Wasted Literature

Anthropology and archaeology are my specialties, but literature and philosophy are constantly dismantling and reconstructing my life. I am always looking forward to the next adventure.

Open City: A Novel - Teju Cole

In “Open City”, Teju Cole attempts to play with our perspective by showing that America is a great distraction from the true essence of humanity: suffering. The inevitable end to this illusion is a death of historical perspective with dangerous consequences. How it’s dangerous exactly, I’m not entirely sure. Though Cole offers some beautiful insights into the human condition, it is ultimately a failure because he does not back up his conclusions with a well-structured plot, and his dull, flat characters cannot carry the weight of his themes.


As someone who enjoyed who enjoyed “Moby-Dick” and “To the Lighthouse,” I am very tolerant of weak plots so long as the author has something profound to say, which Cole clearly does. Unfortunately his story just rambles along and doesn’t provide a very thorough examination of suffering. There is hardly any conflict within the story that demonstrates how different ideas play out in the world. Occasionally one character may contradict the ideas of another, but this is hardly a conflict, instead Julius just casually dismisses one or the other.


  When Melville and Woolf wrote books lacking a strong plot, they filled their stories with three dimensional, complex characters that beautifully illustrated human themes through interactions with other characters. Instead, Cole presents us with flat characters who recount simple ideas already familiar to us without adding any new perspective. Some of this is likely due to our unreliable narrator, but if Cole wanted us to question Julius, he didn’t have to make the people populating his novel so monotonous.  


 Julius, our main character and narrator, is most disappointing of all. Initially Cole introduced him slowly and carefully without revealing the most noticeable aspects of human identity like gender, name, and ethnicity well into the first chapter. This lack of hyperawareness seemed to suggest there was more to our identity than these superficial factors, but as the novel continues, Julius become increasingly detached from his identity. Since Julius lacks the motivations and goals fundamental to all beings that drives them to action, he becomes another flat character whose mind I can’t wait to leave.


The major problem with “Open City” is that Cole doesn’t understand that truth is stranger than fiction. Instead he creates a novel more boring than reality as his characters and conversations are all too familiar to us without any of the strangeness embodied in all beings. Occasionally Cole will blend past with present to develop something truly strange and wonderful, but sometimes he goes on explaining how surreal it is, breaking the basic rule in film of show don’t tell. The best authors will have to draw on all their abilities to write a truly beautiful passage, but Cole occasionally ruins his passages by explaining how beautiful they are, which is a shame because his prose is much better than many contemporary authors.


It’s not all bad. Cole does show abilities in prose and technique that I have already alluded to. I honestly enjoyed and agreed with the message he was trying to get across, but without a well-structured plot and complex, three-dimensional characters to give it verisimilitude, Cole creates a poorly explored and ineffective message. 

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass - Lewis Carroll

When we think of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland today, its most apparent and loved aspect is the bizarre and nonsensical world. Though this is certainly enjoyable in itself, it does an incredible disservice to what makes Alice such great children’s literature.


Children are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. They are able to observe patterns and come to rational conclusions based on past experiences that often escape adults. However, children aren’t born with the culture that mediates the actions and thoughts of adults, and adults often become frustrated when children question their thought processes because adults commonly fail to understand these processes themselves.


Carroll masterfully conveys how confusing the adult world can be by having each chapter defy everything we know about the seemingly apparent world. Each character’s nonsensical reasoning demonstrates how mystifying and frustrating adults can be to children. Yet for all the nonsense, Carroll was a logician and he carefully employs mathematical theory and logic throughout Alice with the intention of teaching such concepts to children.


Yet, the true wonder of Alice does not lie in the fantastic world, mathematical theory, existentialism, or logic that pervades the novel. Rather it lies in how all these elements combine to illustrate how we live in an invented world where not even logic is a pathway to truth. Instead we live in an impossible world to navigate that needs to be challenged at every turn. Alice’s character embodies some of the best attributes of humanity that I believe every parent should strive to teach their children: curiosity, intelligence, and the willingness to challenge authority.

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William Gibson