James Wood on Teju Cole

An extract from James Wood’s 2011 review of Open City for the New Yorker
Teju Cole, Open City
Teju Cole, Open City
Publishers now pitch their books like Hollywood concepts, so Teju Cole’s first novel, “Open City” (Random House; $25), is being offered as especially appealing to “readers of Joseph O’Neill and Zadie Smith,” and written in a prose that “will remind you” of W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee. This is shorthand for “post-colonialism in New York” (O’Neill), “lively multiracial themes” (Smith), “free-flowing form with no plot, narrated by a scholarly solitary walker” (Sebald), “obviously serious” (Coetzee), and “finely written” (all of the above). There is the additional comedy that Cole’s publishers, determined to retain the baby with the bathwater, boldly conjoin Smith and O’Neill, despite Smith’s hostility, advertised in an essay entitled “Two Paths for the Novel,” to O’Neill’s expensive and upholstered “lyrical realism.”

This busy campaign for allies does a disfavor to Teju Cole’s beautiful, subtle, and, finally, original novel. “Open City” is indeed largely set in a multiracial New York (the open city of the title). Cole is a Nigerian American; he grew up in Lagos, came to America in 1992, at the age of seventeen, and is a graduate student in art history at Columbia University. The book’s half-Nigerian, half-German narrator walks around New York (and, briefly, Brussels), and meets a range of people, several of them immigrants or emigrants: a Liberian, imprisoned for more than two years in a detention facility in Queens; a Haitian shoeshiner, at work in Penn Station; an angry Moroccan student, manning an Internet café in Brussels. This narrator has a well-stocked mind: he thinks about social and critical theory, about art (Chardin, Velázquez, John Brewster), and about music (Mahler, Peter Maxwell Davies, Judith Weir), and he has interesting books within easy reach—Roland Barthes’s “Camera Lucida,” Peter Altenberg’s “Telegrams of the Soul,” Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “The Last Friend,” Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism.”

W. G. Sebald
W. G. Sebald

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism. On the first page, the narrator tells us that he started to go on evening walks “last fall,” and found his neighborhood, Morningside Heights, “an easy place from which to set out into the city”; indeed, these walks “steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway.”

Teju Cole
Teju Cole

But I hope the prospective reader will turn that first page, because the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it: “When I turned around, I saw that I was at the entryway of the American Folk Art Museum. Never having visited before, I went in”; “In early December, I met a Haitian man in the underground catacombs of Penn Station”; “The days went by slowly, and my sense of being entirely alone in the city intensified”; “At the beginning of February, I went down to Wall Street to meet Parrish, the accountant who was doing my taxes, but I forgot to bring my checkbook”; “Last night, I attended the performance of the Ninth Symphony, which is the work Mahler wrote after Das Lied von der Erde.”

The narrator of “Open City,” Julius, is in his final year of a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian, and the book covers roughly a year, between the fall of 2006 and the late summer of 2007. He is around thirty, and tells us that he came to America as a university student. He is estranged from his German-born mother; his father died when he was fourteen. But these personal details are withheld over many pages, and only very gradually sifted into the narrative. They finally arrive at a curious angle, so that we always feel, not unpleasantly, that the book began before we started it. We learn about Julius’s being African, for instance, by following clues: first of all, he discusses Yoruba cosmology; then he goes to see the film “The Last King of Scotland,” and mentions that “I knew Idi Amin well, so to speak, because he’d been an indelible part of my childhood mythology.” On the next page, he mentions that he was a medical student in Madison, Wisconsin, and recalls an uncomfortable dinner experience there, when an Indian-Ugandan doctor, forced to flee the country by Idi Amin, announced to his guests that “when I think about Africans I want to spit”: “The bitterness was startling. It was an anger that, I couldn’t help feeling, was partly directed at me, the only other African in the room. The detail of my background, that I was Nigerian, made no difference, for Dr. Gupta had spoken of Africans.” After thirty or so pages, we have discovered that Julius is Nigerian, but only by indirection. There is an interesting combination of confession and reticence about Julius, and about how he sees the world, and, insofar as the novel has a story, this enigma of an illuminated shadow is it—which turns out to be all we need. [Read More]

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