By Teju Cole
Random House, 2011
For Manhattan residents, current or past, the initial joy of reading Teju Cole’s Open City comes from pure, unadulterated recognition. In the novel’s first chapter, Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatry resident, narrates a walk through the city on the day of the New York Marathon:
When I came out to Central Park South, the wind had become colder, the air brighter, and the cheer from the crowd steady and loud. A great stream of finishers came coasting down the homestretch. As Fifty-ninth street was cordoned off, I walked down to Fifty-seventh, and came back up again to join Broadway. The subway was too congested at Columbus Circle, so I walked toward Lincoln Center, to catch the train at its next uptown stop. At Sixty-second Street, I fell in line with a lithe man with graying sideburns who carried a plastic bag with a tag on it and was visibly exhausted, limping on slightly bowed legs.
This is the approach that Cole will take throughout the book: a matter of fact, nearly fussy exactitude that attempts to fully situate the reader in Julius’s reality at all times. Each detail in the passage above—the knowledge of the way the crowds move in that part of Manhattan, the perfectly calibrated description of the lone, tired man just finished with the marathon—burnishes Julius’s credibility as a narrator and establishes the patient observation that defines the book.
In accumulation, this attention to quotidian detail has an intoxicating effect. Cole steadily fixes in place the familiar details of city life: subway problems, a forgotten ATM number, the spectral presence of one’s apartment building neighbors. This in itself is not unique, as a dozen novels every year must set their protagonists wandering through a borough of New York. What makes Cole’s book and style distinctive is the evenness with which he distributes his observations, the almost purely descriptive consistency with which the narrator treats street scenes, conversations, memories, and even emotions. Julius isn’t quite flat in affect like the narrator of Camus’s The Stranger and he doesn’t really have the ethereal, scholarly quality of the narrator in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, though that frequently-made comparison is justified by the narrator’s essayistic digressions. In Julius, Cole has created an inquisitive and decent, though fundamentally detached narrator, one who is happy to relate his observations, but disinclined to draw grand insights from them. The reader is able, to an impressive degree, to look through Julius’s eyes at the world, with a kind of surface-level access to his thoughts, books, and record collection as well.
Cole achieves this effect, however, by limiting the expressive and dramatic range of the character, and thus of the novel. He doesn’t venture a consequential character or plot arc, even as the novel quietly fills with significant interactions. Over the course of the book, Julius meets with a dying former professor, visits a detention center for illegal immigrants in the Bronx, takes part in a charged debate with a young Moroccan man in Brussels about terrorism and US imperialism, and survives a brutal mugging. All of these events are treated with the same clean, thoroughly engaging prose that serves to describe Julius’s less eventful journeys through the city as well. The books I kept thinking of while reading Open City were Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels, which describe, in roaming detail, the physical and mental geography of suburban New Jersey. Ford and Cole share a Zen-like focus on daily reality. But whereas Frank Bascombe is emotionally candid, and insistent about investigating the narrative of his life as he understands it, Julius mostly observes it, with analytical asides that are cerebral rather than expressive. The scene in which Julius is mugged by a group of kids is a fascinating example of Cole’s combined descriptive acumen and insistence on keeping his distance:
I fell to the ground. I don’t recall if I cried out, or if opening my mouth I was unable to make a sound. They began to kick me all over—shins, back, arms—a quick, preplanned choreography. I shouted, begging them to stop, conscious of a man on the ground being beaten … The initial awareness of pain was gone, but now came the anticipation of how much it would hurt later, how bad tomorrow would be, for both my body and my mind. My mind had gone blank except for this lone thought, a thought that made my eyes sting, a prospect more painful, it seemed, than the blows. We find it convenient to describe time as a material, we “waste” time, we “take” our time. As I lay there, time became material in a strange new way: fragmented, torn into incoherent tufts, and at the same time spreading, like something spilled, like a stain.
There’s something unsettling about Julius’s observations here, a sense that there is an intellectualism at work that may be strongly counterproductive to action, or even survival. The reader is also left wondering about the degree to which this is a coherent description of a mugging on the part of the author. The final lines in particular, about the use of the word “time,” and then about the physical nature of time itself, are smart and interesting, but they seem out of place. Even for a man who lives as thoroughly in his head as Julius, the ideas about “making” and “wasting” time do not ring true while he is being beaten. And if time is fragmented, and torn, and spreading, why is his description of it so clear, and thorough, and self-contained?
