Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fire escapes and broken staircases

Reading Teju Cole's Open City I had the distinct sense that fire escapes were a Chekhovian gun (phrase appears only twice in the first half of the book though), and when I got to the scene near the end in which the narrator takes the wrong door out of a concert and ends up on a crow's-nest-like fire escape, I was a little surprised that I hadn't read a fire escape scene in a literary novel before this. The novel is one I'd recommend; it's fascinatingly (dis)organized (James Wood is good on this aspect of it), intermittently very well-written esp. in descriptive passages -- e.g., I liked "starlight coming as fast as it could," and rain "like a great torrent of mirrors" -- but both probably need context to work -- and the voice is on the whole right for the narrator, superficially a plodding Nigerian psych resident living in New York. While clearly influenced by Sebald, Cole seems to me quite lacking in one of Sebald's great merits -- there is little that is self-delighting about the narrator's knowledge, it is mostly humdrum and dutiful and sometimes downright boring; again this is probably appropriate to the narrator, such as he is, and a much more Sebaldian narrator would have been wrong for this book and definitely less psychologically interesting.

But this post is meant to be about fire escapes, which are peculiarly evocative of a certain kind of New York street, and ultimately of a certain era. My favorite description is from Richard Price's Lush Life:
the hanging gardens of ancient fire escapes
but Cole has a good one too:
prewar buildings, each with an elaborate fire escape that it offered like a transparent mask to the world.
(There are other refs to Yoruba masks in the book.) Cole is very good on cities-as-palimpsests, and the narrator's getting stuck on the fire stairs of Carnegie Hall is of-a-piece with the meditations about, say, the lack of significance of Ellis Island for black immigrants; fire escapes and ramshackle tenements are symbols of the immigration-heavy early 20th, when the experience was better-defined and in some ways richer. Being a certain kind of present-day immigrant is, in relative terms, an amorphous predicament; the actual differences between cities are relatively small (power outages!) and one can easily keep in touch with people, etc. but the old, once-functional set of associations are now a little absurd if "evocative."

As I was walking back to work from the coffee-shop where I finished the book, I remembered the line from Price and tried to recreate the passage it was from; I seemed to remember it "musically," as periods and pauses one had to set words to -- this didn't work at all, because as it happens I was just remembering the tune of a sentence in Proust-Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin:
In each of their gardens the moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, scattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains, its iron gates temptingly ajar. 

There are gardens, iron, and staircases here I guess...

(Self-indulgent to record this here w/ no attempt to vivify, but it was an interesting experience and quite unusual with prose.)

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