Open City–Teju Cole (2011)

On the admittedly stringent criterion of Walter Benjamin—“All great literature either founds a genre or dissolves one”—Teju Cole’s Open City is not great. That distinction would have to go to the works of W. G. Sebald, the writer to whom Cole is so obviously indebted. But even if Cole’s book isn’t great on Benjamin’s terms it is really good. It even does some things Sebald’s do not, even though, to Cole’s own dismay—he has said that he isn’t particularly interested in novels—those things have to do with bringing a certain novelistic idea of character to Sebald’s model.

If you don’t know Sebald’s work, I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. But I bet you do, especially if your first language is English. Even though Sebald wrote in German (despite living most of his life in England), he has been championed by the English speaking literary world, which has almost universally taken his work to be something entirely new and compelling. Personally, I think interest in him has been a little overstated (he flatters critics by seeming so open to interpretation and thus has received more attention than other, less accommodating writers might) but he’s certainly pretty terrific. His influence on younger writers, even though his untimely death left his corpus smaller than it should have been, only continues to grow. One of the things that makes him so influential, and so open to critical canonization, is that his work is characterized by a series of distinctive elements: solitary, old-fashioned, even courtly first-person narrators, all of whom seem to be versions of Sebald himself, rather as the narrator of the Recherche seems to be a version of Proust; a digressive yet highly patterned style composed of complex, sinuous sentences; a melancholy fascination with the various crimes of the Western modernity.

We find these qualities in Open City. Its narrator, Julius, who is completing his residency in psychiatry at a hospital in New York after coming to the US from his native Nigeria as a teenager, takes long walks through his adopted city (the walk as an analogue for a certain idea of style being the conceit of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). These walks enable extended meditations on an array of erudite, even recondite subject matter, the various strands of which can all be grouped under the concept of change: changes of light, of seasons, of the almost physiological ebb and flow of the city, of the history of the city and the socio-material system of which (through immigration and trade, for example) it is a part. The narrator doesn’t simply bemoan those changes, but he does dwell at length upon the loss that accompanies them, especially in its most painful and even traumatic instances (also true of The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants.) In so dong, he reveals himself as a cultured sophisticate, a modern-day flaneur, fond of Mahler and Peter Altenberg.

Yet Open City is more straightforwardly fictional than anything by Sebald; it gestures, not always convincingly, at something approaching a plot: in addition to walking around New York, the narrator completes his studies and begins to work in his field, pays infrequent visits to an old professor from college, takes a vacation to Brussels, survives a mugging. One other important thing happens, about which more in a moment; the implications of this events have everything to do with Cole’s particular use of first person narration.

I really can’t think about what Cole is up to in this book without thinking about what Sebald sought to do in his. In fact, I think that’s what Cole wants me to do. He’s so overt in acknowledging his source that he is saved from being merely derivative. Sometimes I had the sense that Cole was messing about with me, so faithfully did he seem to allude to Sebald. So, for example, the narrator’s meditations about subways, underground cities, the Egyptian Heliopolis, in which we find the line “I thought too, about the numberless dead, in forgotten cities, necropoli, catacombs” offer a pitch-perfect parody of Sebaldian concerns. (He’s thinking these things as his plane circles Brussels; isn’t there a similar scene in Saturn in which the narrator’s plane can’t land due to fog or something?) His description of “the dead returning” echoes the famous line in The Emigrants, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

Less overt, but more important, both in terms of the homage to Sebald and to the concerns of the book itself, is an extended scene from the middle of the book set in a quiet but overflowing shop in Chinatown. Gazing at the tschotchkes crowding the shelves, the narrator experiences a curious doubling that conflates different times and places:

Standing there in that quiet, mote-filled shop, with the ceiling fans creaking overhead, and the wood-paneled walls disclosing nothing of our century, I felt as if I had stumbled into a kink in time and place, that I could easily have been in any one of the many countries to which Chinese merchants had traveled and, for as long trade had been global, set up their goods for sale.

I think your feelings about Cole can be calibrated by your reaction to that “mote-filled.” If it seems precious or stilted to you, you’re probably going to be put off by this book. But if it seems elegant or atmospheric, you’re probably going to admire it. Either way, this passage offers the book’s narrative and structural modus operandi in miniature. Julian’s peregrinations around New York invariably lead him to just such “kinks,” forgotten, abandoned, even fenced-off spaces (sometimes even within otherwise bustling areas like Wall Street and Battery Park) in which he is vouchsafed glimpses into the city’s past. These spaces are usually prompted by memorials of the kind most city-goers pass by (forgotten statues, plaques and the like which paradoxically allow us to forget what they memorialize), but sometimes they are summoned by memories of things he’s read or studied. Frequently these places and moments are connected to the city’s painful relation to globalization: encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, slavers and slaves, settlers and the nonhuman animal world they encroached upon.

