Monday, October 28, 2013

Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?

I finished reading Teju Cole's Open City for the third time last month, a couple weeks ahead of my reading group's fifteenth anniversary. Open City was our group's 96th book, and the first novel I've read three times through in a very long while. I won't be surprised if I pick it up again before too long. It's that good; I strongly recommend it.

There's something to be said for the view that the novel form is, first and foremost, a window into the human heart and mind. Novels tend to have protagonists, and the form -- unlike a play or a film -- permits a novelist to portray protagonists from the inside. To pick from authors I've happened to read in the past year, Per Petterson, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Tóibín, Paul Harding, and Jonathan Safran Foer are novelists whose work is powerful largely because it resonates and surprises in its internal portrayal of character.

But protagonists whose hearts and minds are not laid bare to the reader can be brilliantly effective as well. In Open City, Teju Cole's protagonist -- Julius -- remains opaque even  to himself, and still shepherds the reader through a moving, provocative tour of his world and ours.

In Open City the protagonist, who also narrates, paints a deep, idiosyncratic, and psychologically acute portrait of a world at the intersection of New York  City, Brussels, and his childhood home in Nigeria -- and at the intersection of Yoruban, American (native, native-born, and a complex stew of immigrants), Moroccan, and European cultures -- but does so without sharing much insight into himself. Julius lives in New York, and as the novel opens is in the last year of a fellowship in psychiatry. Beyond Julius' intellectual qualities -- he is learned, inquisitive, sensitive to nuances of individual experience, a quiet listener, a keen observer, an articulate docent in the living museum of culture and history -- there's little more the reader gets to know of his character.

As far as learned observation goes, Julius offers discourses on the New York Marathon that touch on Phidippides and the physiology of long-distance running; when he encounters paintings by an early adopter of American Sign Language, the deaf artist John Brewster, Jr., he draws cultural arcs relating this nineteenth century painter to John Milton, Ray Charles, Jorge Luis Borges, and Johannes Vermeer; when a frail former professor's apartment is invaded by bedbugs, Julius illuminates the hardiness and intelligence of these pestilent creatures by describing observations and vaguely sadistic experiments conducted by an early twentieth century physician, Charles A. R. Campbell. (As a marker of the depth of research undertaken by Mr. Cole, or the erudition Julius possesses if one prefers to look through Cole's fictional lens, the observations of that early twentieth century physician appear to be drawn from Dr. Campbell's 1925 book Bats, Mosquitoes and Dollars, specifically from the section titled My Observations on Bedbugs.)

Yet when it comes to self-knowledge, Julius fumbles, conceals, or misses altogether. He repeatedly refers to and interacts with a close friend, but never gives his name: why the obfuscation? Pulled by a longing to reconnect with his maternal grandmother, Julius travels in the dead of winter to Brussels, but only searches halfheartedly for his oma; instead of purposeful focus, he meanders and meditates; explores relationships that will not encumber him, that have no chance of developing at any depth; then he returns to New York.

In the end, he is confronted by Moji, the forgotten sister of a nearly-forgotten childhood friend, re-encountered by chance in a New York supermarket. Moji eventually tells a harrowing tale of Julius' youthful villainy -- describing an event Julius claims he does not remember, though he does not deny that it might have occurred as Moji accuses. The reader is left to flounder. Certitude does not register as a possibility. Instead, a disquieting realization dawns: did Julius weave his densely patterned tale as an apologia, precisely to cast doubt in the reader's mind that Moji's charges are true?
Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people's stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. [...]

And so, what does it mean when, in someone else's version, I am the villain? I am only too familiar with bad stories -- badly imagined, or badly told -- because I hear them frequently from patients. I know the tells of those who blame others, those who are unable to see that they themselves, and not the others, are the common thread in all their bad relationships. There are characteristic tics that reveal the essential falsehood of such narratives. But what Moji had said to me that morning, before I left John's place, and gone up on the George Washington Bridge, and walked the few miles back home, had nothing in common with such stories. She had said it as if, with all of her being, she were certain of its accuracy.
Julius seduces the reader with his voice from the very start of Open City, an observation I made last year in the post First sentences in fiction. The fluid course he follows through the warp and weft of observed character, artifact, memory, and forgotten history fascinates. Julius is a compelling protagonist not because we learn to see him. The reader is never permitted to do so. Julius is compelling because he draws the world he sees so vividly, at a layered depth that astonishes.

It occurred to me during my third read of the novel that the author is rendering in a kind of slow motion the world of deeply particular information that seems universally accessible now that most in the developed world, and many elsewhere, have the world's libraries at our fingertips, the intertubes in our pockets for many of us, or -- paraphrasing Samuel R. Delany from one of that author's poetic titles, stars in [our] pocket[s] like grains of sand. A world in which, as Julius does, one might stumble on a monument a few blocks from New York's City Hall that "turned out to be [...] a memorial for the site of an African burial ground" and be able (by the grace of Google, Wikipedia, and the like) to know almost effortlessly that:
Into this earth had been interred the bodies of some fifteen to twenty thousand blacks, most of them slaves, but then the land had been built over and the people of the city had forgotten that it was a burial ground. It had passed into private and civic ownership. [...] In the green grass and bright sun, in the shadow of government and the marketplace, I had no purchase on who these people were whose corpses, between the 1690s and 1795, had been laid to rest beneath my feet. It was here, on the outskirts of the city at the time, north of Wall Street and so outside civilization as it was then defined, that blacks were allowed to bury their dead. Then the dead return when, in 1991, construction of a building on Broadway and Duane brought human remains to the surface. They had been buried in white shrouds. The coffins that were discovered, some four hundred of them, were almost all found to have been oriented toward the east.
But the method and ease by which we 21st Centurions can punch up information on our smartphones and iThings is not the same as knowledge, let alone the wisdom that comes of scholarship. I am far from the first to see kinship between the work of Teju Cole and that of the late W. G. Sebald, whose life extended less than a decade into the era of the World Wide Web, and whose work is also filled with discursive historical and quasi-historical tangents (cf., for example, Miguel Syjuco in the NY Times on 25 Feb 2011, These Crowded Streets).

Both these novelists offer their readers a dizzying view of the depth and breadth of foundation beneath each of our hurried, modern moments, the burial grounds beneath our shiny new buildings, the obsession and power and villainy and grief that is forgotten with each sweep of our Earth around its Sun ... Google and Wikipedia be damned. It is the authors' poetic selection and ordering of these views that builds their aggregate power, not the now-trivial fact of information available on-demand.

Perhaps the finest insight I've been granted into Open City came from a member of my reading group, P--, who is also a friend and a colleague. At one point during our group's meeting earlier this month we were discussing the novel's title, and the prominence of Brussels in it, and the fact that Belgium declared Brussels an "open city" in 1940, suffering the invasion of Nazi Germany in order to spare the city and its people the worst ravages of war.

In declaring itself defenseless, Brussels surrendered its identity in order to save its corporeal life and lives, gave itself up in order to preserve its accreted, built and living history. Perhaps, P-- suggested, Julius is himself a kind of open city: he has given up his self, his personality, an identity that could have been revealed in the novel he inhabits, but is not -- in order to direct a reader's gaze toward long and powerful tides of human culture and history.

It worked for me.

Teju Cole is, according to his web site, currently working on a non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos. I expect it will be well worth reading.

Thanks to Teju Cole for the author photo made available on his website.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
First sentences in fiction
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

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