Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things (Faber and Faber, 2016)

by Rachel Sykes

For the author of a critically lauded debut novel, Teju Cole is winningly reluctant to publish fiction. Open City (2011) won the PEN/Hemingway Award, rave reviews from The New Yorker and The Guardian, and praise from literary vanguards like Colm Tóibín, James Wood, and Claire Messud. What followed for Cole was a period of creative public intellectualism in which the author never hinted that a second novel would follow. Originally published in Nigeria in 2007, Faber & Faber reprinted Cole’s novella Every Day is for the Thief in 2014, but since then the author has shifted between the forms of art and criticism that interest him: pursuing a PhD in art history at Columbia, writing a monthly column ‘On Photography’ for the New York Times Magazine, and conducting narrative experiments on Twitter and Instagram. [1]

Interestingly, at least for anyone following the rhetoric of review sections, critical praise for Cole often centres on the supposedly un-contemporariness of his method and prose. James Wood celebrates the “room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition that Open City provides the modern reader; Colm Tóibín notes that the “soft, exquisite rhythms” of Open City are unusual for contemporary fiction and should therefore be celebrated. What seems most unusual about Cole is his critical and artistic dexterity. Unwilling to pigeonhole himself, or, indeed, to be pigeonholed by others, Cole perhaps enjoys a unique position as a prominent contemporary African and American novelist who is able to live, as he suggests in an early interview, by making “the arts the center of [his] life” without producing a second novel or narrowly defining his professional identity.

Known and Strange Things (2016) is Cole’s first collection of essays and unsurprisingly diverse in subject, form, and style. The collection divides into three sections, Reading Things, Seeing Things, and Being There, concluding with an Epilogue, ‘Blind Spot’, which reflects on Cole’s temporary but recurring experience of blindness. The volume is impressively fluid and, due to the breadth of Cole’s interests, only loosely defined by the ‘Things’ that interest him. Indeed, in his Introduction to the volume, Cole describes the collection as extracts from “an eight-year period of almost constant writing” and stresses his overly “flexible approach to “‘essays’”. Like the rest of Cole’s career, then, Known and Strange Things is wilfully ambiguous, hinting at other ‘possible’ books within the text itself and presenting many contrasting aspects of Cole’s intellectual and artistic life, side-by-side.

The collection’s first essay, ‘Black Body’, is indicative both of Cole’s lyricism and his breadth. The essay begins mid-thought, “Then the bus began driving into cloud,” and the movement of Cole’s prose will remind readers of Open City, driven as it is by the slow movement of mental processes rather than the passage of external action or event. Although Cole’s journey is rooted in the prosaic, defined by the bus, its timetable, and several scheduled stops, the author’s drive through the clouds also delivers him back in time: to a village in Switzerland that James Baldwin visited sixty years ago, a moment “just on the cusp of escaping the contemporary and slipping into the historical.”

Baldwin is a key reference for Cole. His citations both here and throughout Known and Strange Things link the volume to a resurgence of interest in the already canonical author, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) to Jesmyn Ward’s edited collection, The Fire This Time (2016). For Cole, as for Coates and Ward, Baldwin’s writing is painful in its continued relevance and Cole, in particular, invokes Baldwin for his ability to recall America’s past in its present. The lyricism of Cole’s prose therefore acts as cold comfort, rendering the historic repetition of state-sponsored racism in beautiful phrases that make his observations more vivid. ‘Black Body’ is an essay about Baldwin and his influence on Cole, but it is also about Switzerland, travel, and the enduring experience of being a “stranger” whilst black, both historically and in a specifically twenty-first century context when a recurring “fantasy about the disposability of black life” is being reasserted.