The book thus reveals a pervasive substrate of pain under New York’s glittering, cultured, and moneyed façade; perhaps in keeping with the narrator’s profession of psychiatry this latent-manifest opposition abruptly turns personal and psychological at the end of the book. Despite all this unacknowledged pain, these unexamined traumas, the book isn’t depressing or despairing. Walking helps the narrator, responds to some need inside him; it’s as existential and even instinctive as the migrations of the birds he tracks throughout the book. And he’s always stumbling upon extraordinary things: a silent gallery full of paintings by the deaf painter John Brewster in the American Folk Art Museum (isn’t that the one that’s about to be torn down?), a woman davening in the apartment across the way, a secluded fire escape at Carnegie Hall.

The scene in Chinatown offers another such moment of surprising discovery. As the narrator muses amongst its wares, his attention is caught by the sight and sound of a Chinese brass marching band coming down the street. The narrator is immediately reminded of the songs he used to sing at his boarding school in Nigeria. He reflects:

Whether [the music] expressed some civic pride or solemnized a funeral I could not tell, but so closely did the melody match my memory of those boyhood morning assemblies that I experienced the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who, in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall, could clearly see the world doubled in on itself. I could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began. This point-for-point imitation, of each porcelain vase, of each dull spot of shine on each stained teak chair, extended as far as where my reversed self had, as I had, halted itself in midturn. And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, began to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone. (My emphasis)

An immediate reference here (alluded to directly elsewhere in the book) is Borges’s lovely and sinister parable about the cartographers of the realm, those overweening researchers who make a map of the kingdom so commensurate to its dimensions that it suffocates everyone who lives there. The point of this little tale isn’t to follow the King’s example in the conclusion and banish representation. Instead, it’s to suggest that copies oughtn’t to pretend to be more than what they are. What’s valuable about a copy (or model, any representation at all) is that it is at once like the thing it copies and not like it. In the difference lies the possibility of understanding something about the thing itself.

I think the narrator comes to a similar conclusion in the passage’s final sentence, though it’s hard to be sure. This passage is confusing—it is, after all, about the vertigo of the mise-en-abime. (And the use of the word “reflection,” primed by the mirrored wall but of course also naming the mental activity which the narrator is always performing, combined with the suggestion that “reflection alone” equals death, would seem to trouble our feelings about the narrator.) The strangest moment for me in this passage is the unmotivated comparison of the narrator’s blissful disorientation to the doubling experienced by a person “in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall.” (I’ve italicized it in the quotation.) Where on earth does this metaphor come from? Whose experience is it to routinely wander around stately old houses? (If anything, it sounds like something that would happen in a book by Sebald.) And what sort of peculiar mirrored wall would such houses regularly have? The metaphor is so strange that it lingers on, infecting the rest of the passage. It seems as tough the narrator returns to his current location—the store in Chinatown—in his next sentence, where he describes the porcelain vases and the teak chairs, but it’s hard not to furnish that imagined old house with these objects. Yet why would the narrator insert himself (“I”) in the generalized metaphor (“one”)? I honestly don’t know what’s gong on here.

At the risk of unduly domesticating the wildness of this textual moment I do wonder if the function of this moment is to suggest that the narrator might be a bit mad. The more we pursue this thought, the more we find to support it. Indeed, there seems to be something troubling wrong with Julius. To be sure, plenty of things might license his despair: ominous changes in the climate, the whole almost-buried history of violence and oppression that New York is built upon, the aftermath of 9/11, not to mention events from his personal life, like the recent break of up of his relationship with his girlfriend, the casual forms of racism he encounters in daily life, the death of a mentor from college, the unexpected suicide of a patient. But these events pale in relation to the most shocking thing that happens in the book, more shocking even than his being mugged, or his visits to a detention facility in Queens where would-be immigrants are held and “processed” for deportation.

If you haven’t read Open City and think that you might (and I hope it’s clear by now that I think you should) maybe you’ll want to stop reading here.

