Teju Cole’s Open City

One of my favorite Brooklyn events is BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series. When I was  brand new to NYC (still recent at three years ago), I convinced my not at all literarily-inclined spouse to check it out with me, and it remains one of the only bookish events he can stomach. Not only that, but the communal tables and delightful atmosphere foster such lovely conversation that we ended up meeting someone who has remained a good friend ever since. This same friend invited us to check out Teju Cole in this season’s line up, and I decided to read Open City before the event so that I could get more out of the evening.

I was initially in two minds about the book, though I’ve come to like it more upon reflection. I love the way the narrator’s city walks set the story’s rhythm. I know those walks: wandering, dreamy, alone, till miles pass and you’re nowhere near where you started, as measured either by your thoughts or the street signs. It feels like a natural rhythm for a story, even if many more threads are opened than ever get closed.

At the same time, the narrator, Julius, is detached and a little cold, often impatiently dismissing those that open up to him. At times his personality was so unlikeable that it became difficult for me to enjoy his first-person account. It’s easy to mis-attribute the narrator’s qualities to Cole himself; I caught myself doing so when I started reading, and at the BAM event, I realized I was far from the only one. When we discussed the book before Cole took the stage, some of my table mates remained convinced that the book was an autobiographical account. (They described Cole as a “Renaissance man” who was not only the writer, art historian, and photographer that he is, but also the trained and practicing psychiatrist that he creates in Julius–an awful lot for one person to do!) While clearly a mistake, such thinking also highlights Cole’s skillful writing–he narrates through Julius’s eyes so seamlessly, convincingly, and beautifully, that readers have a hard time recognizing the work as fiction.

I was particularly touched by a moment when the narrator, traveling in Brussels, finds himself in a club filled mostly with African immigrants, whom he assumes to be Congolese. After talking with the bartender, however, he learns that the majority of the clientele is Rwandan, and the revelation sends him reeling (accablé is the word that first comes to mind). The presence of so much suffering, endured and inflicted, becomes overwhelming for him. “It was as though the place had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting?” –and yet, he notes, “They were exactly like young  people everywhere” (139).

The book ends with Julius attending a performance of Mahler’s  Ninth Symphony, and though I’m unfamiliar with the piece, Cole’s depiction of it is so finely wrought that I found myself holding my breath when he describes the silence at its conclusion:

The music stopped. Perfect silence in the hall. Simon Rattle was stock-still on the podium, his baton still in the air, and the musicians, too, were still, their instruments up. I looked around the hall, at the illuminated faces, all flooded with that silence. The seconds stretched on. No one coughed, and no one moved. We could hear the faint sound of traffic int he far distance outside the hall. But inside it, not a sound; even the hundreds of racing thoughts stopped. Then Rattle brought his hands down, and the auditorium exploded with applause. (254)

Still, at times Julius’s detachedness is hard to get past. One character levels an accusation of sexual assault against him, and we see no emotion whatsoever: he obliquely denies the charge to the reader, but doesn’t respond to the possible victim in any way, instead drifting off to the next city block and the next train of thought. Such absence is troubling, and makes Julius seem at times to be sleepwalking.

Cole turned out to be fantastic at BAM, and much warmer than I expected based on the book and his Twitter feed. I thought the evening would be much more politically charged, and I thought Cole himself would be more combative. Cole made a bit of a splash recently for his Twitter response to all the attention on Kony, which Atlantic Associate Editor Max Fisher included in his piece, “The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012.” Fisher recognized the validity of Cole’s main point, but critiqued the resentment that seemed to permeate his perspective; an update on the piece suggested that Cole had not responded well to the criticism. Before hearing Cole speak in person, I was a little put off by his Twitter persona; he comes across as overly self-assured and closed to dialogue. I no longer think that’s the case–again, he was open, thoughtful, and warm at the BAM event. I look forward to reading his work in the future.

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6 thoughts on “Teju Cole’s Open City

  1. Katina,

    I’ve not read “Open City,” and although I have often been tempted to buy it, the growing pile of unread books I have at home always serves as a sobering reminder that I really should only buy books that will contribute to my research for the time being. But could it be that Cole’s “cold and detached” writing has something to do with Camus’ similar writing in “The Plague”? I recall that in Camus’ works, it was a particularly effective writing tool to convey the absurdity of it all. Could it serve a similar purpose in “Open City”?

    • Marc, that’s definitely a plausible interpretation. Absurdity isn’t the main focal point of Open City, though there are many pronounced moments of it, and it’s something that comes through in Cole’s informal writing as well. The narrator’s chilliness was certainly a deliberate choice–just one that left me with some distaste for the character.

  2. But “detached, cold and unlikeable” could fit with “overly self-assured and closed to dialogue”! And it seems while you thought he was warm and open in person, others at the meet-and-greet didn’t think so even after talking to him?
    Also, I would just use “Julius’ “, without an “s” after the apostrophe. On the other hand, after reading the Wiki description, I am uncertain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostrophe#Singular_nouns_ending_with_an_.22s.22_or_.22z.22_sound
    🙂

    • True, those two descriptions could fit a single personality, but I meant them slightly differently here. The sense I was getting from Cole’s tweets and from the response to the Atlantic piece was a little combative and confrontational, whereas the coldness I saw in Julius was one of passivity–others in the book are constantly opening up to him, but he seldom engages with them, often shrugging them off dismissively.

      As for the apostrophe-after-s question–I usually add an extra “s”, but I think either is permissible in most cases. My last name ends in “s”, so I think about it more often than I would like.

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