And yet, despite the seeming limitations of Julius’s emotional palette, his mind’s rich recesses of memories, history, books, and music is intriguing and engaging enough to thoroughly absorb the reader’s attention. This cultural storehouse is unpacked carefully, and manages to consistently skirt pretentiousness. Swaths of the novel read like brilliant short essays on the history of the Dutch settlers in New York, or the philosophical underpinnings of psychiatry, or Mahler’s Ninth symphony. When he combines his observations about the city with a piece of historical or cultural insight, the effect is transformative, and Cole’s facilities as a prose writer are on full display:
I found myself thinking of Mahler’s last years as I sat on the uptown-bound N train last night. All the darknesses that surrounded him, the various reminders of frailty and morality, were lit brightly from some unknown source, but even that light was shadowed. I thought of how clouds sometimes race across the sunlit canyons formed by the steep sides of skyscrapers, so that the stark divisions of dark and light are shot through with passing light and dark. Mahler’s final works—Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony, the sketches of the Tenth—were all first performed posthumously; all are vast, strongly illuminated, and lively works, surrounded by the tragedy that was unfolding in his life.
Cole is able to transport the reader from the subway car, to Mahler’s life, to a wonderfully photographic New York cityscape (Cole is an avid street photographer, with an impressive collection on his website), and then to Mahler’s work in a few simple, lovely sentences. The darkness and light that Cole describes seem to project themselves back onto the image of the solitary man in a flickering subway car, and forward onto the titles of Mahler’s final works. Moreover, the connections don’t feel forced. They are clearly the work of someone thinking—they are self-consciously essayistic in construction—but the prose is steady, driving. One keeps reading the book for these moments, and there are many of them. The reader’s own cultural collection grows fulsomely—the saxophonist Cannonball Adderly and the Moroccan writer Mohamd Choukri are just two in the constellation of artists whose work populates the book. Jonathan Lethem did something similar with his musical and cultural pantheon in Chronic City, which is like a warped older cousin to Open City with its own fantastic, particular observations about city life and frustratingly opaque protagonist.
And Julius is quite opaque, though he is not especially alienated (for a New Yorker) or detached from reality. In fact, he invites conversation and interaction constantly. The discussions he has form the emotional core of the book, and hold the key to the ideas about personal history and empathy that are at play in Open City. The book’s title, neutral or even bland at first glance, takes on resonance as Julius becomes a repository for the memories and concerns of a varied collection of people eager to share with him. Julius has been blessed with intelligence and ambition, but, as his conversations show, he has also been lucky, thus far, to not have personally encountered many of the horrors and conundrums of the past century.
This is not true of many of the people he talks to. An elderly woman he meets on a plane to Brussels tells him about her life under the Nazi occupation in Belgium. His dying friend Professor Saito recalls the poems he memorized while staying in a Japanese internment camp in the United States during World War II. When Julius accompanies his girlfriend to a detention center for immigrants in the Bronx, he encounters a contemporary, even more brutal variation on these stories. He meets a Liberian man named Saidu who tells him the long, harrowing story of his life. Saidu’s school was shelled and burned to the ground in 1994. His mother and sister were killed by Charles Taylor’s men in the Second Liberian Civil War. He describes his many difficult and surreal years on the run through Africa, hiding, hitching rides, and drinking water from puddles, before making it to Lisbon to live in a squalid slum for two years. After finally acquiring a fake passport and flying to JFK, he is immediately apprehended and detained in anticipation of eventual deportation back to Lisbon. Julius recounts the story in his typically laconic style, but he isn’t immune to skepticism: “I wondered, naturally, as Saidu told his story, whether I believed him or not, whether it wasn’t more likely that he had been a soldier. He had, after all, had months to embellish the details, to perfect his claim of being an innocent refugee.”
Julius doesn’t act on his skepticism in any way though; he merely bears witness to this story, gives the man the opportunity to speak and try to explain himself as well as he can. When he recounts Saidu’s story to his girlfriend, a subtle transformation seems to take place, from being the silent, empathetic listener to understanding himself and then describing himself as that empathetic, silent listener to her: “Perhaps she fell in love with the idea of myself that I presented in that story. I was the listener, the compassionate African who paid attention to the details of someone else’s life and struggle. I had fallen in love with that idea myself.”
That last sentence bears the mark of recrimination. It is an honest acknowledgment of the self-consciousness that hovers over the book. Julius recognizes the self-righteousness that can come with being a perpetual listener; one can hear an echo of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, the “victim of not a few veteran bores.” But while it has a recriminatory ring to it, his admission to being in love with paying attention to other people is wholly sincere. He is a psychiatrist by trade, and finds himself practicing it everywhere he goes. In Brussels he befriends an intense, intellectual young Moroccan man named Faroq who claims his PhD thesis was rejected due to discrimination, though Julius isn’t so sure. He works in an Internet café and reads dense commentaries on Walter Benjamin in his spare moments. Faroq’s conversational style is aggressive, and striking especially in contrast to Julius’s passivity. He speaks out strongly against certain terms—“melting pot, salad bowl, multiculturalism”—and states starkly “I believe foremost in difference.”
