Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mental Landscapes: Teju Cole's "Open City"

Outside of the occasional blurb upon its 2011 publication, I haven't read any reviews of Teju Cole's Open City, and I know little about the author himself, except for a brief overview of his credentials (he's a writer, photographer, and historian, and based on that alone, he's probably an awesome person with whom to have a couple of beers and a conversation). Therefore, crafting an introduction is proving to be a challenge, since I normally open with an aside, an explanation of how I came to read a specific work, or an overview of my previous readings of a given author. With so little in mind, and therefore with so little knowledge or assumption of what I was getting into, I'm pleasantly amazed at how quickly Open City placed itself into conversations and awareness of contemporary literature. It has been embraced by the literary establishment (in whatever guise you assume that to be), and as a bookseller, I've seen the work picked up by a variety of readers and demographics. It has been on my list for a lot longer than I wanted (I had hoped to read it earlier this year), and upon reflection, it carries a wealth of positive contradictions: it's a debut novel that distances itself from standard notions of what composes a novel; it's original, yet evocative of past writers such as Italo Calvino; and it blends storytelling with a variety of fields, from philosophy to history to sociology.

Open City follows the travels, thoughts, and interactions of Julius, a Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York City. We see his observations as he takes long, meandering walks around the city, interacts with friends and strangers, recalls his childhood in Africa, and travels to Europe. It doesn't take long to realize this isn't a novel in a conventional sense; it's an unfolding and layered exploration in a fictional setting. Within the first chapter, Julius has his plans disrupted by the New York City Marathon, pays an impromptu visit to an elderly Japanese professor, and shares a brief conversation with a neighbor in his apartment building. These scenarios and meetings jump from person to person, and within these jumps, there are moves between various thoughts and observations. Even when Julius isn't walking or interacting, his mind is constantly obsessing, analyzing, and dreaming. For example, he visits a grocery store, and the surrounding area leads to these diversions:

"At the grocery store, I bought bread, eggs, and beer, and next door, at the Jamaican place, I bought goat curry, yellow plantains, and rice and peas to take home. On the other side of the grocery store was a Blockbuster; though I had never rented anything from there, I was startled to see a sign announcing it, too, was going out of business. If Blockbuster couldn't make it in an area full of students and families, it meant that the business model had been fatally damaged, that the desperate efforts they had made recently, and which I now recalled, of lowering rental prices, launching an advertising blitz, and abolishing late fines, had all come too late. I thought of Tower Records--a connection I couldn't help making, given that both companies had for a long time dominated their respective industries. It wasn't that I felt sorry for these faceless national corporations; far from it. They had made their profits and their names by destroying smaller, earlier local businesses. But I was touched not only at the passage of these fixtures in my mental landscape, but also at the swiftness and dispassion with which the market swallowed even the most resilient enterprises (Cole 19)."

In addition to his narrative, Cole's major talent lies in making these seemingly abrupt transitions seamless. In Julius's solitude, like anyone else's, his thought process moves quickly through what he sees. However, there were times throughout the novel when I had trouble accepting the depth of the conversations he strikes up with random strangers. These discussions are not unlike his personal thoughts--they encompass the same variety of topics and hypotheses, all of which are educational, fascinating, and well-written. On a plane ride to Brussels, Julius sits next to an elderly woman who turns out to be a doctor. Their conversation starts off innocently and politely, but within the span of a few pages, they're discussing history, architecture, and travels. Perhaps Cole is deliberately elaborating casual small talk, which usually includes random topics like weather and jobs, instead of:

"If you ever get a chance to go [to Heliopolis], you should. It's a fantastical place, and Edouard Empain, or Baron Empain as they call him, was the engineer who designed and built it. That was in 1907. It was a real luxury capital, broad avenues, big gardens. There's a building there called Qasr Al-Baron, the Baron's Palace, that was modeled on Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and also on a Hindu temple, a specific one, but I don't recall the name. And you know, this is now the most important suburb of Cairo; in fact it's within the city boundaries now. The president of Egypt lives there today. But the Empains are in a tussle with the Egyptian government, because part of Heliopolis belongs to them, and they are trying to claim it, or at least get compensated for it (Cole 91)."

Julius also encounters a young Muslim clerk in an internet cafe, and ends up getting drinks with him and one of his friends. The conversation turns political and sometimes alienating, depending on one's position or religion. But Cole, framing these as conversation pieces, offers no judgement or leanings. Julius is shocked and naturally incredulous at the statements, but through these delicate, sensitive opinions, the reader is merely a spectator to discussions that happen all over, whether we want to admit this or not.

