In our age of rapid technology and the jolly, undiscriminating ephemeralizing of culture and knowledge, an insistence upon high stakes—a desire to ask the big questions—can seem quaint, or passé, or simply a little embarrassing. How to reconcile Philip Roth’s observation about American life, in his essay “Writing American Fiction” (written now an astonishing fifty years ago), that “the actuality is continually outdoing our talents,” with a writer’s lofty aim, to quote J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, of “measuring herself against the illustrious dead”?
Teju Cole, in his lauded debut novel Open City, has perhaps found a way forward. This economical account of a young African’s year in New York lays no overt claim to greatness; indeed, it revels in banal digression: the narrator, Julius, riffs on the closing of Tower Records and Blockbuster stores, and fusses a great deal over his forgotten ATM PIN number. The novel relies on small, almost self-indulgent observations (“In recent years I have noticed how much the light affects my ability to be sociable”), and peculiar detail (“One of the characteristics of the bedbug, Campbell wrote, is its cannibalistic nature. He presented evidence that engorged bugs were sometimes slit open and consumed by their young”). But Cole nevertheless addresses vital human issues more astutely than do most contemporary works of fiction. What is knowledge? What is self-knowledge? What is responsibility? What is the value of witness alone? What is the weight of history upon us? How do we move through it? And what are the costs of remaining an outsider?
Questions such as these are not subjects for theory, although Cole’s narrator, a young psychiatrist, occasionally refers to theorists in his wide-ranging musings. Rather they are lived, through passing conversations and fragmented memories, or, obliquely, through the lacunae in Julius’s story.
In this way, Cole creates a more nuanced, visceral, and unsettling realism than that produced by so-called practitioners of the form: there are, in this flaneur’s narrative, hardly any scenes, few characters, and no plot as we would traditionally understand it. We are furnished, on the other hand, with startling observations and juxtapositions, memorable aperçus, and the complicated portrait of a narrator whose silences speak as loudly as his words—all articulated in an effortlessly elegant prose that convinces of itself, without recourse to pyrotechnics.
There are, in Open City, strong echoes of European writers such as W.G. Sebald, in the book’s form and sometimes, too, in its syntax; and an un-American, unabashedly mandarin sensibility, unafraid of literary, musical, and artistic references. Julius confesses early on that he cannot listen to American classical radio because of the commercials—“Beethoven followed by ski jackets, Wagner after artisanal cheese”—and instead relies on the Internet for stations “from Canada, Germany, or the Netherlands.” It is a cosmopolite’s detachment from his American experience that will haunt the book: here is a worldly foreigner’s New York, colored by simultaneous curiosity about and recoil from the city’s history and essences. Cole’s enterprise is not in itself new—it has a long literary history, stretching back at least to Baudelaire—but its American setting is novel, not least because it presumes that New York, like Paris, London, or Berlin, has sufficient history, sufficient sedimentation, to warrant an almost archaeological approach.
It is also important that Cole’s narrator is Nigerian—African, rather than African-American; and notably, given that his interior world is illuminated by Roland Barthes, Gustav Mahler, and J.M. Coetzee, black rather than white. As Julius reflects, on attending a concert at Carnegie Hall:
I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand.
At Carnegie Hall, Julius is distinctive in his blackness, a reality both familiar and dismaying to liberal white readers; but this is but one of many experiences that are shaped by Julius’s skin color, or, sometimes more specifically, by his Africanness.
This characteristic determines his passing exchanges, not just with the white tourist children on the subway who observe, one to another, “He’s black…but he’s not dressed like a gangster,” but also with an African taxi driver (“The way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad. Hey, I’m African just like you, why you do this?”); with a dignified Haitian shoe-shine man who recounts his life story in a strangely antiquated language (“The years of yellow fever were the most difficult. It fell on us like plague, and many were those who died in this city”); or with the African-American postal worker named Terrence McKinney, who, confiding, “I could see you were from the Motherland,” volunteers his own poetry:
We are the ones who received the boot. We, who are used for loot, trampled underfoot. Unconquered. We, who carry the crosses. Yes, see? Our kith and kin used like packhorses. We of the countless horrific losses, assailed by the forces, robbed of choices, silenced voices. And still unconquered.
These are but a few of the instances in which Julius’s quotidian experience is shaped by what others presume at the sight of him; and his consistent resistance to this African identification is striking. He says, of the taxi driver, “I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me”; and of the encounter with McKinney, “I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.”
