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:
The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy, they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking. Work was a regimen of perfection and competence…. The streets served as a welcome opposite to all that. Every decision…was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom.
The freedom Julius seeks is precisely detachment: untethered by family or relationships, undecided in most things, he is most comfortable in the role of voyeur. He is so busy seeing—and showing us what he sees—that he hopes, himself, to remain unseen.
Insofar as any of us can present a clear outline, it is shaped by our connections to, or disconnections from, others. Only tenuously attached to the American city around him, Julius has willfully broken with his African past. Central to his account of the year are his ex-girlfriend Nadège (who, now in California, remains a figure in his mind rather than a presence in his world); his mentor Professor Saito, in failing health at the novel’s outset and dead well before its close; and an unnamed jazz-loving, divorced academic friend, who ultimately leaves the city for a position at the University of Chicago. Others who intermittently penetrate the boundaries of Julius’s well-defended consciousness include his psychiatric patients, among them the young woman V., a Native American assistant professor of history at NYU, and the author of a book about Cornelis van Tienhoven; and, increasingly, in apparent friendship, a young Nigerian woman named Moji Kasali, the sister of Julius’s high school friend Dayo, upon whom he has stumbled in New York and with whom he has renewed acquaintance.
Beyond this already somewhat remote human layer lies the spectrum of passing encounters that give fundamental shape to Julius’s solitary days: conversations not only with taxi drivers and postal workers, but also with the illegal immigrant Saidu, from Liberia, whom he visits in a detention center in Queens as part of Nadège’s church group outing—a visit that hints at the conflicts within Julius himself. After hearing—and reporting—Saidu’s extraordinary tale of exodus from war-torn Liberia, via Guinea and Morocco to Spain and Portugal, only to find himself immediately detained upon arrival in the US, Julius takes his leave, knowing at some level that he has no more wish to be associated with Saidu than with Terrence McKinney. As he goes, Saidu says, “Come back and visit me, if I am not deported.”
I said that I would, but never did.
I told the story to Nadège on the way back into Manhattan that day. 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.
Julius, of course, has so fallen in love with this idea that he has become a healing listener by profession, someone who can proudly relay the reverent remark of one of his patients:
Doctor, I just want to tell you how proud I am to come here, and see a young black man like yourself in a white coat, because things haven’t ever been easy for us, and no one has ever given us nothing without a struggle.
Tellingly, though, Julius is no psychotherapist; and perhaps not as good a listener as he would purport to be.
His ultimate indifference to Saidu’s fate is far more egregiously echoed in his friendship with Professor Saito, to whom he insists, after a long hiatus, “You’ll see more of me in the next few months, now that things are stable again”—a comment made during what proves his penultimate visit, and in anticipation of a memorable failure of intimacy:
I wish I had asked what his late partner’s name was. He would have told me…. But in spite of myself, unable to be fully present to our conversation, I could not lead it in this new direction.
Instead, Julius is suddenly obsessed by the bedbugs that have infested Professor Saito’s apartment: in this chapter, his thoughts about these creatures simply supplant the professor altogether.
Similarly and fatally, Julius, while on vacation in Brussels, fails to heed the call of his patient V. (“I can’t be reached, I said, have her call Dr. Kim, the resident covering for me”); and it is only just in passing, as something barely noticeable, that we learn of V.’s subsequent suicide:
The Times had said, in the obituary I read that day, that V. wrote of atrocity without flinching. They might have said, without flinching visibly, for it had all affected her far more deeply than anyone’s ability to guess.
This parenthetical observation about V.’s intolerable pain and the act to which it drove her—the pain for which Julius was the supposed healer—is sandwiched between his persistent distress about having forgotten the PIN number for his ATM card when on his way to meet his accountant.
This pattern, an unmasterable solipsistic irresponsibility largely invisible to Julius himself, recurs fiercely but not heavy-handedly, a red thread in the book’s superficially muted weave. What Julius can see of it—an awareness only of the internal ticks of his moods, moments of happiness or sadness dependent on such small things—he judges from an almost haughty distance:
How petty seemed to me the human condition, that we are subject to this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud.
But these are, like so much in his story, symptoms rather than a cause.
Julius the unhealed physician is both the most reliable and the most unreliable of narrators, and it is in his terrifying failures of self-knowledge—no more disturbing, we might think, than anyone else’s: a solipsistic failure of which we are all, with our PIN numbers and sudden fear of diseases, more or less guilty—that he proves a dark and possibly broken soul, someone for whom the role of flaneur is a hermetic one, rather than open at all.
Just like the city, Julius, in moving on, has buried much, and more than he is aware. He insists that
Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.
And yet his heroism, even at its most shining, is of a curiously passive sort. In the middle of his year, Julius takes a long trip to Brussels. It is at the heart of Cole’s novel (in itself a fascinating decision: at the core of the “open city” lies an escape from it), and serves as a microcosmic reconfiguration of his relation to New York.
