Selves & the City

Reading New York Today
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The Cathedrals of Broadway, Florine Stettheimer, 1929 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Of course I’d be willing to move to New York. How hard could it be?” That’s what I told the publisher when I interviewed for a position at Commonweal almost a year ago. I was partly bluffing—I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, and the biggest city I’d ever lived in as an adult was New Haven, Connecticut. Since taking the job I’ve moved three times, facing all the classic urban nightmares: noisy radiators, cagey roommates, insect infestations. For all the hassle, though, it’s been an experience of grace. Wandering across the city, I’ve made a point of exploring different neighborhoods, New York’s vastness making me acutely aware of my own smallness. And in spite of all the ambition and selfishness that New York supposedly represents, I’ve found that the city’s density has encouraged me to forget myself, teaching me to pay greater attention to the people and places surrounding me.

So it was a joy to discover Teju Cole’s Open City (Penguin Random House, $13.57, 272 pp.), the 2011 novel set in contemporary New York, which I read in order to better grasp the cultural vicissitudes of my new home. On its face, it’s about a young Nigerian-born therapist named Julius, a psychiatry resident at a hospital in Washington Heights who wanders the streets of Manhattan reflecting on his past. But it reads more like a meditative diary, cast in uncannily evocative and engrossing prose that touches on everything from the flight patterns of birds above the Hudson River, to the changing colors of the leaves in Central Park, to the peaceful stillness of paintings by artists like John Brewster and Johannes Vermeer hanging in the city’s art museums.

Externally, not much happens. Julius could be any middle-class professional in New York: he meets with patients, takes a holiday trip to Brussels, and attends dinners given by colleagues. But as in Augustine’s Confessions, all the action in Open City happens beneath the surface. Despite his aimless drifting, Cole’s protagonist (an alter-ego of the author himself) isn’t really just a flâneur. His roving serves as an unconscious tool for probing the recesses of his restless heart. The well-being that is supposed to come from professional success and relational satisfaction, Julius realizes, is really a form of self-deception, just another fiction we tell about ourselves: “We are not the villains of our own stories…. We play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.”

What keeps Open City from closing off into pessimism or narcissism is Julius’s symbiotic relationship with New York itself. He lives far uptown (in fact, just a few blocks away from Commonweal’s offices in Morningside Heights), but frequently takes the subway downtown, where he finds painful traces of the city’s distant past (a just-excavated slave cemetery from the 1700s) and its recent history (the hole left in the skyline after 9/11). In Julius’s contemplative gaze, which evolves from surface curiosity into a kind of deep, knowing compassion, the city’s wounds become his wounds, the world’s violence his violence. Cole’s attentiveness to the links between Julius’s inner and outer worlds yields a liberating spiritual insight: our private grief may have a public or indeed historical dimension, but that doesn’t mean we can’t escape it. We can and we must. We have a responsibility to look beyond ourselves, hard as that often is, and it’s in this outward orientation that we find inner freedom.

How “objective” should journalism be? How much of one’s self goes into reporting and reviewing?

Besides a new city, this year Commonweal also introduced me to a new profession, as I made the shift from the hyper-specialized focus of academia to the intellectually omnivorous world of journalism. No book helped me more in this transition than Lauren Hilgers’s Patriot Number One (Penguin Random House, $18.36, 336 pp.), which recounts the story of Zhuang Liehong, a political dissident who flees China and ends up in Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood that includes one of New York City’s fastest-growing Chinatowns. It’s a work of nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. Closely following Zhuang and his wife, Little Yan, between 2014 and 2017 (the book came out last March), Hilgers shines a light on a world that remains hidden even to most New Yorkers. She takes us beyond the teeming, slush-covered streets of Flushing (where more than two-thirds of the population is foreign-born) into the cramped nail salons and crowded dim sum buffets where New York’s Chinese immigrants work and socialize. And she introduces us to a range of compelling characters—not only her primary subjects, Zhuang and Little Yan, but also aging anti-Communist activists like Tang Yuanjun, who left China decades ago and now mentors the next generation of dissenters, and recent arrivals like Karen, a young college graduate working multiple low-wage jobs and taking English lessons to secure a better future for herself in the United States.

Hilgers’s reporting, with its rigorous focus on the daily struggles of Chinese immigrants in New York, would be compelling on its own. But Patriot Number One offers something deeper and richer than mere reportage—namely, a moving portrayal of human fragility and hope. That the book is so engrossing is partly due to Hilgers’s skill as a prose stylist. Her tight sentences, clear and unpretentious, get right to the point, giving us just enough visual description, quotation, and analysis to keep us alert and informed without weighing us down. But even more effective is the boundless compassion that Hilgers displays on every page. Patriot Number One reads not only as a series of astute observations (Hilgers was a reporter in Shanghai for six years, and accordingly provides extensive analysis of important issues like exploitative landlords, the underground labor market, and U.S. asylum law) but as a record of loving encounters with members of a vulnerable community. “So much of immigrant life in the United States is based on myth and legend,” she writes. “But almost no one I spoke to in Flushing was prepared for the challenge of upending their lives and building new ones in a strange country…. [They] all bent themselves to fit the responsibilities, sacrifices, and opportunities that Flushing provided.” And it’s in watching that difficult process unfold, where pipedreams and fantasies give way to the imperfections of reality (which always frustrates and disappoints) that we can be inspired by their resilience, too.

Readers may or may not like Zhuang, the character at the center of Patriot Number One. He’s charming, but also bombastic, short-sighted, and at times maddeningly self-contradictory. Like him or not, though, he’s fascinating, and Hilgers’s warm, personal relationship with him left me fascinated, particularly by her first-person approach to journalism. Her book raises a question I’ve been pondering and struggling with all year: How “objective” should journalism be? How much of one’s self goes into reporting and reviewing? Is the “fly-on-the-wall” approach really possible, or even advisable? Hilgers struggles with the question too, musing on it throughout her book as she intrudes gently into several scenes. She develops a provisional answer that I’ve found helpful: Patriot Number One was written providentially, as if by chance, she says, almost as an act of service. One snowy evening, Zhuang, her subject, simply showed up unannounced at her door, asking that his story be told. Lucky for us, Hilgers was not only open to receive it, but generous enough to pursue it.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor and the current John Garvey fellow at Commonweal.

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