running through mines on all fours as a dog, or drawing crystals on her walls, must decipher reality and life from her own dreams and perceptions which hang on the dwindling crystal count in her body. Søren Kierkegaard said, “What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?” Try not to laugh when you meet Jugba Marzan who “smells like hot dog water and mouth mints,” or Remy’s second dog, Dog Man, who calls her “the princess of castle puke” in an apocalyptic dream.

Reminiscent of Brautigan’s surreal masterpiece In Watermelon Sugar, with his iDEATH and tigers, where each day has a different sun with its gangs of colorfully nicknamed bandits, Crystal Eaters is also a dream within dreams, but of a sun set to “swallow the earth for reasons of expansion.” There is an inconspicuous beauty hidden in Jones’ world of burning buildings, painted murals of skeletons wrapped in roses, and “crab-walks away to the sound of ringing bells.” Line by line, it’s impossible to break away. Transcending conventions with singular brilliance, Crystal Eaters is the girl who runs topless through an aerobics class of sleepy geriatrics.

06/18/14 4:00am
06/18/2014 4:00 AM |

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
By Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’s protagonists are all carved into emotional husks by the monotony of everyday life. They’re bound to resonate in some way with most readers, and Ferris’ evident knack for capturing them is what made his debut, Then We Came to the End, so successful.

In his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris’ flirtation with Internet-age spiritual alienation has grown darker and more relentless. The book is narrated by a neurotic dentist named Paul O’Rourke, who is obsessed with the Red Sox and perplexed by belief in God. But despite his outspoken atheism, Paul is hypnotized by the strong sense of belonging enjoyed by the families of his religious girlfriends. His tumultuous childhood has left him lonely and bereft, peering at these “normal” families from the outside.

Having unfairly idealized them, Paul is disappointed when he rediscovers that all families have their crosses to bear, so to speak. “Without monstrous distortions, I was slowly learning, without lies and hypocrisy, one cannot have the idealized American life I so longed for,” he laments. “Perfection was marred only by those corruptions necessary to its enterprise.” To Rise is heavy with such revelations, though Ferris injects just enough fresh, unexpected humor to keep you from drowning.

The plot takes off when a website for Paul’s dentistry practice pops up out of nowhere and, to his horror, implies that he is some kind of religious fanatic. By attempting to reclaim his online identity, Ferris forces Paul to confront his real one. For the first time, Paul must reflect on his affinity for underdogs of all stripes and his misunderstood attempts to join their ranks.

Though Ferris brings much of his trademark charm and insight to the table, To Rise is not as tight as his previous efforts. The pacing is awkward, dragging at times, and the book’s thematic tendrils half-heartedly collapse into a limp ball at the end. It also suffers at the hand of lines like, “I appreciated Mercer’s laughter. It showed a sense of humor.” Still, there is much to chew on here, and Ferris remains one of the most commanding voices in fiction today.

06/04/14 4:00am
06/04/2014 4:00 AM |

Cutting Teeth
By Julia Fierro
(St. Martin’s Press)

To circumcise or not to circumcise? Breast or bottle? These are the hot topics discussed on the elitist playgrounds in this progressive debut. Women of an older generation bewildered by the pace of societal change, stay away! When a playgroup of thirtysomething New Yorkers decide to spend Labor Day weekend at a beach house with their toddlers in tow, situations get sticky, secrets are revealed, and tensions escalate. Sharing the realism of an Anne Tyler novel, Cutting Teeth showcases the dark sides of people living in a bubble of compliance—if you add black skinny jeans and homemade hummus. Animosity mounts and mixes. Aloe is applied generously. Repressed sexual angst sits thick on a slice of gluten-free pie. And couples who’ve gone way past the honeymoon phase must deal with the flaws of their friends and partners stuck in the insular confines of their shabby Long Island getaway.

The characters are well-drawn and abundant, each with their individual quirks, but they also share the paranoid stresses associated with parenting: Band-Aids on boo-boos, public breastfeeding, and blood-sucking ticks carrying Lime’s Disease. There’s OCD Nicole, the neurotic, apocalypse-obsessed weekend hostess, prone to cutting and sneaking weed; Allie and Susanna, artist moms to twins boys with another baby on the way; Leigh, the playgroup’s resident debutante, a “Grace Kelly-esque” blue-blood/mother of the developmentally delayed Chase; stay-at-home-dad Rip, the lone male in the group who “calls himself a feminist too often and with too much gusto”; and sultry, unpredictable Tiffany, the wild card, mother to a diva-in-training daughter. The fun is watching the interplay between a range of personalities as their various perspectives come forth in thought and dialogue. When potty training and the waiting lists of highly coveted pre-Ks are the only the common denominator within such limited living space, a clash of personalities is inevitable.

