OPEN CITY – Teju Cole
I read the rave reviews about this debut novel, & bought it on-line, with some reservations. On-line purchases are always a calculated risk. It’s written by a Nigerian, who is pretty de-tribalised, but hailed in the US as a Black Writer. He was born and raised in Nigeria and came to the US in 1992; he’s a writer, photographer and professional historian of early Netherlandish art. And his roots show in his novel – some of it is pretty autobiographical. His protagonist Julius, is a psychiatric resident completing his training in a NYC mental hospital, yet makes comments about the art of Vermeer etc.!
I enjoyed the book, which is very different in structure – I don’t know that we can talk about a plot, in this instance. Cole has his man endlessly walking through NYC, partly for contrast to his work, partly because he doesn’t seem to have much else to do when he isn’t working. His girlfriend has moved to San Francisco. So we get his take on the city, little nuggets of history as he strides around. We meet the old Japanese professor with whom he has a friendship. We meet a new friend (another academic, a 70 yr old fascinating woman who lives effortlessly between USA & Europe, something which I don’t think he has mastered yet) who he meets on the plane when he takes a three week holiday in Brussels, ostensibly to track down his very old German grandmother and catch up on his past; but he makes such half-assed attempts to find her that nothing comes of it. He meets two Muslim Moroccans who may – or may not – be al-Qaeda members. They have deep impassioned debates about life and Israel and the Palestinians.
The novel has these periodic vignettes scattered throughout his journeys on foot through NYC, Brussels, and his memories. We hear about episodes in his school days at a horrible military school in Nigeria; later there is another entire story about a Liberian man’s long struggle to enter America, & when he finally gets there he’s imprisoned for two years, as an illegal alien. There’s also quite a long piece about bedbugs in NYC, and a surprisingly powerful short episode about a Chinese marching band in Chinatown! So its many disparate stories encountered by the central character. Something that struck me forcibly was his perspective on life and his city through the eyes of a black man. All the greetings of solidarity with the various Brothers he meets in NYC and in Europe. Because they’re black they’re automatically Brothers.
I got fed up with Julius’ indecisiveness about the important people in his life – his girlfriend, the old Japanese professor, missing out on his Ouma*. And I never understood what happened between him and his mother – if there was a rift, then why?
His walkings allow him time to reflect on his life, but he seems more of an observer than a participant.
I found the last pages completely baffling; a girl from Nigeria accuses him of raping her, when they were both teenagers, which he neither confirms nor denies. He evades the issue by relating some complicated story about an ancient Roman and the effect the story had on Nietzsche ?!!?? I didn’t get that bit.
It’s not a novel to hurry through, and the more I think about it and ruffle through the pages to write this report, I realise how concentrated it is, and it probably warrants a second read-through.
P.S. Since writing this review, I read a recent article which christened Teju Cole as “the next Jack Kerouac”. In certain quarters this practically canonizes Cole! In my younger days I loved Kerouac’s books, and Cole certainly does not enthuse and inspire me the way Kerouac did. Age and cynicism may be contributory factors in this verdict, but I still prefer Kerouac.
*Dutch word = grandmother