Review: Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’

Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’ is, in essence, New York: it’s a New York that unfolds itself gently and effortlessly beneath the feet of his wandering narrator, Julius. Julius engages in that very Woolfian activity, ‘street haunting‘, and as he does so the reader gets snippets of interesting facts and thoughts – from John Brewster to bed bugs, Bach’s coffee cantata to Zionism, Julius covers them all.

Open City is somewhat solipsistic, which is natural enough given that it’s protagonist is a lonely, isolated being, something that is rendered only more emphatic through the stark juxtaposition of self and city that structure the novel (this latter is a being of masses, nameless crowds, people rushing around or engaging in their daily activities – the former, of course, is Julius himself, all mind and eye). That this never tends to narcissism, or the boring and overwhelming kind of novelistic self-absorption one can often find in books (Charles Baxter, in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, accuses John Irving of precisely this), is a testament to just how good Cole is. The balance is precisely and beautifully maintained, as figures in that nameless crowd momentarily solidify, share their story with Julius (he is listener, too), and melt back into it. It is a postmodern encapsulation of all the things we often take for granted in city-life – the cosmospolitanism and diversity of people in the city, the memories they harbour (each one worthy of a novel in itself, it almost seems), but also the darker side – the anger, the racism and prejudice that characterizes a world living in the fear (and shadow) of ‘terror’, the radicalization of viewpoints. These are all depicted and interrogated so well, I’d say Cole weaves a veritable tapestry of life in modern metropolises.

But Julius is of course not simply an empty receptacle, and no doubt his interactions with the numerous strangers who pepper the book with their life-stories are all refracted through Julius and his prejudices himself. My only problem with this is that it’s difficult to know what to make of Julius himself – this is not resolved by the end of the book, and perhaps that is the point. There is a quote on the back-cover of my edition, from the Sunday Times; it claims that “…Julius harbours depths as unglimpsed as the buried layers of New York”. An apt quote, but this is somewhat of a problem too (in my oh so humble opinion) – Julius often seems almost devoid of humanity, most importantly because he seems devoid of feeling in reaction. I can understand that he is meant to be opaque and difficult to read (a significant dimension of the novel is, after all, concerned with the very issue of categorization and classification, and its evils etc.; similarly, Cole is also evidently a fan of Coetzee, who is the paragon and master of hermeneutic opacity – perhaps some of that seeps into Cole’s own work). Nonetheless, the complete shutting off and ‘unglimpsability’ of Julius’s ‘depths’ at key moments – after his discussion with Moji, for example – doesn’t always work in the novel’s favour, because unlike Coetzee, Cole isn’t quite able to signal that there are depths the reader must wrack him/herself to find and reach. The end effect winds up being slightly surreal, as you have a character who simply doesn’t seem to respond to things that emphatically demand response, and this effect jars with the rest of the novel. It’s powerful, and I can see Cole doing amazing things in the future, but he hasn’t quite got that right here.

Another issue I had with the novel was it’s incessant allusiveness. It wasn’t long after the first chapter that my soul was silently screaming for a reprieve: yes, yes, yes, Julius, WE KNOW! You read everything from Beowulf to Barthes, listen to everyone from Mahler to Bach, and can refer to dozens of obscure artists at the drop of a hat! WE KNOOOOOWWW. Allusions are all very well and one can easily infer the learned and intellectual status of a character from them yadda yadda, but there is something clumsy and ugly about dropping them throughout the text in great chunks like Cole does – it lacks subtlety and nuance. (This can be seen as a personal peeve, yes – I find that allusiveness woven into the fabric of the text is far superior to excessive name-dropping.) To illustrate what I mean better, here’s an example of such clunky writing from Open City:

“That fall, I flitted from book to book: Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Last Friend, among others.

In that sonic figure, I recalled St. Augustine, and his astonishment at St. Ambrose…..”

It’s not too bad in itself, but when things like this crop up at every ten-page interval in the book, it does feel clumsy. You can compare this to what someone like Coetzee does, in Age of Iron, where he weaves his allusiveness into the fabric of his text, making it his own but also recognisably allusive – “We half perceive, but we also half create”says Elizabeth Curren in an early morning lull, and Wordsworth hovers gently and just perceptibly behind those lines (“…Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,/ And what perceive” — ‘Tintern Abbey’). This is the way to do an allusion.

All my little (and they ARE little) criticisms aside, though, this is a great book – more importantly, Teju Cole is shaping up to be a great writer, definitely one whose books I’ll be reading with great enthusiasm in the future. This is only his second work (and his first novel), and he’s only going to get better with time. He’s a hugely exciting figure, not only as a writer but also as an artist, and anyone interested in knowing more about him should follow his Twitter — he’s engaged in a really interesting project called ‘Small Fates’, which is what drew me to his book in the first place. He compresses beautiful, relevant, astute observations about life, living, and art into 140 characters on Twitter — definitely, definitely worth a read. If my review is not convincing enough, his Twitter will definitely make you want to read more of his work, as will this amazing article he published in The Atlantic after the Kony 2012 debacle.

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