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52 Books #32: Open City

September 30, 2011

Arriving garlanded with praise, Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Faber) tells the story of Julius, a psychologist who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Manhattan. Julius walks a trail blazed by Leopold Bloom and other literary flaneurs, seeking to alleviate the pressures of his personal and professional life by walking his home city, observing, cataloguing, thinking.

Open City is structured as a novel, and there are some recurring characters and low-key revelations to be found in the last fifty or so pages; up until then, the book’s 21 chapters seem so self-contained and meditative that they could almost be read in random order — their sometimes oddly abrupt conclusions are matched in the final chapter, which ends with what I suspect is a very deeply considered and densely allusive final scene describing the numbers of birds which used to die flying into the flaming torch held in the Statue of Liberty’s hand. A wonderful metaphoric image anyway, it comes at the end of a book which is about identity and belonging, and is given to us by a character among whose many interests is birdwatching: so why is it that it doesn’t seem like a beautiful end to the book?

Partly it’s because the book is both very densely written and loosely structured. Julius’s nighttime walks round Manhattan are enlivened by no special events; when there is incident — as in a mugging which seems to stem partly from our narrator’s own naivety, his smiling greeting seeming to turn two passersby into assailants — it’s rendered in the same daydreamy way as his musings and meditations on art and his own past. It’s difficult to maintain this tone for a whole book, but Open City‘s great success is that the reader never fails to believe in this unworldly, wide-eyed, intriguing and frustrating character. Unlike some reviewers, I took Julius’s pronouncements more or less at face value — they can be fatuous and rather po-faced, but Cole didn’t seem to me to be inviting us to mock Julius.

It’s a strange, beguiling, sometimes frustrating novel, reminiscent both in its good and bad aspects of Saul Bellow, whose work I sometimes enjoy but never really love. Likewise Open City, a little too open, is easy to admire, hard to take fully to heart.

 

Other reading in Week #32:

Francis Spufford Red Plenty (Faber)

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