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 (

Novels Read in 2021

That is, the ones I finished reading

A year in other people’s pages: To say 2021 was a tough year would be an understatement. I read a heap of books, which helped, what with what was going on more broadly in the country and the world. I read a lot more than novels, but here is a list of the 24 novels I finished reading. (I started a lot of books that I didn’t finish. Those aren’t included here.) It’s pretty much all what could broadly be described as “escapist” stuff, which makes sense (since who didn’t want to escape 2021?). I’m guessing I left one or two off by mistake, since I’m not great about updating my Goodreads account.

These novels are listed in reverse chronological order. I’m pretty sure I won’t finish reading the novels I’m currently reading until the start of 2022, but there’s still plenty of vacation days ahead, so who knows? (The better of them is Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, and so far I am really enjoying it, as of 43%. It’s the third and, sadly, final book in her Jade series.) The ones with + signs are the ones I particularly recommend.

Technically I finished Time War at the very very end of 2020, but the book still felt fresh at the start of the year. It’s pretty revealing to look back at a year of reading, and to observe how some books feel quite recent, while others don’t. For example, I finished Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice before January 2021 was half over, and it feels like much much longer ago, whereas I finished Kay Larson’s truly excellent Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists in May, and it feels like yesterday. (Neither of those are fiction.)

With almost all of these novels, I have a sense of where I was when I read them. That’s more complicated during pandemic life, since every day has pretty much been the same (excepting a trip to New York, to see my family, during which I didn’t read much at all), but still these are breadcrumbs that trace the path I took.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson
Silverview by John le Carré
+Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine
The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer
The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
The Atrocity Files by Charles Stross
This Is What Happened by Mick Herron
Duchamp Versus Einstein by Christopher Hinz
+Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein
+A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
Nobody Walks by Mick Herron
+Slough House by Mick Herron
Why We Die by Mick Herron
The Last Voice You Hear by Mick Herron
Down Cemetery Road by Mick Herron
+Joe Country by Mick Herron
+Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone Holiday Pause

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, collating most of the tweets I made the past week at, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up in expanded form or otherwise on sooner. It’s personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud.

▰ Cool. The latest Junto project is live ( and a holiday is imminent. I haven’t taken a digital break (from Twitter and Facebook) in a while, so I’m bowing out til Nov. 29. Gonna write, read (Pessoa biography, ton o’ fiction), listen, chill, loiter in some video games, nap. Be well. ⏸

▰ “The host will let you in soon.”

All UX text makes more sense when understood as out-of-context quotes from H. P. Lovecraft short stories.

▰ This is what it sounds like when bees scream: “When she stuck a recorder at the entrance of a hive fringed by hornets, she heard a cacophony of noise.” More at

▰ “Too bag new asleep morel.”

At night I sometimes use audio notes to capture stray final waking thoughts. Sometimes the struggling speech-to-text tool, lacking a lucid dreaming mode, types out tentative guesswork immune to interpretation. I must listen to understand what I said.

▰ Weird. I’d swear the new Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock, and the final Expanse book were due out the same day, but the former came out today, and the latter’s now due at month’s end, same day at the final Fonda Lee Jade trilogy novel. And the new Mick Herron came out today. What’s with November?

▰ “A system of coded hand signals among tight-knit teammates and coaches confounds opponents with its speed and efficiency” (more at: I’m sports illiterate, but I’m all in (no ableist “all ears” jokes) for a story about deaf football. (via Dave Pell’s Next Draft newsletter)

▰ I’ll miss this place.

▰ Most recent music purchases by format, following the lead of Mark Richardson (former Pitchfork editor, currently music critic at Wall Street Journal, and who did a nice interview with me about my Aphex Twin book when it came out). I don’t actually buy a lot of physical music media. I have so much over decades, but I do on occasion:

LP – Deep Voices (The Second Whale Record)

CD – The Consummation of Right and Wrong by David First/The Western Enisphere

Tape – 3 blank tape loops (4.25, 5.8, 8 seconds)

Download – Wrong Names EP by Loraine James

▰ Took a short walk to a wide angle view at lunch. (Panorama, actually.)

▰ That moment when you’re feeling like you’re getting pretty well settled into a new Neal Stephenson novel, and the screen tells you that you have now passed the 1% point. Construction, Surveillance, Dings

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, collating most of the tweets I made the past week at, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up in expanded form or otherwise on sooner. It’s personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud.

