Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Living in the World but in Exile from Almost Everyplace (Books - Open City by Teju Cole)

Teju Cole's Open City received strong responses from crack critics and fellow bloggers and made a number of Top 10 fiction lists for the year, persuading me to check it out. In it Julius, a Nigerian immigrant to America who is completing his final year of psychiatry residency at Columbia, walks the streets of New York City. Although the book is short, it does not invite quick reading. The emphasis is not on any sort of plot, but the novel seethes with ideas and scenes of humanity, otherworldly fantasy, and terrific tension.

The form of Open City is a flaneur's diary, only in the case of Julius, his strolls are not idle. He seems to be running from something. Coles's evocation of the
complexity and aggression of the city strongly evoked Dostoevsky, but his stream-of-consciousness prose reminded me most of Virginia Woolf as she portrays the inner journey of Clarissa Dalloway by allowing us to trail her as she runs errands in preparation for her dinner party. Cole's novel follows Julius's movements while revealing his experience, mostly related to identity, as it intersects with geography, politics, and culture. The rhythm of Julius's movement is more desultory than Clarissa's and his task less directed. Julius collects information and regales us with his knowledge - about early Dutch settlers treatment of Native Americans, the music of Gustav Mahler, the photography Martin Munkacsi. The writing lingers in this empirical data but knowledge is not necessarily connection, and Julius's experience is one of exile. This, as I read it, was the theme of Open City - not merely exile from one's place of birth, true for both Julius and for Cole - but also the sense of exile experienced by groups which society has decided to set apart by creating different expectations of them. Cole discusses the experiences of blacks in America, Muslims in America and northern Europe, jews, Palestinians, and gay people, and Cole provokes the reader's expectations of what qualities their identities should confer upon his characters, sometimes by meeting typical s expectations of them and at other times by defeating them. If you're black you're supposed to be a thug, not a doctor, certainly not a Mahler lover. If you are gay, you're supposed to be a club boy, not an octogenarian Asian physician...and blacks are all brothers to each other - aren't they?
At the almost empty subway station, there was a family of out-of-towners waiting for the train. A girl of thirteen sat on the bench next to me. Her ten-year-old brother came to join her. They were out of earshot of their parents who, save one or two unconcerned glances in our direction, were absorbed in their own conversation. Her mister, she said, turning to me, wassup? She made signs with her fingers and, with her brother, started laughing. The little boy wore an imitation Chinese peasant's hat. They had been mimicking slanted eyes and exaggerated bows before they came to where I was. They now both turned to me. Are you a gangster, mister? Are you a gangster? They both flashed gang signs, or their idea of gang signs. I looked at them. It was midnight, and I didn't feel like giving public lectures. He's black, said the girl but he's not dressed like a gangster. I bet he's a gangster, her brother said. I bet he is. Hey mister, are you a gangster?
And then, only pages later...
Not good, not good at all, you know, the way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad. Hey, I'm African just like you, why you do this? He kept me in his sights in the mirror. I was confused, I said, I'm so sorry about it, my mind was elsewhere, don't be offended, ehn, my brother, how are you doing? He said nothing and faced the road. I wasn't sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me...
Initially, I was unsure as to whether I was reading a fictionalized pastiche of Teju Cole's life and little mini-lectures on every magazine article or museum exhibit he was obsessed with at the moment of writing it, or whether I was reading fiction. I came to understand this novel as fiction and then admire its artistry, even if its origins are partly autobiographical, because Cole's writing makes it clear that he has greater insight into Julius than Julius does himself, because his walks accumulate meaning that is greater than the sum of the individual episodes, and because my very confusion between writer and narrator became obvious in time as the book's artifice.

Despite the largely meditative tone, there were some striking moments, including Julius's encounters with his memorably written friend and mentor, Dr. Saito, and a particularly dramatic scene during which Julius, trying to exit Carnegie Hall, gets locked out on the roof. Here, he is suspended between the heavens he can see on that cold clear night from the roof, and the wailing sirens on the street he may fall on to, the mundanity of practical life and the ephemera of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, here, he tells us, he faced a "solitude of rare purity," an arresting evocation of of the complex state we come to recognize as Julius's.

In a visit Julius makes to Brussels, we learn that...
...there had been no firebombing of Bruges, or Ghent, or Brussels. Surrender, of course, played a role in this form of survival, as did negotiation with invading powers. Had Brussels's rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War, it might have been reduced to rubble. It might have been another Dresden. As it was, it had remained a vision of the medieval and baroque periods, a vista interrupted only by the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II in the late nineteenth century.
During my visit, the mild winter weather and the old stones lay a melancholy siege on the city. It was, in some ways, like a city in waiting...
Julius may seek freedom from burdensome ties in the comfort of information, however, he too seems to live his life in waiting. Contemporary global culture may offer the potential for previously unseen interactions and opportunities but it confers upon modern life almost unfathomable complexity. Coles's novel is a thoughtful meditation on a paradoxical sense of exile that arises in a thoughtful modern man living in just such a world - our world.

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