Memoir meets museum catalog in this engagingly meandering, genre-bending collection.
Cole’s debut novel, Open City (2011), is written nearly entirely as the inner monologue of his protagonist, a graduate student walking around New York. In less capable hands, this would be insufferable, but Cole (Known and Strange Things, 2016, etc.) is a master of the quiet, often nonsensical workings of the mind. Here, images take center stage: one per every two pages, with short accompanying text, like the notes at a gallery show (which they are—the images were originally on display in a solo exhibition in Milan). Cole made the pictures over a three-year period as he traveled the globe from Seoul to the Swiss Alps to London to Lagos and back to Brooklyn, where he makes his home. But this is hardly a travelogue; while the pictures are often gorgeous, they are not iconic or grand. Rather, Cole focuses on small things—e.g., the shadows of an outdoor staircase adjacent to the sweeping mountain view at an Alpine summit, tables being set up for an event in Rome, a partially open garage door in Ubud, Indonesia. Tarps and drapery are common themes—they cover musical instruments in Lagos, a brick wall in Berlin, and the windows of countless hotel rooms. War and violence also loom prominently, though the images are uniformly quiet and profoundly peaceful. Accompanying a photo of a nondescript conference room in Seoul, Cole writes about missile negotiations; in Zurich, he remembers “all the places and bodies that had been blown apart by the hundreds of millions of dollars of annual Swiss arms sales.” The author is present in some of the text: waiting for a haircut or moving into a new house, a constant reminder that we are seeing the world through a particular set of eyes. As Siri Hustvedt asks in the preface, “what is seeing? What is inside the looking person and what is outside him? How do we parse what we see?”
A strange, cerebral, and very beautiful journey.