Teju Cole’s Open City

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In her 1940 memoir, Paris, France, Gertrude Stein wrote that “everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to see what is inside themselves.” With his first novel, Open City, an elegant exercise in flâneurie, Teju Cole proves himself to be Stein’s writer – as much a tenant of his mind as he is a resident of New York City. Cole’s book reads like a sprawling map of Manhattan as the city’s traversed by its solipsistic hero, Julius. Born to a Nigerian father and German mother, Julius came to America from Nigeria to study. His tale begins in New York, in 2006, at the beginning of the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. Julius gets to know the city on foot. And as “New York City worked itself into [his] life at walking pace,” Cole has the city work itself into our own lives at a reading pace. Walking at least three or four times a week, it becomes a necessity for Julius, and a mild obsession, as each walk takes him further than the last, and deeper in his solitude. The promise America holds for Julius becomes tangled with its reality; he feels most alone in its crowded places, and New York becomes as distant as it is near, as abstract as it’s real.

Reading Open City, I was reminded of Jean Rhys, whose heroines freight their memories and dreams of the past into the Paris and London they wander – as Julius’s walking is a way to reconcile himself with the ruptures of his past: his fractured relationship with his mother, who has kept him from knowing his oma (grandmother), and the death of his father. Cole has Julius dream up the Berlin of Julius’s mother’s youth, and remember the Nigeria of his childhood from New York. Cole’s journey in Open City is a psychiatric voyage in the darkness, where Julius, the shrink, becomes the patient; it’s not really an open city we’re reading but the map of an open mind. As Julius feels, “most of the work of psychiatrists in particular…was a blind spot so broad that it had taken over most of the eye.” Blindness – “how what seems blind can open up possibilities” – transfixes Julius. When he spots a blind person close to the platform edge at a subway station, Julius offers his help, though the blind man doesn’t need it. Really, it’s Julius that is blind – or something like it. For all his perceptivity, he’s accepted a rather limited version of himself: he buys books he knows he won’t finish; he keeps meaning to listen to the jazz his friend recommends, but instead settles for the Mahler symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, whose cadences he knows like the streets of his neighborhood, Morningside Heights. He watches city life more than he participates in it. And Julius’s life is one long song, repeated over again – though each walk takes him further out, he’s always returning to the same place, inside. Julius’s “aimless wandering” isn’t aimless at all. These are pointed walks Cole has curated, as Mahler has composed his music, that lead his hero in New York to imagine his mother’s Germany and remember his father’s – his own – Nigeria, and take him to present-day Brussels where his oma lives, and where he scans “the faces of women huddled at the tram stops” in search of hers. Walking the streets of Brussels, Julius thinks he “might be tracing paths she had followed for years.” The further he walks and travels, the further back Cole takes him.

And yet Cole’s survey of the city, told through his hermetic interlocutor, is broad and rich. Open City is both a personal and encyclopedic account of a person’s experience of the city. But it is so much more. Though the novel’s perspective is at ground level, its vision comes from above; a bird’s-eye view of the city that suggests not only the magnitude of its intricacies, but the world beyond it. Cole’s masterly writing both contains and absorbs the city, and his balanced, calm, and modulated sentences lead into each other like Manhattan’s orderly blocks and avenues – but the events that happen in the environment of both the city and text are magnificently chaotic. The novel’s seamless, stream of consciousness prose, free of speech marks, connects all the stories of the city together into a cohesive voice, emulating the aimlessness of its wandering narrator. As Julius needs the city to map out his past and navigate through it, Cole uses the paper to put down his words to travel through them – that we don’t know where they’re leading exactly never matters. Rather, it’s the writing, as it is walking for Julius – a remedial, essential activity – that counts. Mapping the pains of Julius’s past in the city, Cole dabs at Julius’s wounds as the author tends, a decade later, to the sore wound left by 9/11 – the biggest blind spot in the New York of Open City. Yet that blindness opens Cole to creative possibilities; one of the novel’s most startling evocations is that of the mark 9/11 leaves on Manhattan, as Julius guides us through the streets of the Financial District, registering “the empty space” there. With his image of Julius at Ground Zero – a lost soul drifting in a lost place – Cole renders a powerful metaphor, connecting man and metropolis.

In his writing, Cole is the ultimate New Yorker; the city is pushed deep inside him. Cole’s attuned to every aspect of New York, and to its fluctuating temperament: the weather, the colors of the sky, the migrations of birds, how the sun is filtered through buildings, the temperature of the Hudson; all these are his metropolitan touchstones. Open City sets out on its own spiritual path in the city, and makes stops accordingly, to tell people’s stories, a roving “Humans of New York” in literary form. Cole is an expedient raconteur; within paragraphs, he weaves in and out of different interior worlds, allowing each narrative its brief moment of exposure, before drawing back into the crowd.

Weighed down by the “many small stories people all over [the] city carried around with them” – of a Liberian immigrant, a Haitian shoeshine, the Belgian woman Julius sits next to on the plane, a man who works at an internet café in Brussels – the center of Open City, a slim novel that contains so much within it, just about holds. Like Manhattan, Open City packs so much beauty into such little space – and is just as easy to fall in love with. And when Cole reminds us of the vulnerability of the city, even that he does beautifully. “Everything was built up,” he writes, “in concrete and stone and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed about them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret.” Late in the book, Julian’s secret – which he has kept from us and himself – crashes like a surge of water. It threatens to ruin him for us, as we’ve seen Manhattan can be spoiled by its swelling waters. Entrenched in its network of streets and subway lines, we forget that Manhattan is an island – caught up in Julius’s mind, we realize that he is an island, too.

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Comments
16 Responses to “Teju Cole’s Open City”
  1. segmation says:

    Do you think this book would make a great movie?

  2. Amber Mathy says:

    nice post.. great place..

  3. Hi there, You’ve done a great job. I will certainly digg it and personally suggest to my friends. I’m confident they will
    be benefited from this site.

  4. TechieChef says:

    nice post, i ogled your post on my wall … http://www.ogleogle.com/Card/657

  5. dmchale says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I read your blog like religion..it’s grabs my soul and infuses me with the talents of your writing. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Enjoy your newfound fame…you’ve certainly earned it.
    ~Dennis McHale http://www.dlmchale.com

  6. emekatalks says:

    Powerful! i’ll make sure teju gets to read this! amazing young man! thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. syakirmalek says:

    Reblogged this on syakirmalek and commented:
    🙂

  8. lightsworth says:

    Looks like a very nice city to be in! it looks pretty developed and would like to go shopping there and visit all the attractions. Would be nice to travel there sometime, thanks for sharing!

  9. cravemyart says:

    Beautifully written!

  10. georgeawebb says:

    Written very well.. love the post

  11. Dottaraphels says:

    Captivating write up…I’m intrigued now , so I must read,lol

  12. SR says:

    Ricardo Reis/Fernando Pessoa/Jose Saramago’s Lisbon…another fun example of time and place’s constitution/division/consumption of self

  13. alexbusher says:

    I like the panorama photos like this.

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