Open City by Teju Cole

Perhaps the most enticing thing I can say about this Book Critics Circle Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner is that it pairs very nicely with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In my opinion, these were, by a wide margin, the two strongest novels of the 2012 Tournament of Books, though only Open City made it to the Finals.

The pairing works because both engage in issues relating to the construction of personal identity, guilt/culpability, and history. In blogging serendipity, both Whispering Gums and Pechorin’s Journal posted reviews of The Sense of an Ending on the same (April 25) day and both have sparked considerable discussion. If you have read A Sense of an Ending, or even if you haven’t, I recommend both reviews and the following discussions.

Open City warrants equal attention. Julius, the narrator, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. He has taken to walking around New York City aimlessly. Much of this novel is filled with his ruminations while walking, such as about bird migrations and whether his interest in bird migrations is connected to his new habit of wandering the streets. He considers what New York looks like from the perspective of geese and, importantly, when he sees no migrating geese from his apartment window:

I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.

There is, of course, more than birds. The passage is important because memory haunts this book and this is one of the first hints of its importance and malleability. The climax of this book is a revelation about the past that alters the reader’s understanding of everything that has gone before.

Along the way, Cole weaves his story with strands of fascinating minutia, from those birds to Herman Melville to classical music to Nabokov to the slave trade to terrorism and all manner of other things, literary and otherwise. The references are not just random bits thrown on the canvas, though, each is carefully selected for how it will impact the whole. Julius, telling this story in the first person, is not as aimless as his wanderings suggest. While he is “conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly”, he shows very little emotion throughout the novel. He gains some trust with his detachment, a reservedness that suggests open and objective reporting.

Julius is a wonderfully astute observer, which also strengthens his credibility. He highlights little details of city life in thoughtful, sometime humbling ways. A man walking home alone after finishing the marathon is, at first, pitied for having no friends or family to share in his accomplishment, but, as the marathoner and Julius walk beside each other, Julius considers the strength of will it takes to finish a marathon. He moves from the burst of energy at the end of the marathon to the pain of the “the nineteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-first mile[s].” Completing a marathon is, he says, “still remarkable no matter how many people do it now.” After having really considered marathoning, Julius realizes that the marathoner walking gingerly home was not a sad figure, but a triumphant one.

It was I, no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.

These little illuminations of the beauty of the routine make this novel sparkle. They also each build towards that radical late shift. The story of the marathoner provides a miniature of the bigger story: An initial scene creates a particular impression, in the case of the marathon it is the pitiful man trudging home anonymously, but reflection and revelation shift the meaning and, hence, the final impression that is left.

Whispering Gums (link above) makes an interesting connection between The Sense of an Ending and The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Open City is not really anything like that. Julius is, unlike Tony, not a bystander to life. He is sufficiently ambitious to make it from his native Nigeria to America through medical school and what appears to be a very solid, if not spectacular, career. Julius had to assert himself to make these things happen and he is much younger than Tony. Tony’s “melancholic tone” based on opportunities missed is absent here, but oddly mirrored in Julius’s clinical detachment from his own life.

The books are not exactly the same, however much the focus can turn to “what really happened?” Neither The Sense of an Ending (see Pechorin’s Journal link above) nor Open City are primarily concerned with presenting a mystery to be solved. The actual facts are, in at least some sense, irrelevant.

In Barnes’s work, this is because a major focus of the book is on how memory, all memory, is faulty. Constructing an “actual” past is a fool’s errand, in some ways, because, to borrow from Heisenberg’s insights into quantum physics, the mere recollection (observation) of one’s own memories alters them. It is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the essential variables of events in one’s past.

Cole has a slightly different focus. While I do not think this Copenhagen interpretation of memory is irrelevant to the story Julius tells, because there is some uncertainty there, it is more sideshow than main feature. Cole is more concerned with how personal narratives are constructed, particularly including value judgments, than with the unreliability of memory (or narrative). This is one of the more interesting parts of Barnes’s work too. After all, what really is interesting is how the recognition of the incompleteness of Tony’s memories reorders the value judgments placed on prior (undisputed) actions and inactions. Villians may be heros, or not. Cole confronts the reader with a similar principle of moral uncertainty. There are depths to be spelunked.

And amid all this, those delightful observations of small things:

The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.

I will leave with one last, sort of spoilerish conjecture. I am not sure of the meaning of those last 175 dead wrens. That so many birds died despite the fact that “the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark” suggests something sinister about the flame, about the statue of liberty itself. Freedom comes up several times in the book. Julius finds freedom in his wanderings, there is the story of the shoeshiner who purchases the freedom of his sister, his wife, and himself, and the Brussels discussion of freedom, including the comparisons of freedom in Europe with that in America. American freedom “form[s] and sharpen[s]” people in unique ways, Julius suggests. For some, of course, the contact with American freedom is radicalizing.

I have not formed a clear idea of how this sinister side of American freedom fits in with the story-altering revelation. Julius is very careful to construct this portrait of a respectable, if disconcertingly aloof, man who cares about the arts, philosophy, history, and his fellow man. He is always polite, if not very warm, and he has come from difficult circumstances in Nigeria to success in America. That final detail brings new meaning to his demeanor, making it seem frosty rather than reserved.

My first impulse had been to equate the disorienting light of the Statute of Liberty to our own impulse to believe in our goodness. Like the promises of America, our own freedom of memory can disorient and destroy. The flame can guide some to safety and opportunity, others it destroys.

The error I have made, I think, is in trying too hard to boil Cole’s excellently crafted ending into a nicely summarized philosophical point. The birds simply are dead and the emotions there are quite similar to the emotions upon learning that final fact about Julius (and his own reaction to it). There is an inchoate sadness; the tragedy feels unfinished, an explanation is needed. But all we have are wrens, dead for reasons unknown.

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5 Responses to Open City by Teju Cole

  1. winstonsdad says:

    I ve had this on my wishlist for ages hope to se it at my library or second hand as I think every review I ve read has enjoyed it ,all the best stu

    • Kerry says:

      I think this will definitely be right up your alley. It is very good and has some international flavor to it (Nigeria, Brussels). I will be looking forward to your thoughts when you snag a copy.

  2. Lovely review Kerry. I had planned to start this one recently, but events got in the way. You’ve reminded me to bump it back up the pile. Love the swings quote.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Max. I anticipate you will enjoy this, particularly given your reaction to The Sense of an Ending. It is worth it and it is full of beautiful little quotes like that.

  3. […] though it may just be that I’m not finding them. Hungry Like the Woolf’s review is here, and is good on the birds and makes some interesting contrasts with Julian Barnes’ Sense of […]

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