Here, I part ways with the critics who highlight Cole’s antecedents before they acknowledge his contemporaneity. Cole’s tastes are generally intellectual, or whatever the polite term for ‘highbrow’ might be. One essay reflects on the career of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, another on Cole’s most obvious literary forbearer, W. G. Sebald. At least the first two sections of Known and Strange Things interweave appreciations of lesser-known figures in modern literature, art, and music with reflections on how the individual encounters them. This necessarily includes observations about technology, mediation, and our Westernised sense of what is worth reading, seeing, or hearing. In one essay, for instance, Cole uses YouTube to repeatedly watch videos of Jacques Derrida talking; in another, he contemplates the future of photography after Flickr, Instagram, and “cheap photography” have led to the production of nearly a trillion images a year.

Technology is therefore at the forefront of Cole’s imagination, although his elegiac style and characteristic thoughtfulness often makes his prose feel older than it is. [2] It is in this way that critics distinguish Cole as a relic amongst his contemporaries, but, arguably, the slow progress of Known and Strange Things is also how Cole challenges the exclusion of many ‘non-Western’ artists from our preeminent cultural discussions.

For instance, by placing an essay on Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu between a dream-like meditation on Derrida, Nazism, and Beethoven and a review of Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), Cole makes connections that many critics would not. That is, rather than a radical overthrowing of ‘known’ canonical works, Cole makes substitutions, “ripostes,” and “strange” addendums. Indeed, as Petina Gappah observes in a recent review, “[Cole asserts] the right to write on Brahms and Kofi Awoonor, Derek Walcott and Tomas Tranströmer, Sebald and Wole Soyinka, Wangechi Mutu and Gueorgui Pinkhassov” and to read them in direct communion with each other.

Similarly evident of Cole’s dexterity, the essays collected here often teeter between the personal and the impersonal. In this, Known and Strange Things is reminiscent of recent autobiographical works by Olivia Laing and Rebecca Solnit, writers who both reflect on their intellectual heritage through the lens of their embodied present. [3] Unlike Laing and Solnit, however, Cole describes himself as “cool on the page and animated in person” and the distance implied by his coolness can be jarring, his eloquence sometimes disarming.

As a reader, I found a similar remove in reading a 416-page book about another person’s experience of culture. Due to the relative anonymity of some of Cole’s subjects, and perhaps also due to his growing reputation as a writer, the third item in my Google search of Howard French’s photography book, Disappearing Shanghai (2013), turns out to be Cole’s original article, published in The New Inquiry in 2012. Cole’s written experience of French’s photography is therefore oddly circuitous and when in search of the images that inspired the essay, the Internet directed me to the ‘originary origin’, to misquote Derrida, and returned me, once again, to Cole’s interpretation.

Of course, this is not really a criticism of Cole, but rather an acknowledgement of the challenges of writing (and reviewing) a single volume composed from “an eight-year period” of cultural writings. At times, Being There, the final section of Known and Strange Things, reads like the highlight reel of almost a decade in global politics, reflecting on the election and presidency of Barack Obama, the false charity of Kony 2012, and the deaths of migrants in Arizona border-crossings. However, this is where Cole’s writing also becomes must alive, compensating for the reserve of his authorial persona with dedicated and passionate reporting.

Here, too, Cole reveals his commitment to the novel form and hints that his identity is more didactic that it might initially appear to be. “I am a novelist,” he writes, “and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point.” Known and Strange Things therefore shares several qualities with Cole’s fiction: it is wide reaching and specific, unstructured and highly defined, but above all very difficult to define.

[1] This list in selective: Cole also teaches writing, exhibits his own photography, and, according to his website, has ‘lectured widely, from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to Twitter Headquarters’.

[2] The same cannot be said for Cole’s treatment of pop culture, which he sometimes references but never expands on. In ‘Black Body’, for instance, Cole mentions Beyoncé to demonstrate the reach of American music, but shows little interest in interpreting her work.

[3] Cole and Solnit have a documented friendship: Solnit provides a blurb for Known and Strange Things and both authors have shared articles by the other on Twitter and Facebook. on the latter, Cole has even shared a photo of the two together

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