OPEN CITY by teju cole


using a realist, pseudo-autobiographical style very reminiscent of sebald, the main character, Julius, wanders through an up-to-date and recognizable NYC, an accomplishment in itself, observing the marathoners and skyscrapers at columbus circle, the twin towers intact in the queens museum’s diorama, conversations with cabdrivers infused with political subtext, bedbugs — and uses that general observation to describe, repeatedly and profoundly, the immigrant’s situation. maybe in fact the novel is the first since sebald to successfully tackle our moment of simultaneous globalization and alienation without resorting to parody or genre plot or any other distancing device. and for all the meandering of its narrative, this roaming belies a close-hewed line, and the book is not really a flâneur’s accounting at all but a meditative monologue on history told to the slow-hearbeat pace of a stroll’s footfall.

Farouq turned to me and said, It’s very busy, as you can see. Not only for all the people making New Year greetings but also for a lot of people calling home for the Eid. He gestured to the computer monitor behind him, and on it was a log of the calls ongoing in all twelve booths: Colombia, Egypt, Senegal, Brazil, France, Germany. It looked like fiction, that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places. It’s been like this for the past two days, Farouq said, and this is one of the things I enjoy about working here. It’s a test case of what I believe; people can live together but still keep their own values intact. Seeing this crowd of individuals from different places, it appeals to the human side of me, and the intellectual side of me (112).

the lesson here seems to be that there is less and less frequently a typical immigration story than that each immigrant has a unique tale as bizarre as it is wholly probable. and each of these, in julius’s necessarily passing view, only half reveals its tangled provenance through scars and tics and layers of peeling disguise. cole shows again and again people who have been caught and hurled by history into their odd displaced places: a liberian in immigration prison, a dying english professor who had been in a japanese internment camp, rwandan dance clubbers, arab-european cafe leftists. these individuals are not always victims of history but are — in their singularity, in their movements unreplicated by nations of others — perhaps more uniquely aware of how history has determined their lives. and as cole’s novel superbly illustrates (and as globalization intensifies) there will arguably be fewer and fewer citizens of states and more and more castaway members of diasporas.

for these latter, in OPEN CITY, the question of belonging and authenticity as well as the proper and appropriate methods of political speech and protest are never far from mind. one of the most memorable characters in this regard is farouq — who with his somewhat naive leftism plays foil to our ever-so-increasingly unreliable (and occasionally reactionary-ish) narrator. farouq is an employee at an internet cafe in brussels and from that vantage freely comments on global politics… one of the book’s best provocations in fact is that it is a NYC book confronting the transforming moment zero of 9/11 by archly recounting a bar debate of arab intellectuals posturing resistance in brussels(!) …if it wasn’t so possible, it would be perfect satire.

Farouq’s face — all of a sudden, it seemed, but I must have been subconsciously working on the problem — resolved itself, and I saw a startling resemblance: he was the very image of Robert De Niro, specifically in De Niro’s role as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II… A famous Italian-American actor thirty years ago and an unknown Moroccan political philosopher in the present, but it was the same face. What a marvel that life repeated itself in these trivial ways, and it was something I noticed only because he hadn’t shaved for a day or two…

What was the meaning of De Niro’s smile? He, De Niro, smiled, but one had no idea what he was smiling about. Perhaps this is why, when I first met Farouq, I had been taken aback. I had subconsciously overinterpreted his smile, connecting his face to another’s, reading it as a face to be liked but feared. I had read his face as that of the young De Niro, as a charming psychopath, for this most trivial of reasons. And it was this face, not as inscrutable as I had once feared, that spoke now: For us, America is a version of Al-Qaeda. The statement was so general as to be without meaning. It had no power, and he said it without conviction. I did not need to contest it, and Khalil added nothing to it. “America is a version of Al-Qaeda.” It floated up with the smoke, and died. It might have meant more, weeks back, when the one speaking was still an unknown quanity. Now he had overplayed his hand, and I sensed a shift in the argument, a shift in my favor” (121-122).

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near novel’s end julius observes a woman davening and comments on prayer. his definition of it could easily also apply to the novel in general but especially to OPEN CITY itself — an elegant, brainy, careful, and finally hopeful meditation:

I had made some tea, and I drank it as I watched the woman pray. Others are not like us, I thought to myself, their forms are different from ours. Yet I prayed, too, I would gladly face a wall and daven, if that was what had been given to me. Prayer was, I had long settled in my mind, no kind of promise, no device for getting what one wanted out of life; it was the mere practice of presence, that was all, a therapy of being present, of giving a name to the heart’s desires, the fully formed ones, the as yet formless ones (215).


.    .    .

a link to an interview with cole on PBS’ artbeat. here’s a bit:

TEJU COLE: We don’t experience our lives as plots. If I asked you to tell me what your last week was like, you’re not really gonna give me plot. You’re gonna give me sort of linked narrative. And I wanted to see how do we bring that into fiction without losing the reader. But of course, I’m not the first person to think about this. This is actually a problem that the Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe solved pretty well. So part of my thinking was going back a little bit to re-inventing that particular wheel, which only seems innovative because most novels that are written today are being written on Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, 19th century novel.

another more expansive interview here.

pick it up from your local independent bookstore or the library.


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