Fierro’s characters are intensely real, thoroughly developed. They come to life on the page. And unlike Anne Tyler, with her descriptions of insular Southern life, Fierro, who lives in Carroll Gardens and founded the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, writes for the urban Whole Foods crowd. Her writing is not only smart—it’s also sexy, and magnetic. Whether it’s “Measles in Park Slope” or “Mumps in Midwood,” Cutting Teeth offers a colorful timestamp of urban concerns. It’s about what we give up to build a family and how much we hold back. It exposes the vulnerability we risk in having children. Not all the insights are kind, but that’s what makes it believable.

05/21/14 4:00am
05/21/2014 4:00 AM |

Lost for Words
By Edward St. Aubyn
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Man Booker is dead; long live the Elysian Prize! To stand in for the Man Group’s yearly tourney, Edward St. Aubyn’s latest offers a similarly haphazard competition, sponsored by a company that specializes in modified crops (like lemons crossed with bullet ants for extra zest), driving cattle to cannibalism and farmers to suicide. The committee assembled to select the winner is accordingly suspect: a platitudinous MP; a media personality sounding off on “everything from Abortion to Zimbabwe”; a government grandee’s old mistress and his actor cousin; and, to placate any bookish malcontents, an Oxbridge academic who stubbornly maintains as her standard “good writing”—or “especially good writing”—though everybody knows that’s not the point.

Most of the writers who land on Elysian’s shortlist have at best extraliterary concerns: imitating Irvine Welsh, say, or wondering how one’s vanity-press cookbook was taken for an experimental novel. The well-meaning editor (ditching his wife for one of his authors, but never mind) responsible for the cookbook fiasco travels to a book conference in Guttenberg (!) to discover a “trade fair for digital gadgets and fatuous theories.” Is the point, then, that the golden age of literature is firmly behind us?

Such sweeping satire isn’t St. Aubyn’s bailiwick. The Patrick Melrose novels, for which he’s best known, skewer a specific social class but focus on the deeply damaged eponymous aristocrat as he grows from an abused child into an addicted young man and then into a struggling adult. Next to contorted, caustic Patrick, the mad maharaja planning to avenge his book’s omission from the list, or the familiar, frenetic French theorist (“…both catastrophes, the fantastic and the actual, are deployed to distract us from the desert of the Real…!”) look lacking—but then it’s folly to seat them next to Mr. Melrose at the
award ceremony.

If Lost for Words is a slight event, as some have concluded , like all good satire it’s spillover from serious concerns. Instead of the heartlessness St. Aubyn professes to dislike about Evelyn Waugh, here two promising young writers skipping the Elysian ceremony in favor of more sex find that “all the irony seemed to have rushed from the world, restoring it to a place where things happened naturally and incomparably,” which seems to obviate the need for literature—yet here we are, and (as usual with St. Aubyn) what a lovely sentence.

05/07/14 4:00am
by |
05/07/2014 4:00 AM |

Can’t and Won’t
By Lydia Davis
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A typical review of a Lydia Davis book will focus on her brevity: it’ll note the ratio of stories to number of pages and rarely appreciate much more. Recently, one reviewer compared Davis’s newest collection to a Chinese buffet, which is at best not witty, at worst lazy, and stupid either way. To be fair, however, Davis’s fiction is difficult to characterize, if only because the common misconception that austerity is necessarily forbidding fails to account for the casual bounce of her sentences and the playfulness of her simple diction.

If you were to try to describe Davis’s preoccupations in Can’t and Won’t in a word, you might choose “distinction.” Take “Contingency (vs. Necessity),” in which the plot hinges on the distinction between two meanings of “could,” possibility itself circumscribed as the speaker notes the real finitude nesting within the false, hopeful breadth of grammar:

“He could be our dog.
But he is not our dog.
So he barks at us.”