"And Hezbollah, I said, you support them, too? Yes, he said. Hezbollah, Hamas, same thing. It is resistance, simple. Every Israeli home has weapons. I looked at Faroq. He looked at me levelly and said, It's the same for me. It is resistance. And what about Al-Qaeda? I said. Khalil said, True, it was a terrible day, the twin towers. Terrible. What they did was very bad. But I understand why they did it. This man is an extremist, I said, you hear me, Farouq? Your friend is an extremist. But I was pretending to an outrage greater than I actually felt. In the game, if it was a game, I was meant to be the outraged American, though what I felt was more sorrow and less anger. Anger, and the semiserious use of a word like extremist, was easier to handle than sorrow. This is how Americans think Arabs think, I said to them both. It really saddens me. And you, what about you, Farouq? Do you support Al-Qaeda, too (Cole 120)."

Throughout these conversations, Cole is essentially mapping the world and emphasizing the connections between people. I hesitate to say this is done in an exaggerated manner, since that sounds like a petty criticism. It's just that the bulk of Open City is stunning realistic, and chance conversations that turn into compelling historical and political assessments occasionally gave me pause. These work much better when Julius describes his complex childhood in Nigeria. He recounts his time in a tough Nigerian military school, from the interactions with his classmates to the abuse he received from the teachers and officers. The reader is given his personal history along with historical details of Nigerian life, and between the lines, Julius explores his views of that time in two ways--from his point of view then and his adult hindsight. Cole's writing never stops digging, both historically and psychologically. I cannot think of a debut novel that contains this much complexity.

"After my father's burial, I was keen to return to school. I did not play the helpless orphan, had no time for it. A surprising number of my classmates had been through the same thing, losing parents to illness or accidents. One good friend has lost his dad in the executions that followed the failed military coup of 1976. He never spoke about it, but he wore it as a badge of honor. What I wanted for myself that year was some sense of belonging, and loss paradoxically helped enrich that sense. I threw myself into the military training, the classes, the physical workouts, the rhythms of prep and manual labor (cutting grass with cutlasses, doing duties on the school's maize farms). Not that I liked labor for its own sake--far from it--but I found something true in the work, found something of myself in it (Cole 81)."

My main critique of Open City comes from its ending. Without giving anything concrete away, the novel suddenly introduces revelations and climaxes that would be at home in a standard narrative, but become perplexing after pages of carefully crafted studies and interactions. The novel is told in the first person, and the outside revelations show that Julius is not a perfect, that he's made plenty of mistakes in his life. However, nowhere in the narrative does Julius suggest he's without faults or problems. He shares details of how his relationship ended and hints at how an abrupt vacation put strain on his co-workers. However, the emphasis throughout is not on him specifically; the entire novel uses him as a sort of camera, taking in elements of the world both big and small. The added-on revelations are a distraction. They aren't enough to completely bring down what is otherwise an amazing piece of writing, but they come awfully close. However, as the novel comes to its close, there are still many compelling passages that stand alone as their own studies. As a writer (both fictional and otherwise), Cole is almost bursting at the seams with knowledge, and as a reader, it's impossible not to get caught up in these elements.

"The practice of psychiatry is partly about seeing the world as a collection of tribes. Take a set of individuals who have brains that, with regard to how they map reality, are more or less equal: differences among brains in this set, this ostensibly normal group, this control group, which constitutes the majority of humanity, are small. Mental well-being is mysterious, but this group is fairly predictable, and what little science has discovered about brain function and chemical signaling applies broadly. The right hemisphere processes in parallel, the left processes serially, and messages are passed more or less efficiently between the two by the corpus callosum. The whole organ nestles inside the skull, steadily improving at a range of astonishingly complex tasks, while getting worse at a few others. This is our picture of normality (Cole 204-205)."

There is no way, nor is there any need, to summarize what Open City is "about," since this includes so many potential views. Aside from the cited political conversation, this is truly a work that succeeds as a piece of post-9/11 art. Our worlds and beliefs can be so divided, and this is an attempt to show closeness and universal moments among wildly different people and places. However, it doesn't simplify anything. In another sort of paradox, Open City highlights the vastness of humanity by attempting to bridge the aforementioned gaps. From its diverse narrator to the diverse experiences and citizens he encounters, the novel manages to show how much is out there, both philosophically and physically. This is why I had trouble with the concrete revelations at the end of the book. Had Cole merely ended with Julius's observations and not a twist that shows his faults, it would have strongly maintained its atmosphere. But again, my critique is personal, and doesn't take away from the world that Cole has created. Open City is thought-provoking in the best of ways, doesn't offer any solutions, but forces the reader to realize how complex the world is. It's a creation that becomes even more amazing when the reader realizes that Cole still has more works to come. Because the world is so complex, there are more ideas and philosophies to explore, and I cannot wait to see what he imagines next.

Work Cited:
Cole, Teju. Open City. Copyright 2011 by Teju Cole.

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