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20 August 2016

Why Teju Cole proves the 21st-century essay is in fine fettle

Cole's collected essays, Known and Stranger Things, combines good writing with emotion and intellect.

By Ian Thomson

In May 2015, Teju Cole and five other writers (among them Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje) boycotted a fundraising gala for Pen in New York after it decided to give a Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo. Cole objected that the satirical paper had exposed France’s “vulnerable Muslim community” to “racist and Islamophobic provocations”. His readiness to second-guess offence on behalf of a group to which he does not belong might strike one as illiberal: the Charlie Hebdo staff had it coming.

Cole, born in Michigan in 1975 to black Nigerian parents, is well placed to write about the absurdities of our mongrel, mixed-up planet. He grew up in Lagos (speaking Yoruba as his first language) but is “privileged” to hold US citizenship. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Inevitably he finds himself “subject to the many microaggressions of American racism” (the buzz term “microaggression”, once confined to the fringes of university life in America, has now entered the mainstream). Fortunately, as a self-proclaimed cultural “in-betweener”, he spends much of his time on travel assignments and staying at writers’ retreats abroad.

Cole’s first novel, Open City, published in 2011, was a W G Sebald-like impasto of musings on rootlessness and the immigrant experience in New York. It remains a most unusual book about the place. Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays, mostly for the New Yorker, New York Times and Atlantic, continues the city theme. The 55 short pieces here, written over a period of eight years, display a cosmopolitan range of interest as Cole explores evidence of racism in Rio de Janeiro, Boko Haram’s feared encroachment on Lagos, and the Australian Outback-influenced music of the late Peter Sculthorpe.

In many ways, the collection offers a ­Marshall McLuhan-like vision of a world without borders. “I call New York home,” Cole writes, “even when not living there; and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland.” To most people, the world is not as placeless as this, but the backyard they call home. Cole’s vision of the world as a global village is conditioned by his years of “privileged” travel; with enough money and few domestic respon­sibilities, travel is easy. (“Then it’s off to Moscow, Idaho, for the Hemingway Festival” is a not untypical sentence.)

These essays offer a perspective on the maligned genre of travel writing. Cole is not one to impose artificial difficulties on himself in order to simulate the hardship of Victorian exploration (“Hang-Gliding to Borneo”, “Sideways to Mandalay on a Rhinoceros”). If a bus is available, he will take that bus. The global phenomenon of tourism and the mass uniculture dominated by Microsoft and McDonald’s are of interest to him. In Swiss cable cars, São Paulo high-rises and in Google Earth images, he finds a kind of poetry.

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Occasionally, Cole’s prose is wince-­makingly pretentious. “For years now, when I cannot sleep, I rise from bed and watch Jacques Derrida talk,” he writes of the Algerian-French deconstructionist. Why on Earth watch Derrida? His pseudo-Nietzschean vapourings might only promote insomnia. By contrast, the essays on Sebald, Derek Walcott and the Trinidad-born V S Naipaul are excellent. Naipaul, that arch-dyspeptic, is a patrician Brahman writer of Hindi-speaking ancestry who views Trinidad’s majority-black population as somehow “inferior”. For all that, Cole says, he remains a master of “beautiful observation and language”. Cole rightly regards his late-period novel The Enigma of Arrival as a masterpiece.

Along the way, Known and Strange Things offers enthusiastic appraisals of the European art-house directors Andrei Tar­kovsky and Krzysztof Kieślowski. If there is a pattern here, it lies in Cole’s interest in the visual image. Roy DeCarava, the African-American post-Harlem Renaissance photographer and painter, is a clear favourite, as are the veteran Haiti photographers Maggie Steber and Alex Webb.

Some of the best essayists, of course, are American; only a wordy journal such as the New Yorker can accommodate the long stroll as perfected by the wildcat Baltimore journalist H L Mencken, John Updike or Gore Vidal. Cole is not of their stature (“A sob ascended my spinal cord,” he writes at one point; elsewhere: “We are not mayflies. We have known afternoons, and we live day after day for a great many days”). But, to judge by this collection at least, the 21st-century essay looks in fine fettle. In page after page, Cole upholds the sterling virtue of good writing combined with emotional and intellectual engagement. And that is more than enough.

Ian Thomson’s books include “The Dead Yard: a Story of Modern Jamaica” (Faber & Faber)

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole is published by Faber & Faber (392pp, £17.99)

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge