The Sonic Orientation of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Novel Open Water

As explored in the second person

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s novel Open Water, published early last year, is a story about being young, gifted, and Black while dating and working in modern London. It’s told entirely in the second person. Despite the fact that the second person singular and plural can read the same (“you” can be both “you” and “you all,” as in “You kids get off my lawn”), the audience for these declarations is the narrator himself: we read the narrator speaking to himself.

The second person is a natural choice for a book that often is concerned with how people lose control of their bodies. In a positive mode, such dissociation has to do with the narrator becoming entangled with a new love such that the couple meld into an amorphous singularity. That love, however, occurs in the constraints of people ever surveilled, ever in threat of state violence, ever the object of suspicion in the city in which live their lives — an existence in which one loses a sense of control over one’s body, about which Nelson, who is British-Ghanaian, writes eloquently.

The second person enacts, for the reader, the void between the narrator and himself. We, as the reader, inhabit the space in between. We eavesdrop as the narrator speaks to himself, as the narrator attempts to bridge that void. This experience is all the more evident in the audiobook, which is read by Nelson himself. It’s especially intriguing at the open and close, when he is required to read the credits for author and narration, meaning that he says his own name out loud, as if it were someone else’s.

It’s worth noting Nelson’s second-person approach in the context of another debut novel about 20-somethings at the center of the Western cultural world: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, published in 1984. The void in McInerney’s book is quite different, even if the story, like Open Water‘s, spends a lot of time watching the narrator participate in the nightlife of a surging metropolis, albeit Manhattan instead of London. The psychic void in Bright Lights, Big, however, is about poisonous affluence, and takes place precisely after a big breakup, whereas Open Water begins even before its central relationship kicks off.

The void in Open Water is not a vacuum. It is filled with sound. The narrator is obsessed with music, notably albums by Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, a highlight being adolescent exposure to the great Dizzee Rascal. The connection between sound and experience is embroidered into the novel right from the start, when an early phase of a relationship is summed up: “The two of you, like headphone wires tangling, caught up in this something.” We spend time with the narrator and his love, a dancer, in clubs, feeling the music as much as hearing it.

And the narrator’s experience of sound isn’t limited to music. In a barbershop, as the razors come close: “The buzz of the machine operates at a vibration that speaks to you and encourages you to do the same.” When home alone: “The silence is something you normally crave in such a full household, but something is missing.” The norms of a mobile phone offers metaphoric imagery: “Her voice spins towards you through the soft static and you try to map its direction, imagining the soundwave drifting from a place you have never seen.” The poetic writing in Open Water frequently features such sonic observations, even when music isn’t the topic.

Toward the very end of the book there is a scene when quotidian sound and musical sound, when intonation and composition, are brought side by side. The narrator drops into a Caribbean restaurant to snag a pattie, but they’re sold out. The woman behind the counter asks if the narrator is OK. He isn’t, or he wasn’t, because now just having been asked the question has helped, has taken loads off. Not just that he was asked, but how he was asked: the narrator says to himself, “You smile at how something as simple as a familiar inflection could cradle you in this moment.” In the very next sentence, he exits the shop and heads back out into the street: “Leaving, you hear a kick-kick, snare, kick-kick, snare in your ears. You wonder if Dilla added reverb the the snare, or cut it, clear, straight from a sample.” The patois-tinged accent and the noticeable reverb — both are sonic zones in which the narrator finds solace, maybe even that rarest of things in Nelson’s novel: comfort.

This first appeared in the January 17, 2022, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

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