▰ The air strike LARPing is over, right?

▰ Colleague on conference call: Are you working from the library?

Me: Oh, this is the dining room.

▰ I’m not not working at this moment. I’m simply sitting here while the electrician drills lots of holes in our house and there’s only so much power of concentration that I possess.

▰ The electricians are pulling a Marathon Man on the front entrance to this building. Zoom picks up the noise of the drilling and pops up a “Playing music?” window.

▰ Second day of electrical intervention action in the building has begun. The drilling left me frazzled beyond description last night. Let there be light, indeed.

▰ Just two paragraphs into the new John le Carré novel, Silverview, the spymaster’s final, published the week he would have turned 90, and someone is “jabbing” a doorbell and all is right in the world, except of course the world of these characters. The Le Carré is the first of five new fictions I’m blocking time for between now and year’s end (also: James S.A. Corey, Mick Herron, Fonda Lee, Neal Stephenson), though often the most enjoyable work is by people I’ve never read before, like Alison Stine’s Road Out of Winter, which I’m currently mainlining.

▰ Russian military veteran and charity fundraiser

French resistance fighter and politician

Ukrainian-born Macedonian handball player

Spanish paleontologist

The biographical haiku of Wikipedia’s daily notable deaths list are a morning staple. Coffee, oatmeal, mortality.

▰ You’re welcome to hold for a human, or to spend the next ten minutes helping train our nascent voice AI menu system.

▰ I will not play-by-play the electrical work being done in the building, but I will say that as someone who can nap to Einstürzende Neubauten, this is testing my capacity for noise.

▰ There are days when I think the results of a search return on Duck Duck Go are really a complicated form of psyops trolling. Here’s a good example. Note the top return versus the actual query.

▰ Society will get to that four-day work week, but the fifth day will be all mandatory software updates, and it’ll run into unpaid overtime.

▰ I’ll keep clicking on articles about strange radio signals with names like ASKAP J173608.2-321635 until the Galactic Federation arrives to tell us to get our act together: (Oh, and A$KAP J173608.2-321635 is my new instrumental hip-hop DJ name.)

▰ Whew, industrial strength vacuums are pretty much on par with incessant drilling. TIL, and so forth.

▰ Forgive me for being new to a half-decade-old clip that’s been watched half a million times, but I love how Keeley Hawes mentally rewinds the audio of her Lara Croft panting and gasping, and recognizes which cue went with which move.

▰ I’m intrigued when decades-old guitars are listed as blemish-free or near-blemish free. I don’t know how a guitar can be played for that long without dings. I bought mine used because of the dings: so I wouldn’t be able to tell my inevitable dings from the ones I inherited. And no, dear Algorithm, I’m not in the market for a guitar. I’m still in nuptial bliss with the one I got five years ago. (I don’t doubt they’re blemish-free and I don’t doubt they’ve been played. I just don’t live a ding-free life, myself, apparently.)

▰ Was working to complete something urgent, and when I came out of the time-sensitive myopic focus, I realized I was picturing, and hearing, the whole time Debbie Allen and her stick from Fame.

▰ I love when Zoom hears the carpenter’s drill two rooms away and asks if I want to adjust my microphone settings for music playing.

▰ “It lasted too long to be a sonic boom signature.” Reports of a loud noise over New Hampshire and into Massachusetts. Also the tantalizing: “NASA did not immediately comment on Tuesday.” The current suspect is meteor explosion:

▰ I recognize that I still tweet as if everyone has a reverse-chronological timeline. I realize that lots of people, consciously or unaware, have an algorithmic Twitter thing going on. Sorry if my “imminently” and “momentarily” are in fact your past tense.

▰ “the security devices contributed to harassment”

The headline is a little confusing, but the gist is that a judge (in the U.K.) “ruled that the video and audio captured” by the widely used IoT doorbell constitutes an illegal infringement:

▰ A $35 million UAE bank swindle employed a deep fake voice (“deep voice” in this article’s parlance, apparently not meaning you sound like Orson Welles) to emulate the account’s owner. It’s a “We need your Apple ID” spam phone call on an epic scale:

▰ My weekend will begin in 154 words. I don’t need to write that many. I need to trim that many. The words in this tweet don’t count. In any case, have a great weekend.