When Julius recounts these comments to his elderly friend from the plane, she has a sharp rejoinder: “Our society has made itself open for such people, but when they come in, all you hear is complaints. Why would you want to move somewhere only to prove how different you are? And why would a society like that want to welcome you?” This is a central question of the book, and Cole seems to answer both Faroq and the old woman with the example of Julius himself: an immigrant in New York who does not harp on his difference, but who instead makes himself a vessel through which others can express theirs. It is not a wholly enviable position, but it is a morally sound one, providing a way to understand the world without imposing upon it. Julius stands as an exemplar of the modern city, forced to tolerate its ambiguity and even its assaults, but able to withstand them and recount them, and build his life despite them.
Fittingly for a consummate, newly self-made American, there is a dark stream of material in the novel connected to Julius’s childhood and youth in Lagos, a period that is alluded to and illuminated in brief vignettes throughout the book, but conspicuously does not get the close, detailed treatment of Julius’ life in New York. There seems to be great promise in unearthing the story of the narrator’s complicated life in Nigeria. There is a sharply realized, nearly hallucinatory flashback to a 10-year-old Julius prowling around his empty house searching for a hidden porn magazine and settling for a forbidden Coke instead. There is also a tense but fruitful exchange between mother and son after Julius’ father unexpectedly dies in which Julius learns about his grandmother’s nightmarish life as a German woman in Berlin at the end of World War II. These stories illuminate Julius’s restless and historically stranded character more than anything else in the book.
Towards the end of the novel, however, there is an ambiguous revelation that threatens to wholly disrupt the reader’s trust in the seemingly straightforward book we’ve been reading. It is the morning after a party at which Julius has spent the night. He is sitting on a glassed-in porch with Moji, the older sister of a friend of his from Nigeria. He has re-connected with her in the city after running into her in a grocery store, and they have become friends. To the reader’s great surprise, and seemingly to Julius’s, Moji tells Julius that in 1989, when he was fourteen and she was fifteen, Julius forced himself on her at a party her brother hosted. She tells him that the incident was deeply traumatic, that she has thought about it almost every day of her life, and that she has never forgiven him for it. She concludes:
I don’t think you’ve changed at all, Julius. Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them. You forced yourself on me eighteen years ago because you could get away with it, and I suppose you did get away with it. But not in my heart, you didn’t. I have cursed you too many times to count. And maybe it is not something you would do today, but then again, I didn’t think it was something you would do back then either. It only needs to happen once. But will you say something now? Will you say something?
It turns out he won’t say something. Other people start stirring in the apartment, Julius stares straight ahead at the river, and Moji stops talking. Julius narrates to the reader a digressive story from Camus’ diary about a Roman hero, imitated by Nietzsche, who held a hot coal in his hand to demonstrate his fearlessness. And that’s it.
Cole’s coyness in clarifying what has happened feels like an attempt at a genuine, game-changing revelation, half-erased by a postmodern cop-out. It doesn’t seem like it should be subject to this degree of ambiguity. If Julius did rape a girl when he was fourteen, it is wildly out of character with the ruminating, muted, caring young man we’ve spent the previous two hundred some pages with, but it could be assimilated by the reader if well handled. The novel after all is filled with dark stories of questionable validity—Cole seems to be implying that perhaps we’ve been reading one ourselves all along.
But since we’ve been so thoroughly acclimated to Julius’s voice and storytelling for so long, it simply doesn’t seem plausible that something like a sexual assault could be so studiously ignored, and then dismissed without explanation. The plot point itself is audacious enough that it does not need to be finessed. If Julius didn’t do it, and Moji is mentally disturbed, or simply mistaken in some way, then the introduction of this twist is simply mishandled. Yet most of the signs point to this assault having actually taken place, and it seems to be a narrative misstep in a mostly sure-footed book.
As a whole, however, the strands of the novel—the New York observations, the conversational dexterity, the essayistic digressions—cohere into a portrait of a particular sensibility at work, too reserved to be Whitmanian, but striving heartily for the ability to understand others. It is an admirably honest attempt to explain a certain person’s life at a certain moment in the world without settling on a grand theory to provide the explanations. Everything is contingent. It is open to possibility.
Andrew Martin is on the editorial staff at The New York Review of Books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New Republic‘s The Book, and he is a regular contributor to the Hearth Gods reading series.