Open City, by Teju Cole, Faber, $29.99
I suspect every reviewer of Teju Cole’s Open City will note how he walks in the shadow of W.G. Sebald. They’ll probably refer to J.M. Coetzee, whose Elizabeth Costello is mentioned, twice, by the book’s narrator. They might dispense with the story simply: Julius, a young psychiatrist of Nigerian and German descent, wanders the streets of New York and Brussels observing strangers and sometimes talking to them; he examines his actions and those of others, and composes his thoughts in writing. These are obvious truths, and rather dull.
I want to suggest a much older and odder lineage for the kind of superior literary ‘faction’ Cole has written. Open City draws on art criticism, social critique, philosophy, essay and memoir. With notable exceptions, these forms have been the preserve of nonfiction since the Enlightenment and the rise of the novel – a genre that continues to dominate creative fiction.
Before the Age of Reason, borders between fiction and nonfiction were more porous, as they are again in the wake of modernism. Have we returned to a world in which reason and sentiment, thought and emotion, criticism and art, scholarship and imagination, are encouraged to fuse and enrich our literature?
It appears eccentric, but it is no coincidence Open City reminded me of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy – a compendious exploration of Jacobean sadness which captures every intellectual current of the age, meandering through a miscellany from debt to witchcraft. In its quiet way, Cole’s novel harnesses the singular experience of solitary contemplation to the same broad ambition in our own time.
Burton was a deeply melancholy Oxford don. He would “stroll down to Folly Bridge and recreate himself by listening to the vigorous back-chat of the bargees”. Julius does likewise – and if the 21st-century metropolis offers more opportunity for diversion than 17th-century Oxford, Julius’ walks remain as haunted by history as Burton was by the poetry of the ancients (or, for that matter, as Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is by the past glories and present desuetude of the East Anglian coast).
Of the city, Burton quotes a passage from Lucian, where the spectral ferryman, Charon, is taken to a vantage from which he can observe the whole world: he could discern cities like so many hives of bees, wherein every bee had a sting, and they did naught else but sting one another… “O fools, O madmen!” he exclaims, “Mad endeavours, mad actions, mad, mad, mad … a giddy-headed age.”
Charon and Olympus have been replaced by palliative care and Google Earth, but who could doubt our giddy-headedness?
Uncannily, both ferryman and bees make appearances in Open City. Julius daydreams of his dead father, coins over his sockets to pay passage to the underworld. Spying bees hovering over a boxwood hedge, he riffs into Yoruba cosmology: “the supreme deity Olodumare: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees”. Later, the insects return – first as a metaphor to explain suicide bombing, and finally through “colony collapse syndrome”, the mysterious decimation of many species.
Against the odds, fragments of myth and the tattered remnants of nature continue to insist themselves in urban environments. One of the chief attractions of Cole’s prose is the subtle, elegiac layering of them into suggestive cycles of generation, violence and extinction.
Cole’s panoramic view of the city comes not from above, but from within: on street corners and at subway air-conditioning units, before forgotten paintings, fatal photographs and ambiguous monuments. Stories of little people in big cities proliferate, collide, and careen away: a fiercely intelligent, resentful Moroccan literature graduate, facing discrimination in Belgium; a dying Japanese professor, interned during WWII; and among Julius’ many patients, an elderly veteran – a man I confess to thinking was white, until a last-minute detail revealed otherwise, leaving me perturbed at my own unconscious bias.
Julius himself is brilliant, reticent and sensitive, wounded in a way he can’t quite articulate. He may even be depressed – many attracted to his profession have their own, secret reasons. Julius won’t tell you about his mother, but he possesses vast resources for coping with loneliness. He reads Barthes, listens to Mahler; he engages in sophisticated reflection on a Montaigne-like array of topics – migration, terrorism, ethnic and racial politics, jazz, postcolonial theory, mental illness, and global ecology.
Cole broaches often heavy subjects with a gossamer touch, revealing counterintuitive truths, and sometimes contradictory ones left suspended without final judgement. His prose isn’t written, it’s composed; his ideas are delicately mused upon. Open City is at once a sentimental journey and a perceptive anatomy of the 21st century’s most perplexing questions. It shows us what a fragile, solitary thing the life of the mind is, and how necessary to a deep understanding of pleasure in all its faculties.