Sunday, April 19, 2015

Open City | Teju Cole

To read Teju Cole’s Open City is to experience an unnerving metamorphosis. I picked it up knowing that it comes highly rated in literary circles, and, as it is often the case, a cloud of expectation weighed upon me. Like many, I was captivated by the lyrical prose, easygoing and poetic, which often brought to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s style—contemplative and inward. I loved the reference to the bird migrations at the beginning, which immediately puts one in a whimsical mood (contrast this however with the half-gothic ending, of birds losing their bearing and slamming into the Statue of Liberty). I found the writing quite relaxing and engaging at the start, just the sort of style that eases one into a story without too much of a fuss.

The detail with which Teju describes feelings, observations, or physical objects and environments is astonishing. Many instances abound in the book, and some are particularly magical:

I became aware of just how fleeting the sense of happiness was, and how flimsy its basis: a warm restaurant after having come in from the rain, the smell of food and wine, interesting conversation, daylight falling weakly on the polished cherrywood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard. Even to be aware of this, in the midst of a happy moment, was to push one of those pieces, and to become slightly less happy.

Even the simple act of walking acquires a flourish that takes one’s breath away:

As she drifted to the entrance and out of sight, in her gracefulness she resembled nothing so much as a boat departing on a country lake early in the morning, which, to those still standing on the shore, appears not to sail but to dissolve into the substance of the fog.

Teju hides these lovely snippets in layers of Julius’ (the narrator) meditations, philosophical ramblings and seemingly interminable descriptions of physical spaces, mostly of New York and Brussels. And therein lie the highs and lows of Open City: the initial high dissolves into a predictable sequence of diary-like observations and records of Julius’ encounters and conversations covering a controversial topic after another—migration, identity, assimilation, history, war, politics. As one covers more than half the book and flips the pages towards the end, the initial high morphs into a sense of puzzlement. I discovered that there wasn’t a plot at all, and, on the surface, it appeared as if Teju has just used Julius as a mouthpiece to enunciate his views on certain themes. This is not an uncommon technique at all in literary fiction, but it is a well-beaten path, and I felt I was missing something that had caught the eye of all those raving about the book. Furthermore, if one follows politics and current affairs fairly closely, most views in the book surely have been encountered before.

However, just as soon as a sense of disappointment (and perhaps self-doubt in your discerning abilities as a reader) creeps in, Teju throws in a twist, which is an odd thing to say about a story without a plot. The narrator, Julius, psychiatrist-in-training, half-Nigerian and half-German, and living in New York, is told of a transgression he allegedly committed back in Nigeria as a fourteen-year old. The accuser is Moji, a sister of a friend of his in Nigeria, and apparently Julius, as he narrates to us, has completely forgotten about this transgression, or chooses not remember it, or in his mind, perhaps it never occurred at all. Some have criticized this twist as unnecessary, but, in my view, it brings to the fore the question whether the narrator is reliable at all. It forces the reader to revisit Julius’ encounters and voila, everything is not so banal after all.

And so from the high to the low, another high comes up. We discover that Teju’s trick, in creating a very unlikeable but seemingly benign character in Julius, who philosophizes a lot and comes off as a junkie for highbrow stuff—paintings, classical music—has blindsided us into believing every word Julius says to us. However, beneath Julius’ sophistication, he is actually a man troubled by many things. He has a few friends, but is beset by solitude. He was born in Nigeria but, being light skinned, doesn’t really feel that he belongs there. In New York, he is just part of the ‘black brotherhood’, something he tries to eschew. He has broken up with his girlfriend. He is estranged from his mother. In fact, his is a narrative of failed interpersonal relationships. He goes to Brussels ostensibly for a chance to meet his German maternal grandmother, but doesn’t really look for her. Even the enjoyment of his preferred tastes, such as classical music concerts, is tempered by his apartness.

It becomes apparent that Julius, in his narration, is candid about some aspects of his life story, and less so about others. Memory, how we interpret it, and how we memorize certain events and suppress others, emerge as central elements that determine our self-assessment as individuals. Julius views himself as essentially a good person, but Moji’s accusation seems to torment him, and adds to the misery of his solitude. His narration henceforth becomes dark. In addition to his inordinate focus on classical musician Gustav Mahler’s death and Mahler’s ‘obsession with last things’, as well as the reference to birds dying off the Statue of Liberty, I sensed a fleeting allusion to suicide in the scene after the classical music concert as he looked down on the streets below and up at the stars:

My hands held metal, my eyes starlight, and it was as though I had come so close to something that it had fallen out of focus, or fallen so far away from it that it had faded away.

From a literary perspective, Open City is something of a masterpiece. Teju shows incredible skill in constructing a character so unlikeable that one is tempted to dislike the book itself. In the end, after some measure of exasperation at an unlikeable Julius, we nevertheless have to wonder, given the totality of his experience, what to feel for him. Sympathy? Disdain? Indifference? It is perhaps fitting that Julius is a psychiatrist, as his entire narration is probably a self-diagnosis. He is troubled by the fact that someone considers him a villain. This shows his innate desire to be a good person, even though in actual fact he may be different, or viewed differently. He is, after all, human.

From a subjective perspective however, Open City is a little less entertaining. There is quite a bit of subtle humour throughout the novel. Julius’ encounter with the taxi driver in New York who drops him way off his destination (whether deliberately or not is the matter of humorous conjecture) and the concern about bedbugs are some examples. To a large extent however, unless one lives in or is intimately familiar with New York and Brussels, and likes classical music and paintings, one is bound to experience some disaffection throughout the book.

In any case, one can tell, from the endless debates about Open City, and the fact that readers have had so much to say about it, that Teju Cole has written a pretty good book.

Picture Credit: Goodreads

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