Thursday, 12 September 2013

'Open City' by Teju Cole (Review)

My focus on literature in translation means that I rarely read English-language fiction, but there is the odd exception.  My last-minute decision to attend an event at the Melbourne Writers Festival a while back led me to make one of those exceptions, as I really enjoyed the way American writer Teju Cole talked about the future of the novel in his keynote address (and the ensuing discussion).  Of course, it's a little risky to read a novel because you like the person, but don't worry - the book certainly lived up to the good impression the writer made on me...

Open City probably needs little introduction; Cole's first novel has been a worldwide success, winning a string of awards.  It centres on Julius, a Nigerian-born Psychology resident working and walking his way through the New York winter.  Having recently broken up with his girlfriend, he spends much of his time outside work alone, listening to classical music, reading good books and pounding the pavements of his adopted hometown.

Julius enjoys his walks, which allow him to process, and escape from, the mental rigours of his daily work.  He's a man who needs solitude, and even when he does catch up with friends, there's a sense of detachment, a feeling that while he is present in body, the mind is still roaming the streets of New York.  A short trip to Brussels, a vain, half-hearted attempt to reconnect with a family member, is a short distraction, but it proves to be in vain.  Julius is a successful, well-educated man, one who you'd expect to be happy, and the reader gradually begins to wonder if his detachment has a cause...

Cole's novel is a beautiful book, an elegant story of a city in four dimensions, and a haunting tale of a man who struggles to find his place in it.  What strikes the reader on reading the first few chapters of the novel is the importance of the setting, and Open City, at times, comes across as a love letter to New York, a subtle ode to the big city.  Within a few chapters, the adjective 'Sebaldian' came to mind, as Julius' tangential asides about the buildings he passes and the streets he walks through instantly reminded me of the style of The Rings of Saturn (as I quickly found out, this wasn't exactly a unique comparison I was making...).

What makes Cole's novel even more Sebaldian though is the way in which Julius sees beyond the current status, experiencing the past of the city as well as the present:
"Out, ahead of me, in the Hudson, there was just the faintest echo of the old whaling ships, the whales, and the generations of New Yorkers who had come here to the promenade to watch wealth or sorrow flow into the city or simply to see the light play on the water.  Each one of those past moments was present now as a trace."
p.54 (Faber and Faber, 2011)
Julius' New York is not just a maze of skyscrapers and subway stations; it's a hole where the World Trade Center used to stand, which once stood on narrow streets, which had replaced markets, which in their turn had been built on land inhabited by native Americans.  Most people don't notice the traces of the past that hide amongst the clamour of the present, but Julius (and perhaps Cole) feels almost more at home amongst these reminders of a distant past.

Which is not to say that the novel neglects people, individuals - far from it.  Julius has many encounters with fellow citizens and travellers, and the majority of them are, like our 'hero', newcomers, immigrants, men and women who are straddling the divide between two (or more) cultures.  From Professor Saito, Julius' academic mentor, to Dr. Mailotte, a Belgian surgeon Julius meets on a plane; from the man who shines his shoes to the aggressive autodidact running an Internet café (and studying) in Brussels; Cole shows that the world is full of people struggling to adapt to their own four-dimensional existence, trying to reconcile past and present.

Just as the novel deals with both the then and the now, it also discusses the global and the individual.  Julius talks with the people he meets about their lives and concerns, but the bigger picture is never far from our view.  One of his clients, a native American historian, writes about the conflict between her people and the conquering white settlers, and the effect history has at a personal level:
"I can't pretend it isn't about my life, she said to me once, it is my life.  It's a difficult thing to live in a country which has erased your past." (p.27)
In many ways, Open City is a gloomy, pessimistic novel, with a sense of decay and entropy, leaving the reader feeling that it is not so much about progress as it it about decline.  Then again, I suspect I'm beginning to read a little too much into things here...

It's not just what the book's about which makes Open City such a good read though; it's Cole's style which really makes it enjoyable.  The soothing, flowing prose accompanies the reader on a thinker's tour of New York, and while you may struggle to discern a plot of any kind (especially throughout the first half), there is a gradual development of sorts.  In the talk I attended, Cole mentioned the slow solace of the novel, something which helps you to slow down from the hectic pace of the digital world, and it's an idea he has definitely built his own work upon.

In fact, you suspect that there is a lot of the writer in the book, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, I wonder how he plans to follow up the success of Open City and where he wants to go from here.  Will he continue with his Sebaldian mixture of descriptive narrative, or will the next book bring something completely different?  I have no idea, but I'll be very keen to accompany him on his next walking tour :)