There are many passages in “Known and Strange Things,” Teju Cole’s refreshingly unclassifiable new book of essays, that just hang in the air suspended, forcing you to reckon with their meaning.
“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” he pronounces.
“Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence, too, which takes its time and finally gets its way,” he says.
Cole strews searing insights like fresh seeds throughout his latest book, and his provocative style has earned him an ardent and youthful following on social media. But to categorize Cole as an “essayist” or “social commentator” would be to diminish the remarkable range of his oeuvre. In the 40 pieces that make up “Known and Strange Things,” Cole explores a vast expanse of territory — zigzagging through art history, literature, poetry, music, painting, politics, violence and race in America.
Much like his acclaimed debut novel, “Open City,” Cole’s latest book feels like an intimate conversation with an eccentric friend who cannot wait to share his wonderment with the visual world. Like a modern-day Montaigne, Cole patiently teases out deeper meanings from varied art forms and the outer margins of everyday existence.
“In witnessing something far-fetched, something brought out before us from the distant perimeter of human experience, we are in some way fortified for our own, inevitable, if lesser, struggles,” he writes.
A street photographer raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Cole is at his evocative best when exploring his own craft. In the essay “Shadows in Sao Paulo,” he ventures forth on a seemingly quixotic quest to find the location of Rene Burri’s iconic 1960 photograph of four shadowy men atop a high-rise rooftop. He refuses to leave Sao Paulo empty-handed, and his meanderings through “this city of hard work and edges” become a deeper meditation on the transformative power of art and the limits of perception.
After multiple dead ends, Cole finally discovers the exact spot and angle where Burri snapped the mysterious photo 50 years earlier, and he exults in the moment. “In discovering all that can be known about a work of art, what cannot be known is honored even more,” he writes. “We come right up to the edge, and can go no farther.”
On his meditative wanderings, Cole is not afraid to confront big questions. What is the fate of photography in this Instagram era of digital overabundance? What gives an image its narrative power? What is it about large, urban spaces that drives creativity? And why do marginalized Americans have so few avenues to talk openly about their suffering?
In “Death in the Browser Tab,” Cole reflects on the flood of videotaped police killings of unarmed black men that are now, for the first time in history, instantly accessible. He visits the small parking lot in North Charleston, S.C., where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot eight times in the back while fleeing a police officer. He retraces the route of the chase, and questions whether death has become within too easy a reach, numbing us to the horror.
“When one sees death mediated in this way, pinned down with such dramatic flair,” he writes, “the star is likely to be death itself and not the human who dies.”
Chris Serres is a Star Tribune reporter. Twitter: @chrisserres