Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading Open City by Teju Cole

Reading Teju Cole's award-winning novel Open City, published about a year ago, we follow a young half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatrist named Julius in his last year of residency at Columbia University's hospital in Harlem as he wanders around two "open cities": New York and Brussels. The metaphor for the open city, we don't learn until page 97, comes from the decision of the Belgian government to declare Brussels an "open city" in order to avoid bombardment during World War II, but now in the twenty-first century it seems to signify something else -- immigration, a mixture of cultures, globalization, etc. Indeed, the novel's style is a metaphor for itself as its many meditations on music, painting, philosophy, literature, politics, and history suggest a fluid openness to the world's many cultures, and yet, ironically, it is the main character's knowledge of all this culture that seems to give him a shield and enable him to close himself off from the world. The dominant emotion of the novel is a sad isolation. Because the story takes place in the United States, Belgium, and Nigeria, and because Julius spends a lot of time staring out at the ocean, it seemed to me that this novel is a worthy subject for my blog on Atlantic Literature. Indeed, just his brief and fascinating discussion of Moby Dick in the context of post-9/11 New York is perhaps enough to justify my talking about it here. But to be honest, the novel's density and unsettling turns in the plot leave me at a loss for how to begin, and my uncertainty and the anxiety I felt after reading this novel is really what motivates this blog post. I am not sure what I think about it, and I am hoping to get some help by means of a conversation in the comments section of this blog.

I seem to have a lot less confidence than the reviewers for The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian, all of whom assertively compare Teju Cole to other writers such as W. G. Sebald, Joseph O'Neill, Zadie Smith, Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, and J. M. Coetzee. That is quite a cosmopolitan list of authors, and given the range of Cole's literary allusions, it is perhaps not surprising that critics would begin to think about his novel in terms of other literary and philosophical works. (Curiously, none of the critics compare Cole's work to any paintings or symphonies, even though the most frequent allusion Cole makes is to the composer Gustav Mahler. And never do we see any references to hip hop, even though in this interview, Cole says that's what he listens to.) Anyway, approaching a book by comparing it to another one is, perhaps, an obvious thing to do, but the act of doing so is of course not a politically neutral act. Our frame of reference will orient our reading. Do we compare the novel to the formal qualities of authors such as Sebald, Camus, and Eliot and thus put Cole's novel in the context of world literature (and "world" here means European), or do we read this novel in the context of other novel about immigration such as Zadie Smith or in terms of post-9/11 New York and globalization such as O'Neill? Or do we assert a Nigerian connection and read it within the postcolonial tradition as does this review [here]? (And to be honest, it is within the context of postcolonial theory that I decided to read Open City after discovering Teju Cole's hilarious satire of American neocolonialism published just a few months ago entitled "The White Savoir Industrial Complex.") This sort of question about the frame of reference with which we read might prompt me to start thinking theoretically about what scholars such as Paul Giles have called the global remapping of American literature. Indeed, as I mentioned in my previous blog post about Edwidge Danticat's new collection of essays, today's literature often seems obsessed with transnational cultural connections. Just a few months after the publication of Teju Cole's novel, the scholar Caren Irr argued [here] that perhaps the old notion of the "great American novel" as the ur-text for American literary self-consciousness has died and given way to a new kind of "world novel" that finds itself "grappling with the pragmatics of global mobility and inequality" (Irr, 678). No longer do immigrant writers focus on the dilemmas of assimilation to the American nation state, but instead they now attend to the dilemmas of transnational affiliations and neocolonialism. Cole's novel and its reviews in the mainstream press all seem to me to be evidence of Irr's argument.

This is all well and good, but neither any of the reviews nor any of the global theories help me come to terms with the two important and really bizarre things about this novel. And here, I must give a spoiler alert; perhaps the reason why the reviews are forced to evasively talk around these two key plot points is because they don't want to spoil the surprise. Thing one, near the beginning of the novel, Julius goes to Belgium in hopes of finding his grandmother, whom he has not had any contact with since he was a young boy, in part because he is estranged from his mother. He has no idea where she is. We never learn why he is estranged from his mother, and soon after arriving in Belgium, Julius seems to forget his original intention, and instead engages in a lengthy debate with an immigrant from Morocco about postcolonial theory. Thing two is at the end of the novel when Julius is confronted by a woman from his home town in Nigeria who claims that when they were teenagers he raped her. This seems to come out of nowhere, because it seems so out-of-character, and after I read it, and I read this passage twice because it was so startling, I expected Julius, who throughout the novel reflects on the significance of almost everything he sees, to explore the significance of this traumatic revelation. However, instead he is reminded of a story by Camus about Nietzsche's interest in a Roman hero, and he talks about that instead. The novel then concludes with him attending a symphony by Mahler during which he is briefly reminded of his grandmother again.

These two plot points, which not only never get resolved but also seem to be forgotten and yet still resonate strongly, are what make this novel great. And if these are the two forgotten moments that make the novel unforgettable, then at its core this is a novel about a man's inability to relate to women. This is Julius's tragic character flaw, and it is a flaw that is hidden behind layers of cultural and geopolitical allusion, and so, ironically, what all the reviews appreciate about the novel -- the main character's acute sensibility and cultural sophistication -- are precisely what those two plot points undermine.

Yes, he is a sensitive, culturally brilliant man, but he is also an insensitive, obtuse jerk.

These two plot points also go against the sort of narrative most of us are used to. Usually, a narrative begins with a lack or a gap that the character hopes to resolve, e.g., mystery, loss, conflict, etc. What pulls the reader along is the desire to see that gap closed, the crime solved, the love found, the disagreement resolved or transcended. But Cole's novel not only frustrates our desire for that gap being closed, it almost seems as though the main character Julius forgot about them entirely. And this is what disturbs me and what leaves me at a loss as to what to think about the novel.

Returning to theory, the novel at once seems to evoke what theorists Deleuze and Guattari call the rhisomatic connections among a myriad of peoples, and it also seems to exemplify the rhisomatic new world order that theorists Negri and Hardt call Empire, but for the character Juluis, none of these connections seem solid enough to matter. Julius is disconnected, lonely, and politically inert. I have in the past [here] harshly criticized the figure of the "lonely African in America" that seems to have become popular in contemporary American literature. In my personal experience and in my scholarly reading, African immigrants are usually the opposite of Julius -- if anything, they are more connected to vibrant, active communities and extended families than they may even wish to be. Hence, Cole's novel reveals the contradictions between the liberal desire for cosmopolitan cultural connectivity and the loneliness, insensitivity, and obtuseness that might attend the literary form that such a liberal desire takes. And so, if the novel's core trauma is Julius's relationship to women, and this trauma is explored (or displaced) narratively through a series of sophisticated yet empty cultural gestures, then how might we re-read the many books about globalization by cultural theorists after reading Open City?