Open City

Author: Teju ColePublisher: Faber and Faber

Can an author truly dislike his or her narrator? When writing American Psycho, a novel which, incidentally, turns twenty one years old this March, did Bret Easton Ellis grow to despise Patrick Bateman not only for his brutality, but for his banal obsession with pointless detail? Or rather, did he find in Bateman a way of amplifying and exploring his own subclinical personality traits?

The reader’s perception of the relationship between the author and narrator is vital to his or her understanding and enjoyment of the novel.  Should the reader fail to identify Bateman as both an unreliable narrator and a darkly satirical portrait of New York’s 1980s yuppie milieu, it is only a matter of pages before he or she begins to hate the sociopathic stockbroker along with the sick mind that conceived him.

Let it be said that Julius, the narrator of Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City, is by no means a psychopath. He is, however, an aloof, pretentious and easily dislikable character. The novel is set in New York City where the thirty something year old Julius, a psychiatrist of Nigerian and German extraction, is completing a research fellowship. His sense of disconnection with the city and its inhabitants lead him to walk the city streets alone, adopting the role of the detached urban wanderer.

The novel itself is a series of fragmented walking narratives, interspersed with clipped internal monologues and flashbacks to Julius’s privileged childhood in Nigeria.  The narrator’s stance shares an unusual kinship with that of the nineteenth century Parisian flâneur. Louis Huart’s illustrations of the ambling aristocratic man-about-town capture this stance most accurately: here, the flâneur poses with the utmost disdain, his gaze drawn elsewhere, yet his elbow pointing directly at the viewer. His haughty body language suggests that we may view him, admire him, but never draw too close.

In many respects, Julius is a contemporary literary incarnation of this figure: an old world modernist device re-deployed to examine the twenty first century new world metropolis.

Each of the many passages which describe walking in New York are crafted beautifully and mapped accurately against the Manhattan gridiron. They pay testament to the author’s keen eye for urban detail. Cole is particularly fascinated by the visible and invisible boundaries that crosshatch the city. Whilst walking from his place of work, Julius observes:

“…the temper of the neighbourhood changed, and the hospital campus, as though the past had suddenly transformed into the present, gave way to the barrio…From the intersection of 172nd Street, the George Washington Bridge came into view for the first time, its lights soft yellow points in the gray distance. I walked past shops selling knickknacks, the sprawling window display of El Mundo Department store, and the perpetually popular restaurant El Malecon, to which I occasionally came for dinner.”

Within the space of a few blocks, Julius observes “The stairs brought me into the dead end of Pinehurst, a different world from the busy street life a few dozen yards below: residential buildings, a richer, whiter neighbourhood.” The narrator’s observations reiterate Robert E. Park’s metaphor regarding the diversity of New York City: “a mosaic of little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate.”

As Julius moves through the city, he is distinctly aware of his ‘otherness’. Nineteenth century Parisian flânerie was a reaction against being, to borrow from Baudelaire, “imprisoned like a mollusc” in the private sphere. In Julius, there is evidence of that same restlessness – a need to venture beyond the ‘little world’ which contains him.

The flâneur’s search is ultimately for a sense of place, or belonging. Julius is essentially confounded by his own rootlessness. He displays an explicit discomfort and self consciousness when interacting with African Americans, and is particularly troubled by the use of the term ‘brother’. Yet, in what he deems ‘all-white spaces’ of the city, such as the opera, he is also presumes that white New Yorkers find it ‘odd’ to see “me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand”.

Julia Kristeva stated in Strangers to Ourselves that “indifference is the foreigner’s shield”. Each of Julius’s interactions with others is met with the utmost indifference. For example, whilst on Christmas vacation in Brussels, he meets Farouq, an angry young intellectual with Marxist tendencies who works behind the counter of an internet café. Their political debates prove to be some of the most engaging passages in the novel. And still, Julius detaches himself in moments of charged emotion: “he had brought me too close to his pain, and I no longer saw him”.

Julius’s reserved nature can prove frustrating for the reader. His tendency to keep others at arms length means that we never come to know or understand other characters in the novel. Furthermore, Cole appears to be trapped into writing in a stiff, formal style to match the characteristics of his narrator. At best, this approach reads as a well measured series of discrete diary entries, an achievement in itself. However, there is also a sense that Cole has reigned in his literary talent ever so slightly by maintaining this tone throughout.

At its worst, Open City can be read as an egotistical monologue.  Julius is an intolerable braggart who, unprompted recounts his “fearlessness” when rescuing a drowning boy as a child: “The other children, shocked into inaction by his distress…I don’t remember deliberating, or considering any danger to myself, only that I set off in his direction as fast as I could”.

He too is a “watcher of words” – whilst conversing with Farouq he takes issue with his use of the term ‘autodidact’ in reference to Mohamed Choukri: “This was a small instance, not of unreliability, but of a certain imperfection in Farouq’s recall which, because of the absolute sureness of his manner, it was easy to miss. It in any case made me revise my previous impression of his sharpness, even if only modestly”.

And whilst relaxing with ‘friends’ at a picnic in Central Park, he is all too eager to ridicule his patients: “there is always a fund of humorous tales from the horror of mental illness, particularly in the ranks of the paranoid”.

The more the reader learns about Julius, the more we dislike him. However, we are in constant wonder as to whether Cole condones his narrator’s pretentious utterances. For example, after overhearing Chinese street musicians playing at Bowling Green, Julius comments: “I thought of Li Po and Wang Wei, of Harry Partch’s pitch bending songs, and of Judith Weir’s opera The Consolations of Scholarship”. In instances such as this, we hope that the author is holding up his narrator as a satirical example of the intellectual showoff. Cole’s position, however, is never truly explicit.

Julius name drops artists, writers and literary theorists in the same manner in which Patrick Bateman name drops fashion designers, to the point that his insights become uninformative and banal. Repeatedly checking names such as Benjamin and Camus overexposes the mechanics of the novel. These writers amongst others, have had a clear influence on the structure, tone and content of Open City and their ghostly presence is palpable throughout. As a consequence, Teju Cole’s debut can at times read like a novel that has been intentionally constructed around a fixed set of literary theories.

Despite these criticisms, Open City is a fascinating book. Julius may be dislikable, but he offers a razor sharp psychological insight into the certainties and vagaries of human recall – as laid bare by a stunning revelation from his past. Furthermore, Cole’s street by street depiction of Manhattan’s neighbourhoods is equally stunning. However, the reader’s over all enjoyment of the book is heavily determined by his or her perception and/or tolerance of its uptight and rather finicky narrator. In which case, many copies of Open City may, somewhat sadly, be left abandoned on the nightstand, half read.

Leave a Reply