In other stories, distinction is seen as the act of categorization, like “Wrong Thank You in Theater.” A woman says thank you while passing the narrator in a movie theater. The narrator acknowledges the thanks, but “No I meant her,” the grateful (to one and only one) woman clarifies. The narrator has been sorted into the appropriate group: non-recipients of the woman’s gratitude.

Distinction also appears as a decoration of excellence, as in the title story: “I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.” This is Davis at her ironic best: the narrator has not been awarded the distinction because the award committee makes a distinction between forms of words that don’t even carry distinct meanings.

Sometimes, Davis’s characters become so attentive to minutiae that they might seem to be futzing, yet distinction itself emerges in Can’t and Won’t as the stuff of existence. There is one major distinction we can’t humanly conceive, that between life and death, but in all the minor distinctions—that between fish to avoid and fish to eat with caution, awards won and not won, commas kept or removed—something very human happens: characters delineate what they won’t. They can’t refuse death, but they can make very mortal distinctions.
And these add up to life.

04/23/14 4:00am
04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

In Sous Chef, author and Park Slope resident Michael Gibney captures what it’s like to work in a fast-paced, upscale New York restaurant: the order and precision expected in the kitchen, the camaraderie of the staff, and the respect paid to the executive chef as they prepare to feed their guests. It’s all told through the eyes of an up-and-coming sous chef and set within 24 hours, from the day’s opening to the last ticket. Culling from his own 15 years of experience working alongside masterful chefs at a number of acclaimed New York and Brooklyn restaurants, Gibney approached writing his book with the care he’d give an elaborate meal.

You set Sous Chef within 24 hours and wrote it in the second person. Why?

That happened organically throughout the writing of the book. It made sense to capture it that way, in 24 hours—that’s a finite, good amount of time for people to understand what the industry is. To some extent, it’s a letter to an aspiring cook: part cautionary tale, part love letter. Speaking lovingly or favorably about things in the kitchen was very important, because I wanted readers to understand even though it’s a lot of work and the day is long, there are these great rewards we’re after. I wanted to show an appreciation for the physicality of the actual process.

You talk about that physicality in the book. Can you elaborate?

I mean what it actually does to your body physically: your knees, your back, and your feet. It’s like sports; you don’t see too many 45-year-old professional athletes. While I don’t claim that cooks are basketball superstars, there is this physical exertion during the day you can only endure for so long.

I loved the lines about focus and discipline, cleanliness and order in the kitchen. You compare it to a military operation.

Oh, absolutely. There are deliberate references all throughout the book to the military. I don’t mean to suggest that cooking is as difficult as going to war, but the training and the way that the system is set up is like the military system because it builds this sort of team cohesion. It keeps you disciplined and ordered in such a way that when the shit hits the fan, you have the right mental toolkit to deal with the pressure. It creates bonds between the team in the same way the military does.

You have a BFA in painting from Pratt, an MFA in writing from Columbia, and, of course, you’re a chef. Do these disciplines share any similarities?

I think I’m just interested in anything that satisfies creative needs. The easiest similarity is the meditative bits; you’re also sharing what you’re doing with others. When you’re plating, for example, you’re making a painting on the plate. But it’s not just making a painting or telling a story with a meal—it’s imagining what it is that you want to communicate to somebody and what materials you have before you and how to make the best thing out of them that you possibly can. When you’re writing a menu, you don’t just come up with cool dishes; you have to think about the whole composition: what are the price points, how do you word it, what’s in season, what’s been done before. There’s a whole heritage to incorporate as well, and you want to make what you create relevant to the conversation. Of course there are differences. I feel a lot more relaxed when I’m making a still life painting for my mother for Christmas rather than working a meat-roast station on a Friday night. It’s a different feeling.

How did you get into cooking?

I was 16. I’d gotten a job as a dishwasher and that really sucked. I looked across my little dish station to where the line was and those guys seemed to be having a much better time. Every day is something new and a bit of a challenge, and you always have the opportunity to learn new things. There is a bottomless well of information in food, whether it’s science, art, anthropology or history. It’s amazing. We’ll never run out of cool stuff to learn about cooking.

Any disasters in the kitchen you can recount?

