Book 5 – Reads of the Year – Open City

I’m realizing I’d better hurry up with this list. The year’s going to be over in a minute, and I’m running out of time.

I’d originally intended to save this choice for last on this list, which I’ve often said is given in no particular order. I’d thought of doing Open City last, though, because my experience of the book has been so special.

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Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize, though, that if I don’t get this out more quickly, I’ll be the last person in the world to recommend this novel. In recent weeks, I’ve seen it touted in year’s-best lists just about everywhere, NPR, The New Yorker, The new York Times, Atlantic, and on, and on.

But anticlimactic as this might be in one sense, I feel good for having discovered this novel early in its publishing run, before many reviews had appeared at all. Indeed, I remember my puzzlement as I plugged it to friends and relatives while some of those early critics seemed not to know what to make of this highly original, deeply wonderful voice.

In retrospect, there’s little wonder. Teju Cole doesn’t fit easily into in the crude and reductionist landscape of American notions of race. Here is a man who is black, and yet European, African and yet American, luxuriantly at ease in the street, but as a purest sort of flaneur, and as someone unwilling to comply with anyone else’s projected notions of what, or who he should be.

We’re not used to this kind of stuff, and for some readers the effect is apparently confusing. What to make of a black man whose curiosity and learning are near universal, who loves classical music, and poetry, and visiting museums and is comfortably at home in the realm of ideas? For some of the early critics, Cole was pretentious. As I understood it, that meant that he was a kind of trespasser; someone who had no business straying from the themes we are accustomed to assigning to or expecting from black authors.

Open City is not a big novel, but it is a grand one, and that is down to the freedom of its author, and of its main character, Julius, to explore identity and beyond the question-asking, to assert identity as a genuine individual. In this, he is an equal opportunity defender of a hard-won independence. Witness, for example, the scene when an African taxi driver in New York City reproaches him for not engaging in a breezy “brotherly” banter when he enters his cab in a rain storm. “He said 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.” In some ways, this scene is characteristic of the entire book, which is built around encounters that bring Julius up short, or cause him to reevaluate things; to question himself and most certainly to question others.

Cole’s Julius  calls himself “one  of those people, the overinterpreters,” and this is an apt description for his way of being, for his M.O.

Alone, Julius goes to the movies and settles into his seat in the darkened cave. “The jaunty credit sequence featured music from the right time, but not from the right part of Africa: what had Mali to do with Kenya? But I had come prepared to like some things about the film, and I expected some other things would annoy me. Another film I had watched the previous year, about the crimes of large pharmaceutical companies in East Africa, had left me feeling frustrated, not because of its plot, which was plausible, but because of the film’s fidelity to the convention of the good white man in Africa. Africa was always waiting, a substrate for the white man’s will, a backdrop for his activities.”

It wouldn’t do to lay out a synopsis here, or even to give a clearer sense of the story. There is an important back story about a failed relationship, and there are many other meditations on loss. Give the book a chance, and you’ll be grateful to Cole for sharing his deeply layered world with you. One wishes to say a word about the writing itself, though, which is one of the book’s great pleasures.

Listen here, as Cole renders Manhattan:

“This strangest of islands, I though, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused. I stood on the promenade and looked out across the water into the unresponsive night. All was quiet and lights called from the Jersey shore across.”

Or this.

“I have always had a problem with the shoeshine business, and even on those rare occasions when I wished to have my scuffed shoes cleaned, some egalitarian spirit kept me from doing so… But on this occasion, I stopped and looked into the brightly lit interior which, with all its mirrors and tufted seats upholstered in vinyl, reminded me of an empty barbershop. An elderly black man I hadn’t noticed stood up, waved, and said, Come in, come in, I’ll shine them very well for you. I shook my head quickly, and raised a hand to decline but, not wanting to disappoint him, gave in. I stepped inside and got up on the little stepping stool, and sat in one of the buffoonish red thrones, toward the back of the shop. The air was laced with lemon oil and turpentine. His hair was curly and white, as were his sideburns, and he wore a dirty aprom, striped blue and white. It wasn’t easy to guess his age; he was no longer young, but he was sprightly. A bootblack, not a shoeshiner: the older term seemed right for him. He said, You just relax, I’ll make this black as black as night for you. And, with that peculiar sense of metamorphosis one experiences on waking up from an afternoon nap to find that the sun has set, I heard for the first time the faint trace of a Caribbean French accent in his clear, quiet baritone. My name is Pierre, he said…”

There are many, many such vivid and textured flourishes throughout the novel, which from start to finish this reader found acutely observed, refreshingly thoughtful and richly rewarding.

My other picks so far:

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