Book Review

Open City by Teju Cole

transcript of a presentation from happier days

Photo on 07-02-2017 at 15.17.jpg

Sticking rigidly to this “one new post every three days” rule, here is another piece from the vaults of my Google Drive, this time the transcript of a presentation I gave as a student on Open City by Teju Cole. I actually liked the book more than I’m implying I did, because everyone else in the class hated it and I’m too anxious a person to speak against groups:

When I read Open City in the Summer, leisurely, before the start of term, I really enjoyed it. Particularly coming straight to it from The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was all a bit too plot driven for my personal tastes.

However, racing through it again over two days, in preparation for this class, I found it much more of a chore. The lack of a cohesive plot means that, other than the elegant writing style, there is little to make one want to return to the book hour after hour. The prose is thick, viscous, it is very difficult to get any real grasp of the character, because all the character speaks about is the people, the cities and the buildings that surround him. He is a flâneur.

James Wood describes, in his book How Fiction Works, a flâneur as a “loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting”. This is exactly how the character of Julius in Open City approaches the world. Who he is and what he does is, largely, irrelevant. It is the stories he listens to, the biographies he recounts and, crucially, the other people in the story who matter.

This book, which I know a lot of people in here didn’t like, which is an opinion shared by people I’ve spoken to in other groups [on the course], received immense critical acclaim. Every newspaper and magazine of literary repute shouted its praises, it won two awards, I believe, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, which is a pretty big deal, and has been/is being translated into ten languages. Almost all reviewers compare Teju Cole’s book to the writer WG Sebald, who wrote similar books about an educated flâneur roaming about a country he is moderately alienated from and musing on what he sees.

Very quickly and very early on we get a sense of Julius’ detachment from the city as a whole – despite its openness, he is very closed. He is unaware, on page eight, that the New York marathon is happening that day, which would surely be rather a big deal, as the London marathon is here. I am always surprised when it happens, but I know that is because I am detached and anti-social in the way that Julius is, which was perhaps why I initially enjoyed the novel a lot. A few pages after he shows his ignorance of a major public event, he shows his ignorance of a major private event – the death of his neighbour’s wife.

“I had not noticed not seeing her around. That was the worst of it. I had noticed neither her absence nor the change – there must have been a change – in his spirit.”

“That was the worst of it” – the worst of the event is not that an acquaintance has died, it is that Julius has momentarily become aware of his detachment from normal social interaction. He is ignorant of people and how they feel. He doesn’t think about Seth, his neighbour’s reaction, his feelings, he thinks about the way this would affect his behaviour. How Julius would be able to sense his unhappiness.

Julius is a psychiatrist, and this is quite key. Within the first few pages of the novel he has revealed his predilections for classical music and literary fiction, but with the writers and the radio stations he chooses to listen to being non-American, being European. He is not engaging, properly, with the country he is in. He is an observer, he “walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting.” He is a literary type, and he is a literary creation first and foremost. A flâneur, Wood also states in the same essay, “is essentially a stand-in for the author”, and with shared personal-cultural histories, interests and knowledge, many critics were also quick to point out the similarities between Teju Cole and Julius.

James Wood, who reviewed Open City for the New Yorker, hence the increased appropriateness of considering his thoughts about flâneurs, said that “Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get”. I want to look at this in a bit more detail.

Diaries are usually considered private things, a space for a personality to open up and explore and express itself. This “diary-novel” explores the life, though not the mind, of a mixed-race Nigerian living in New York, Julius. The character’s middle name is given once in the text, but his surname never – unless I’m wrong – he chooses to distance himself from his African identity by only using the European name that his German mother gave him. And Julius, of course, is a very, very European name. Julius Caesar is not just a famous historical figure, it is also the name of a famous and often-quoted piece of theatre, which is about the confluence and the confrontation of different mentalities, different ideas.

On page 233 of my edition, Julius writes “Names matter. Everything has a name.” Yet we, the readers, do not know his full name. We do not know the name of his best friend, he does not give this once. Also, a bit over a hundred pages earlier when he picks up a Czech tourist and has sex with her in mid-afternoon Brussels, ““Afterward, she told me her name – Marta? Esther? I forgot it immediately”. He also lies about his name to her, and in one of the strangest elements in the book, his psychiatric patient who kills herself whilst he is on holiday he refers to only by an initial. Why? Why not write a fake name, why not write a real name? There is a point where he turns his patients – and some of his colleagues’ – into “mental health” anecdotes to get laughs from friends. This is breaking some pretty serious, and pretty basic, professional and ethical boundaries. I don’t know the wording of the Hippocratic Oath, or whether the etymological link is as clear as it sounds, but Julius is a hypocrite. He is an unreliable narrator steeped in arrogance and distance from the people that surround him. Even his patients, who he listens to, tries to help, are initials, are case notes, are symbolic objects to study and heal, even when he thinks about them in his free time. He dehumanises everyone he meets, he reduces people to things, to a single idea. And though the book is lyrically written, contains lots of interesting facts, it doesn’t express how Julius feels. Which is perhaps the point.

He is disaffected and alone. Race is a key part of the text too – he was always “too white” in Nigeria, growing up, but once in America he is “black”, and forced into a sense of racial camaraderie that he seems to both hate – he’s a doctor, an intellectual, he is wealthy, he is different from them, from the cab drivers, the post office poets – but he is also angered when his racial identity is not respected/denied. He is mugged, perhaps as a result of his false sense of security based on his race: there is “the most tenuous of connections between us, looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on out being young, black, male; based, in other words, on our being “brothers”.”

But it is false, as is a lot of what he thinks, what he feels. Julius doesn’t want an acknowledgement of race except for when other people choose to forgo it, choose to, as he would phrase it, deny the “brotherhood” of skin tone. When Julius wants black men to like him he calls them “brother”, this recurs throughout. But whenEVER the claim is made back to him, the kinship by race idea, he denies it, avoids it. He is an elite. Wealthy, well-educated, his interests are all high-brow. There is a section close to the end, after he is casually accused of rape (a plot point many of Cole’s positive reviewers ignore: the episode is a weak spot in the text), when Julius is literally trapped outside of society. Watching a Mahler concert in Carnegie Hall, he becomes locked out of the building on a fire escape, in rain (I think), watching the city below. This is a brief moment where he is as literally removed from normative contact as he behaves as if he is throughout. And it is, even then, a removal from a high-brow, moneyed, over-intellectualised upmarket venue.

Julius has no connection to the city as a whole because he lives above it. And that is literally evoked by his overhead, momentary, incarceration, and more figuratively by his interests in the art and the people that are disconnected from daily New York life. His patients are intellectuals, professors, as is his one friend. The friends of his friend are successful bankers, the people he connects with are asylum seekers, are Moroccan intellectuals in Brussels… The average hard-working New Yorker is absent from this text. The City may be open, but the narrator is not. Nothing touches him. Nothing at all. His prose is academic, is sharp, but Teju Cole has written a book without connections, that may be, from sentence to sentence, faultless, but as a whole it lacks a movement and a seen personality. This book is not meant to be read as the tragedy of one man’s inability to make a human connection, but if that isn’t what it’s about, then what is its topic?

This is a book that lacks emotion.

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