Sunday, June 03, 2012

An open city

I really wanted to like Open City, by Teju Cole. The more I read about it during this year's Tournament of Books, the more I wanted to read it for myself. I even began cheering for it, and even though it lost the championship round, when next I passed through a bookstore and saw it, I had to have it. (Also, I think the cover is gorgeous!)

I was drawn in by its meandering approach. I thought, this is a novel I could write. I walk around my city and think about stuff all the time. The narrator wanders and drops into places and thinks. I didn't think that counted among major publishers as a novel these days. I could do that.

There are things I don't really like about Julius. He's a little self-righteous. He saves lives, he reminds us. He's a little too well read with too much cultured leisure for someone in their final year of residency. Pretentious (the character, the author, the book? — I'm not sure).

Despite his supposed worldliness, Julius (born and raised in Nigeria, a German mother — we never know why they are estranged) is very much American. When he visits Belgium, "I felt suddenly, an irrational shame at speaking French badly and Flemish not at all." This statement rankles. One should feel shame in this situation, it's most rational, isn't it? So I think it's at this point that my feelings about Julius, and the novel, coalesce into something more negative.

(And why does he always refer to his friend as "my friend"? Why is his friend the only character without a name? Is it the same friend thoughout?)

This review in the Guardian comes closest to expressing my distaste for Julius:

Part of the delight of Cole's book is how it exploits refinement until Julius reveals himself as a poseur through intellectual over-reaching, disclosing an irony for which readers may not be prepared. One instance of this comes when Chinese musicians in a park remind him "of Li Po and Wang Wei, of Harry Partch's pitch-bending songs, and of Judith Weir's opera The Consolations of Scholarship".

How to read Open City is obliquely signalled by these pretentious pratfalls. In the notes of the trumpet of another Chinese band, Julius hears the "spiritual cousins of the offstage clarion in Mahler's Second Symphony". I'm not a musician, but I suspect that's twaddle. But when he hears, in the same tune, the "simple sincerity of songs I had last sung in the school yard of the Nigerian Military School", and is returned, trembling, to a state of childhood innocence, the observation has the force of something genuine. The little emotional space to which no one else in the city is likely to have access is much more important than the public-facing attitudes of the cultural dandy.

I don't generally judge books, or movies, etc, by the virtues of their characters — I love a good antihero — but in this case, there's little more to the story than what Julius thinks about a broad range of topics. Nothing to hang it all together.

My final verdict: overrated. But. While I don't see myself pressing Open City into people's hands, I do wish there'd been people reading along with me. I'm not very interested in what people think of Julius, or his experiences. More interesting are the people he encounters, their hard experiences, and his tangents of thought (is this the point of the book? that Julius is in many ways, after all, immigrant status aside, privileged or lucky? that this earns him the right to be condescending and this is the controversial point on which the "story" hinges? his self-centredness?). I see this novel as a great springboard for other discussions, to talk about, for example, Idi Amin, or reverse racism, Zionism, Sharia, or immigration, or our relationships with our neighbours, or taxicab etiquette. In many ways it's a worthwhile book, for what it inspires me to think about, but not as a novel.

One might assume the title to be referring to New York, but it's Brussels that during WWII explicitly declared itself an open city to be spared bombardment. To be an open city reeks of defeat, surrender, hypocrisy, even collusion, and I realize now maybe that's what this post-9/11 novel is about.
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