Two thirds of the way through the book, Julius runs into the sister of an old classmate of his from Nigeria who is now an investor on Wall Street. Moji is introduced as a ghost from the past (“apparition” is the narrator’s word), and that seems sinister in light of later revelations: in this book in which so much that happens is generated via what Proust called involuntary memory there are some very important things, it seems, that the narrator does not want to remember. At first it seems that Moji will disappear from the book: the meeting is desultory, for the narrator seemingly inconsequential, another tedious daily interaction to be navigated and then forgotten. But later we see her with the narrator and some friends having a picnic in Central Park. The two walk to the subway station; the atmosphere between them is uncomfortable. Is the narrator attracted to her? Why is she so irritable? Still later, she invites him to a party at her boyfriend’s apartment. The narrator is one of several guests who, we learn very near the end of the book, several pages after the description of the party itself, spend the night at the apartment. In the morning, the narrator and Moji are briefly alone, and she tells or reminds him that many years earlier, eighteen to be precise, when she was fifteen and he fourteen, he raped her at a party and then acted as if nothing had happened, to the point of pretending not to recognize her when they met all these years later.

The narrator tells us that Moji continues speaking for “six or seven minutes,” describing the details of what happened at that long-ago party, and of the hurtful aftereffects of his actions on her life. 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?

Julius will not. He gets up to leave, but not before telling us what he thought of in that moment: a story told by Camus about something that the young Nietzsche did, namely, mimicking the action of the Roman hero Scaevola, who put his hand in a fire rather than give up his accomplices to a crime. (This material is presented as convolutedly as I have here.) He adds that a few days later he looked up the story and found he hadn’t remembered it quite right.

And that’s it, even though there are another ten or fifteen pages in the book. He never returns to the incident. He neither denies it nor explains it nor admits to it. We could take his reaction—his silence, his rather preposterous, complicated memory—as a sign that the book wants to condemn him. And the “facts” of the anecdote from Camus, and the more important fact of misremembering them could be taken as a suggestion that our relation to the past (whether as individuals or as nations) can only be untrustworthy and self-serving.

But Cole’s bombshell (that is, Moji’s accusation) is so serious, so enormous, and, in its introduction of the personal and psychological history of the narrator, so apparently out of keeping with the predominantly public emphases of the story that it threatens to fracture his book irreparably. Which I suppose is part of the point. But I’m not sure what Cole is going for here. Is he aiming to be less like Sebald than I thought and more like, say, Nabokov or Ishiguro? Is his aim to make us reassess the narrator we have been led to identify with on the basis of a sophisticated and cultured exterior that only papers over the heart of darkness beating beneath the skin?

It sure made me rethink Julius. (And reading some other critics who claim to have found him bombastic and self-serving from the start it made me question what unpleasant parts of me were responding so warmly to him.) As I did, I started to think more carefully about some of his otherwise harmless or understandable actions: the narrator’s brusque dismissal of a man who he suspects is trying to pick him up; his exhaustion at other Africans and even African Americans who seek some kind of solidarity with him based on some shared relation to an imagined motherland, a response that comes to a head at the post office when a clerk asks him if he will meet to talk about his negritude-inspired poetry, a scenario that ends with the narrator agreeing to do so yet silently resolving never to visit that post office again; and, perhaps most pertinently, his experience in Brussels of picking up a woman for what seems like a mutually satisfying one-night stand but, in the light of the later accusation, is perhaps really only an ominous self-serving delusion. I began to indict him in my mind, and asked myself, if he’s not sinister, if he’s not guilty, why doesn’t he say anything, either to Moji or to us? It occurred to me that the book’s otherwise puzzling title, which I’d previously taken to refer to his encounters with New York, Brussels, and Lagos, might refer to his personality. For an open city, I learn from Wikipedia, is one that its leaders have given up defending. Is Julius’s silence a capitulation, an expression of defeat?

There is something ingenious in the way the ending demands we return to the beginning, re-reading for clues that might cast some light, if nothing so consoling as an answer, on Moji’s claims. But there is also something manipulative and unearned about it, too, as if Cole hadn’t played by the rules of novels. It’s fine to cast doubt on a character we’ve been forced to identify with, even on the very qualities of identification itself. But shouldn’t we have a sense earlier on that this is coming? I don’t know why I feel this way. Maybe I’m just upset and embarrassed at having been caught out liking a rapist. Is there any way we can read the book and think he didn’t do it? Wouldn’t thinking he didn’t put us in the position of blaming the victim? Of course, it is only too true that perfectly good people do get accused of things they haven’t done, do get caught in the crossfire of other people’s ignorance or need for attention or what have you. But if the book wants to be about false accusations, it needs to reflect on that possibility more clearly than it has. (Maybe there are examples of false accusations in the book that I hadn’t thought of. Even as I write this I’m reminded of the experience of Julius’s college mentor, Professor Saito, during the war, when he and his family were interned by the US government simply by virtue of their Japanese heritage.)

