I happened upon this New Yorker article about a certain trend in contemporary non-genre novels before finishing Teju Cole’s Open City, and immediately recognized this novel (published in 2011) as another member of it. While I enjoyed Open City a great deal and can recommend it to anyone without reservation, I couldn’t help but feeling for much of the trip like I was somehow enjoying it for the wrong reasons.
For the first third or so of its length, the book feels less like reading a novel and more like browsing the blog of a Nigerian-born art historian touring through New York City. I want to assert I really did enjoy following along as Julius explored side streets, admired the urban architecture all around him, and let his thoughts wander through the stories of urban history it bespoke. He would sometimes duck into galleries and share his wonderment at the subtle and obscure European masterworks on the walls. After some time in New York, the setting shifts as Julius travels on a whim to Brussels — the titular open city, read literally — and he begins to share deeper emotional resonances with us as he wanders through (assuming a non-Belgian reader) mutually unfamiliar territory, but never quite goes so far as to reveal a central conflict that I could grab onto and say Ah, here is the plot. Then he returns to New York, and there occurs not so much a climax as a trio of crescendos against Julius’ body and psyche, the natures of which fit tonally into the work but don’t necessarily follow as satisfyingly logical outcomes of earlier scenes’ set-ups or foreshadowings. The book ends with Julius in mid-thought, the text sticking around only long enough to establish his survival and personal coherence through these unbidden crises, whose coming feels as messy and narratively unsatisfying as anything else that happens in real life.
Which, I suspect, holds the key. I’d only ever read Cole on Twitter before this, and in this novel I found his unrestricted writing style so sublime and easy to drift away on. I also found, according to the jacket-flap copy, that Nigerian-born Cole lives in New York City and is an expert on Netherlandish art. The fictional Julius (who I have reason to guess has a similar birth-year as the author’s) works as a psychiatrist and not a writer, at least — but the fact of the book’s first-person perspective rather implies a shared hobby, if nothing else! Now, I have most certainly read many novels where such transparent parallels — hell, outright overlaps — exist between the respective personas of a book’s protagonist and its author. But, pairing this with a nontraditional (and some might say nonexistent) story structure made this stand out a lot more to me. And so, I must admit, did the fact that the author’s/protagonist’s social background varies more from my own than that of authors I have typically enjoyed (which, indeed, represented much of my motivation for reading this).
Without a traditional plot structure to ride along, Open City challenged me to find other patterns, and I did. A handful of repeating motifs thread through the story, and I found most interesting those fueled from Julius’ perspective as an African immigrant living in New York (and, for the middle part, adding “foreign traveler” as a layer atop this). As I started to read I steeled myself for Julius to face overt racism, but such an incident happens only once, near the beginning; it feels more sad than ugly, and has the air of pushing an elephant out of the room. What troubles Julius much more are a series of encounters he has with a variety of the African-connected through the length of the book. In America, most of these encounters turn negative in one way or another. Those who recognize him as a fellow African immigrant assume a kinship he does not see, and some black Americans he meets share an enthusiasm for his birth continent that he finds embarrassingly fetishistic. In Brussels, after several dreary days alone in a strange place, Julius pushes himself to take a more assertive social stance than his introverted New York one, and he ends up forging a lasting friendship with the Moroccan man who clerks a nearby internet cafe. Then he returns to America and the American pattern, which reasserts itself punishingly.
Julius also possesses a knack for drawing stories out of people, a talent covered by his psychiatric profession but presented here to sometimes preternatural degrees. Vignettes of other peoples’ lives fill the story, perhaps about as often as the memories of a Nigerian childhood that Julius shares. (And sometimes the two combine, as when Julius recalls a time in his youth when his mother unexpectedly unburdened her whole story on him.) At one of the strangest moments in the story, an ancient shoe-shine man Julius meets in New York unrolls a compelling life story that feels told by a ghost, shifted out of time by a century or so, belonging to someone else entirely. In most every case, the teller of the story shifts the whole narrative apparatus onto themselves, borrowing Julius’ first-person perspective; I find it significant that the book avoids the use of quotation marks.
I clearly still have a lot of thinking still to do about this book; I didn’t even really consider the title deeper than its literal meaning prior to writing this post, for one thing. I feel very happy to have spent as much time as I did with Open City’s Julius, though, and I hope that someday I’d be able to discuss this work with someone able to approach it differently than me.
And now, I want to discuss in detail a disturbing scene the book presents near its conclusion. Novels this light on plot don’t lend themselves to requiring spoiler-warnings, but this particular turn feels exceptional, so please continue reading this post at your own peril.
Moji, an attractive woman whose company Julius enjoys when among friends, gets him alone in the early morning hours after a Manhattan party and calmly accuses him of raping her at another, long-ago party. She goes into detail about the setting of the attack, the shame and pain she has felt ever since, and her more recent, quiet rage at recognizing her attacker — now a part of her social group in New York — but receiving no recognition in return. Julius’ first-person account unflinchingly transcribes her pages-long accusation, ending with a challenge for Julius to say anything at all. And, he does not; he leaves her, and the party, and describes a bizarre vision he has in the fresh air: how a hero of the ancient world once burned his own hand to prove his conviction in the face of doubters — and then how a young Nietzsche, moved by the story and feeling stymied by schoolmates, did the same. Then the chapter ends, and he writes of this no more, at least not directly.
This scene troubled me greatly, especially given its place in the book, right before the closing chapter. How was I meant to read it? As a confession? Oh yes, dear reader, I am a rapist, but I didn’t want to tell you until we had spent so much time together, and I was sure I could trust you with my terrible secret. And now I have told it — ahh, what a relief. Thank you. Well, so long! Possible, I suppose, but it didn’t sit right with me. There is shocking the audience with discordant notes, and then there’s pushing the piano into the orchestra pit. I very much wanted a different reading.
I remember the bodily flush of relief I felt the day after I first read this, when I realized suddenly that Julius had an alibi, since he didn’t emigrate to America until he was 17, years after the party Moji described. And then I re-read the scene and saw that she set the party in Lagos, not New York as I had misremembered, and my heart sank again.
At last I settled on this: without conscious effort, Julius connected the pain in his hand (from the muggers’ stomping it) with Moji’s accusation, and involuntarily drew the story of young Nietzsche out of his memory to bridge the two things. He feels certain of his own innocence, but he also felt sure that nothing he could have said or done in the situation could have more sense than just quietly leaving (and, presumably, severing social ties with that group). So shaken is he still, transcribing the account, that he cannot even attempt to write out a denial in retrospect. He must trust it as enough to hold up his injured hand, swathed in simile, as proof of his own honesty.
I really liked Julius a lot, and really need this to be true.