The biggest screw up I’ve had was my first sous chef job when I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was learning a lot every day. I went in one day, and the chef was making this Eastern Mediterranean vegetable soup. You had to cook each vegetable individually, combining them for this rich, aromatic, healthful and delicious soup. I spent the entire day making it, followed him through this process. We were pouring it out of a cauldron into plastic containers called cambros, and the executive chef said, “Hold this for a second,” and went to grab another towel. Next thing I know, five gallons of this six-hour soup went not just on the floor but directly into the drain. He was standing there and I was standing there, and we were both kind of speechless. He resisted the temptation to get pissed off and chew me out, and that was an important lesson for me, in terms of being a chef and managing people and guiding them. Just remembering that we’ve all messed up like that. Things get spilled; no use crying over them.

Where in Brooklyn do you live?

I live in Park Slope, not far from Grand Army Plaza. I went to Pratt and have lived in Brooklyn ever since; 13 years now. Throughout that time I’ve lived in Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn Heights and now Park Slope. I lived in Fort Greene for about five years, and there were a lot of “firsts” there: first apartment, etc., etc. There’s a lot of nostalgia there; that’s where I spent my young adult life. In Brooklyn there’s this great sense of community—not just your own building, but the entire neighborhood. Most people I know who live in Manhattan are constantly operating on the assumption they’ll be living somewhere else in the future. Brooklyn is the sort of place where you can feel like you’re home.

Favorite local dining spots?

My favorite old mainstay is Applewood. Of course, now Brooklyn is loaded with really cool places: Franny’s, Roberta’s, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fair, Blanca, Battersby.

What are your favorite dishes, both to eat and prepare?

My favorite thing to prepare is fish. The days when someone has a signature dish are growing out of fashion; a dish should have some spontaneity, using whatever ingredients are ready and available. Fluke with whatever-is-nice-at-the-market would be what I like to prepare. Fish is satisfying in a way that feels really clean and healthy, like you’re taking advantage of the opportunity to put some nutrients in your body. And pasta. Rich, delicious, melty, buttery pasta.

You’re making me hungry.

I’m making myself hungry, actually.

04/09/14 4:00am
04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

Every Day Is for the Thief
Teju Cole
(Random House)

Toward the end of his stay in Lagos, the narrator of this novella stumbles upon a book-and-music shop called Jazzhole. It’s a bright, welcome contrast to the jazz shop he’d walked into earlier, where none of the merchandise was for sale but all the records, for a fee, could be infinitely copied. Jazzhole is “that moving spot of sun” the narrator has sought, a Nigerian outpost of the international culture industry, where the city’s endless din of generators dies down. The novella, published now in the US following the success of Cole’s 2011 debut Open City, has been out in Nigeria since 2007, courtesy of a local press of this sun-spot kind. But though the narrator swoons over a woman on a bus carrying a crisp copy of an Ondaatje novel, this book will not fold seamlessly into the awe-struck, apolitical embrace of Global Lit; for starters, Cole’s wandering alter ego is too sharply critical of the endless graft he sees. Every Day includes a smattering of “photos by the author”—Cole is also a photographer—but they fulfill a different function. This flâneur is not a camera.

And anyway, the “creative, malevolent, ambiguous” city, which he finds to be “a hostile environment for a life of the mind” doesn’t make for carefree wandering, particularly not for this iteration of Open City’s Julius. He also is a psychiatry resident from Lagos who has long been living in the States, and must relearn how to “present an outward attitude of alertness, while keeping a calm and observant mood… there also has to be the will to be violent.” On this extended visit he’s staying with family, spending his days at bus stops, markets, and at whatever cultural institutions he can find, observing “the city’s many moods: the lethargy of the early mornings, the raucous early evenings, the silent, lightless nights.”

In short and airy chapters, the narrator flirts constantly with the thought of permanent return: to mine material, unwilling to “[hoe Updike’s] same arid patch” for stories of divorce and dishwashing. Miming one attempt, a chapter narrates the immolation of an 11-year-old: punishment for stealing. A recording of the event floats around, but he “cannot find the will to hunt the tape down.” (He wasn’t actually present at the burning.) A struggling humanist hyperaware of history, he finds at the neglected National Museum “no great reason for thinking that a single thing has been improved in the last twenty years.” Cole gives a new, intelligent voice here to that well-known melancholy figure: the intellectual who would speak for many but is thwarted by the machinery of the everyday, kept by his own awareness at a seemingly unbridgeable distance.