Writing Seeing: Open City (1)

What sense can one expect readers to make of the opening words of Open City? What speaker can hope to convey any meaning with words that flow out from a coordinating conjunction? “And so,” the speaker begins, “when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Since nothing precedes that “And so,” the coordinating conjunction elides the cause of the speaker’s evening walks. But flip back a few pages to his aphoristic epigraph and consider how it issues a statement to which his walks may be a response. “Death,” it declares, “is a perfection of the eye.” Insofar as those words form the first full sentence of Open City, the subsequent “And so” coordinates the notion contained therein with the evening walks that the speaker discusses. “Death is a perfection of the eye,” and so, perhaps in some perverse courtship of death or otherwise in pursuit of perfection, the speaker sets out into the city each night and then, when his walks come to an end, he notices that they have afforded him an alteration of his perspective on his world. Having “fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” he says,

I wonder now if [that habit and the evening walks] are connected. … I used to look out of the window like someone taking auspices, hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.

The speaker’s name is Julius. He is a young Nigerian of German-Nigerian parentage who now works as an intern at a hospital in Manhattan. Given his first-person detailing of events, his perception of his surroundings is far more circumscribed than that of the knower of The Known World or the seer of Blood Meridian, and so, as he crosses and recrosses the city, he comes to hunger for a mode of perception that will make him more like them. He wants to develop a perfection of the eye that will, in a sense, allow him to obtain an omniscient view of the life he leads.

Moving each evening through bustling streets, through “crowds of shoppers and workers” and “more people, hundreds more, thousands even, than I was accustomed to seeing in the course of a day,” Julius finds himself increasingly cut off from others, cast adrift, and oppressed by the sense of isolation that accompanies the anonymity of strangers crowding together in a city despite the frenetic activity around them. “[T]he impress of these countless faces did nothing to assuage my feelings of isolation,” he says, “[and] if anything, it intensified them.” For Julius, the experience of watching countless commuters flocking into a subway station, “masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers… [as if] into movable catacombs,” is “perpetually strange” and, more importantly, a recurrent reminder of how “unimaginable” are the “many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.” The implication, then, is that Julius’ isolation, his disconnection from what surrounds him, stems from his lack of knowledge of the stories behind all things in his world, and this lack of knowledge stems, in turn, from his inability to perceive the past that would convey those stories to him. This is why he seeks is a new way of seeing, a way of seeing that supersedes the confines of the human eye. To be able to look at an object and see its past, its present, and even its possible futures at a glance, and to see as well how those aspects of it intersect with the pasts, presents, and futures of innumerable other objects, would perhaps bring Julius back into the world he inhabits and bind him inextricably to all he sees surrounding him.

His first attempts at seeing the world along these lines are failures, but not only because the fallibility of the human eye is an insurmountable limitation of the human animal. Sometimes the stories he hopes to see are obstructed by the world itself. “A woman had died in the room next to mine,” he says when his neighbour confesses to having lost his wife some months ago, “she had died on the other side of the wall I was leaning against, and I had known nothing of it.” In other instances, the stories to which he finds himself drawn only offer further distractions from the world. “The child in the Brewster painting looked out with a serene and ethereal expression from the year 1805,” he says of a work of art he pauses to admire in a museum. “I lost track of time before [such] images,” he adds, and when he finally steps back out onto the streets he does so “with the feeling of someone who had returned to the earth from a great distance.”

How can he then break free from both the obstructions of and distractions from the stories he hopes to see? If not exactly a solution, his path forward involves hunting out those worldly objects which somehow acknowledge or anticipate the events of other times rather than attempting only to capture or commemorate them. While a public memorial to police officers killed on duty formally honours past events, for instance, it also contains “a vast, blank face of polished marble.” This blankness, as Julius observes, silently and inconspicuously “await[s] those among the living who [will] die in uniform, and the not yet born, who [will] be born, grow up to be police officers, and be killed while doing that work,” running a thread from the past into the present and onwards into a future in which the present will have become a past inscribed with traces of events that have yet to occur. Moreover, after recalling the terrorist attacks that demolished the World Trade Center in September 2001, Julius notes that the collapse of the twin towers “was not the first erasure on the site.” Before the construction of the towers, he says,

there had been a bustling network of little streets traversing this part of town… [but] all of them had been obliterated in the 1960s to make way for the [World Trade Center] and all were forgotten now. Gone, too, was the old Washington Market, the active piers, the fishwives, the Christian Syrian enclave that was established here in the late 1800s.

“Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble,” he adds, characterising the city around him as “a palimpsest” on which records of human endeavours have been and continue to be “written, erased, rewritten.” “There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail,” he observes, “before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portuguese slave trader Esteban Gómez sailed up the Hudson.” At one point he even makes note of an almost indistinct memorial on “the site of an African burial ground,” a burial ground that has been reduced from its original six acres to a “tiny plot” around which “human remains [a]re still routinely uncovered.” “[M]ost of the burial ground,” he points out, “[i]s now under office buildings, shops, streets, diners, pharmacies, all the endless hum of quotidian commerce and government.”

As he develops an awareness of how he is surrounded by aspects of the world that have accumulated extravagant histories and now anticipate imperceptible futures that will historicise the present, Julius gradually sees how his proximity to them leaves him enmeshed in an incomprehensibly complex network of relationships with other aspects of the world that are equally extravagant and equally anticipatory. But rather than being able to see the network in its totality, Julius glimpses no more than scattered pieces, scattered nodes to which he can connect himself in the here and now by way of direct observation but which in turn connect him to other nodes only by varying degrees of association. This distantiated connectivity, this sense of being enmeshed in such a network and yet removed from its totality, fails to satisfy Julius and spurs him into action. “Generations rushed through the eye of a needle,” he muses as he observes the world around him, “and I, one of the still legible crowd, … wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.”

Finding that line proves more complex, and more revelatory, than Julius first anticipates. What makes him want to find it is New York City, a city defined by individual isolation in the here-and-now as well as a storied past obscured, written over, by that isolation, but what finding the line involves is, for Julius, a retracing of his heritage back to its roots in the Old World. “The name Julius linked me to another place,” he says, “and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria.” Although the place to which his name links him is Germany, his search for the vestiges of his European bloodline leads him to Belgium, to Brussels, where, in lieu of discovering anything new about himself or his place in the storied world, his efforts to see himself in the context of some existential totality reveal to him that the totality itself is much more extensive and amorphous than he at first assumed. As he sets out to intensify his focus on his place within a relational network extending far into the past, what he finds instead is that the increasing visibility of the past does not clarify his place in the network so much as it expands the reach of the network itself in a way that diminishes his place within it.

Continued in the following post.

Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth and December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something approaching conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?