Julius makes the journey to Brussels supposedly to search for his lost maternal grandmother, of whom he has only one boyhood memory. She is a German war widow whose daughter, Julius’s mother, was born in May 1945, a survivor of great hardship (including, he surmises, rape at the hands of the triumphant Russian army). This woman was last known to be living in Brussels.
But what he tells us of his time there would suggest that his grandmother was all along a diversionary tactic; or else that she is too great a trauma for him to confront. He makes no apparent effort to locate her at all. Instead, he recreates his loose web of random connections, befriending first his neighbor on the airplane, a woman surgeon, grandmotherly in aspect, named Madame Maillotte; and subsequently a Moroccan student, Farouq, who works in the local Internet café. Julius has a fleeting but lovely intimate encounter with a middle-aged Czech woman met in a café—“we were simply two people far away from home, doing what two people wanted to do. To my lightness and gratitude was added a faint sorrow…. I returned to my solitude”—but then, typically, he retreats to his rented room to read Barthes’s Camera Lucida.
In this loose, limpid wandering, Julius’s “oma,” as he calls his grandmother, becomes only
the faint memory of the day she had visited Olumo Rock with us in Nigeria, and had wordlessly massaged my shoulder. It was in these thoughts that I began to wonder if Brussels hadn’t somehow drawn me to itself for reasons more opaque than I suspected, that the paths I mindlessly followed through the city followed a logic irrelevant to my family history.
In short, in order to avoid introspection Julius turns outward yet again, a chronicler of his environment rather than of his own soul. But in Brussels, he shows himself capable of more active human pursuit than at home in New York, and the focus of his attention is Farouq, with whom he has several intense conversations. As a scholar and thinker, Farouq is passionately engaged—he reads Walter Benjamin in the Internet café, and drops terms like “the victimized Other: how strange, I thought, that he used an expression like that in a casual conversation”—even while as a citizen, he is passionately disenchanted: “He, too, was in the grip of rage and rhetoric…. A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves….”
Together, the young men discuss literature (Tahar Ben Jelloun versus Mohamed Choukri), the value of Edward Said, nonviolence, the importance of the Middle East conflict, the role of al-Qaeda, and the existence of a genuine political left in the United States. Then, too, Farouq tells his tale of embittered woe, of his failed Ph.D. and of the academic conspiracy against him, of how he is reduced by fate from his ambition to be a thinker, and will be instead merely a translator.
Here, in Farouq, is the man to whom Julius most readily feels a connection, and also the man he most dreads becoming. He is at once impressed by and contemptuous of the young Moroccan, whose political engagement has propelled him to autodidactic feats, and has at the same time rendered him a furious victim. Far better to be Julius, in his cool isolation and his white doctor’s coat, earning the respect and admiration of remote but grateful patients, than to be the doomed Farouq:
How many would-be radicals, just like him, had been formed on just such a slight [as the failed Ph.D.]?…
There was something powerful about him, a seething intelligence, something that wanted to believe itself indomitable. But he was one of the thwarted ones. His script would stay in proportion.
So saying, Julius passes a white man’s judgment upon Farouq, and dismisses him. He, like all the others, will vanish henceforth from the story.
It is immediately hereafter that Julius awakens from a dream set in Lagos, and, upon hearing the rainfall, is visited by the childhood memory of stealing a bottle of Coca-Cola and attempting, unsuccessfully, to masturbate. Long but very precise, this memory has itself the quality of a dream; and like a dream, it seems to point to, rather than to elucidate, its import. Of the sexual aspect of the recollection Julius notes,
For many years, I had been tempted to overinterpret the other events of that day, but what happened afterward, between my mother and myself, was due as much to any other day in my boyhood as to the day the rain began.
This, unexpectedly and yet (given his temperament) inevitably, is the most direct accounting of their rift in the entire book. Other later signs, more disturbing, may point us toward an interpretation; but there will be, in Open City, no closing of the case.
Teju Cole has achieved, in this book, a rare balance. He captures life’s urgent banality (think of Victor Klemperer, in his diaries of his life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, fretting endlessly about toothache or how to procure cigarettes), and he captures, too, the ways in which the greater subjects—violence, autonomy, selfhood, life and death—glimmer darkly in the interstices between bedbugs and Tower Records. The foreground and the background are, in the end, equally important; but by shifting perspective, we can greatly change the story that we tell. Each of us, no matter how clearly we see others, is guilty of potentially criminal blindness with regard to ourselves. The violence that we do and that is done to us remains, like the violence of our culture itself, often invisible. New York City itself is built upon bones, and the fact that we do not see them—that we cannot bear to see them—will not make them disappear.