After all, Open City is so carefully constructed that it would make sense that this revelation has in fact been prepared for. But I wasn’t prepared; I was genuinely shocked. It makes we wonder about the relation between literary form and shocking events. Can a shocking event that isn’t prepared for be experienced by readers as anything other than a misstep, or, worse, a violation of the contract between reader and writer? (Woolf explored similar questions in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.) Or are we to read these shock as a mimesis of the effect of trauma itself—in other words, is Cole trying traumatize readers, by making them go through an overwhelming experience that by definition cannot be prepared for?

If you have thoughts about the ending, please share. The problems, like the passage describing the narrator’s experience in Chinatown, only get more complex the longer I consider them. The greatness of Open City might not be Benjamin’s greatness. But there’s clearly a lot to think about in this book, alongside a lot of gorgeous writing.

The day after I finished Open City I swung by the library (have I already told you how much I love the Central Arkansas Library System?) to pick up Teju’s new book, Every Day is for the Thief. (It’s both new and old: written before Open City but published in Nigeria it has been revised (though how extensively is unclear) and published in the US.) Thief is a much slighter book, in all ways: I read in two short sittings and enjoyed its insights into contemporary Nigeria and the emigrant’s dilemma, but I found the book too uncertain of its own aims. Is it reportage, an indictment of Nigerian corruption? Is it autobiography, of a fractured and multi-racial family? It’s never clear, but the muddled quality of the book works best when it mirrors the uncertainty, even guilty conscience of the person who has returned to a home he no longer belongs in. In The New York Review of Books, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who liked it more than I did, interestingly described the relation between Cole’s two books as “two very different experiments with the same character, run in parallel rather than in a series.” Note the importance to this reading of character. Again, this seems a grafting of a different kind of literary mode on to a Sebaldian one. For the most part, the Sebald influence is less apparent here, but the book does include photos, as Sebald’s famously do, though in Cole’s case they are his own. (I didn’t find they added much to the text.)

I read somewhere that Cole wrote these two books as ways of avoiding writing the art history dissertation he had embarked upon. All I can say about that is that if my own dissertation procrastination had been even a tenth as productive I would have been extraordinarily pleased with myself. Given the greater scope and sophistication of Open City the only question, to which I eagerly await an answer, is what Cole has in him next. In the meantime, his enjoyable twitter feed will have to tide me over.

4 thoughts on “Open City–Teju Cole (2011)

  1. Interesting thoughts. I have to confess I gave up on Open City about three quarters of the way through, having decided that it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen and having grown weary of the Sebaldesque narration, and was surprised to find out several months later that there was a big reveal a little bit later. While it’s probably not fair to comment without having read the ending, it does seem like the revelation is somewhat unearned, based on the preceding content. If he’s said that he’s not very interested in novels, it would explain why he’s willing to break the assumed trust between writer and reader that develops over the course of a novel.

    • Yes, though I’m not sure I believe him when he says he’s not interested in novels…
      Are you weary of Sebald’s narration, or just the Sebaldesque? I’m teaching Austerlitz for the first time, and, although I love it and all his work, sometimes that voice almost seems a parody of itself.

  2. That conclusion is at least somewhat prepared for by earlier passages about individuals leaving guilt behind when they find new homes abroad. I’m thinking particularly about the moment the narrator realizes he is the company not of Congolese but Rwandans.

    “The realization that I had been with fifty or sixty Rwandans changed the tenor of the evening for me. It was as though the space had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting? Most of those there would have been teenagers during the genocide. Who, among those present, I asked myself, had killed, or witnessed killing? The quiet faces surely masked some pain I couldn’t see. … I watched the couples, watched the parties of four and five, watched the young men who stood in trios, who were obviously absorbed in the moving bodies of the beautiful young women. The innocence on view was inscrutable.”

    • Interesting point, Russell. I hadn’t thought about that aspect. Yet to me this passage supports it only ambivalently. Knowing these are Rwandans makes the narrator sense pain, loss, heaviness. That doesn’t seem like leaving any troubling emotion (like guilt) behind. (Interestingly, these are the narrator’s perceptions–unclear the Rwandans feel any of these emotions at all.) I suppose a lot depends on that final line: the more I read it the less I understand it. “The innocence on view was inscrutable.” What do you take that to mean?

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