And yet, over the course of the novel, this same dispassionate young man eagerly explores Manhattan from the Customs House and Wall Street to Pinehurst and Cabrini, making careful note not only of the peculiar minutiae of city life—marathon runners, art exhibitions, park musicians, and so forth—but also, memorably, of the forgotten atrocities that lie, in palimpsest, beneath the city’s current geography. It is almost as if these pilgrimages are an act of witness, however haphazard, for history’s downtrodden—for the very predecessors of the present-day taxi driver or postal worker whose advances Julius is at such pains to resist. He reflects upon the massacre of the Canarsie Indians by Cornelis van Tienhoven, a seventeenth-century “schout” in New Amsterdam. He visits the Customs House far downtown, noting that
Trading in slaves had become a capital offense in the United States in 1820, but New York long remained the most important port for the building, outfitting, insuring, and launching of slavers’ ships. Much of the human cargo of those vessels was going to Cuba; Africans did the work on the sugar plantations there.
He happens upon the site of an African burial ground on and around Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan:
What I was steeped in, on that warm morning, was the echo across centuries, of slavery in New York. At the Negro Burial Ground, as it was then known…excavated bodies bore traces of suffering: blunt trauma, grievous bodily harm. Many of the skeletons had broken bones, evidence of the suffering they’d endured in life. Disease was common, too: syphilis, rickets, arthritis. In some of the palls were found shells, beads, and polished stones, and in these scholars had seen hints of African religions, rites perhaps retained from the Congo, or from along the West African coast, from which so many people had been captured and sold into slavery. One body had been found buried in a British marine officer’s uniform. Some others had been found with coins over their eyes.
This marking of the city’s forgotten sites of violence attempts a redemption through retrieval, an act vital given the truth—articulated by Professor Saito, Julius’s mentor and former teacher of early English literature at Maxwell College—that
There are towns whose names evoke a real horror in you because you have learned to link those names with atrocities, but, for the generation that follows yours, those names will mean nothing; forgetting doesn’t take long. Fallujah will be as meaningless to them as Daejeon is to you.
Human memory, even for the unspeakable, is short; and without efforts such as Julius’s, an entire violent legacy will remain, unaddressed, beneath the bustling and plausible surface of that bastion of tolerant hybridity that is New York.
We have, then, in Julius, a new and particular guide to a familiar world: he awakens us to the city as we had not heretofore seen it; and in so doing, thrillingly follows Pound’s literary exhortation to “make it new.” That such an almost taxonomical impulse—a desire to locate the patterns in life’s chaos, and in these patterns, meaning—is more complicated, and more compromised, than at first it appears, is, perhaps, the book’s central, unarticulated “story.”
Just as Julius’s random walks somehow provide a rich map of the island from end to end, so, too, do his apparently serendipitous encounters combine to create a very particular sense of the city itself and of its observer. Alongside this narrative, Julius gradually reveals a series of apparently unrelated memories of his childhood, first in Lagos and then at the Nigerian Military School in Zaria, and a smattering of facts about his family, in particular about his estranged German mother and her own estranged mother, his grandmother.
It is as if, in his choices of what to retell, Julius is providing us with the superficial historical plaques that gesture toward his life’s central traumas. When we walk past a monument or marker in the city, we cannot, unless we seek further, know all that may have occurred there in its full significance; and so too, we cannot apprehend simply from Julius’s description of facts—of, for example, a frustrated afternoon of sexual awakening, in which his abortive childhood attempt at masturbation was punctuated by the theft of a bottle of Coca-Cola and an epic downpour—what actually, in its fullness, took place on a given day. What happened and what it means remains beneath the surface, where we can only glimpse its psychological magnitude.
There is perfect logic in this obliquity for a young psychiatrist like Julius, who learned from his beloved Professor Saito “the art of listening…and the ability to trace out a story from what was omitted.” So we, too, Cole’s readers, must operate like psychiatrists or like archaeologists; and in so doing, we find beneath Julius’s calm but fragmented account of the “open city” another, darker topography, of neurosis, rupture, and violence.
Open City‘s loose frame is a year in the life of a young psychiatric resident on the verge of qualifying. Half- German, half-Nigerian, and American- educated, Julius is in his early thirties when the story unfolds, from the fall of 2006 into 2007—old enough to be an adult with a web of social and familial responsibilities, but young enough, too, to be without them. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend, Nadège (although this seems to have been a relatively short-lived liaison); he is under stress in his work; not only far from his Nigerian family, he has long been estranged from his mother (his father died when he was fourteen). He starts, in this time, his walks around the city: