, Teju Cole's début novel, is a strangely wonderful perambulatory reading experience: insightful, lyrical, decidedly modern and politically prescient. However despite it's numerous successes the overall novel feels a bit like an attempt. In Barthes' "The Death of the Author" he writes (which feels to me too perfect a description of the present novel to ignore):
The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture. Similar to Bouvard and Pécuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth, of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture which is anterior, never original. His power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them
Often authors are discussed in terms of their "influences": the seams of borrowed thread which prop up at odd corners of the text: which flash a bit of foreign color, tantalize our collective literary memories. Cole's novel is very much a tapestry of these imitations. This is not to say that the novel is not well written, or unoriginal, but that what it borrows exceeds what it bears. "Sebaldian," "Proustian," even a bit of a Barthesian or Benjaminian ("Benjaminisch
"?) cultural skepticism and lyrical insight: all of these influences are present, but they feel a bit to bare. Sebald's Rings of Saturn
is the closest mother of Cole's Open City
But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.
If one were to replace "writing" with "walking" it would believably be an excerpt from Cole's novel. The novel's texture is one of sinusoidal dips into memory from the present: there is little plot in the present (and in fact, little plot which directly concerns the protagonist, Julius), but a deep plenitude which lies in the past. "Each one of us carries within himself his necropolis
" said Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, a sentiment which is manifest manifold in Open City
, wherein the city may very well be the city of the dead, a necropolis of memories walking among the living: always boiling at the surface, constantly re-forming the present.
To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.
For Cole, the past is a reflection of the present: a point-for-point double, a mime. As one ages, as there are many aged and aging figures in Open City
: from Prof. Saito to Dr. Mailotte, the equilibrium between the power of reflection and the power of the living self shifts: in death one is all reflection, all past and no present. In this view, we are all eased into death by our memories, and when we die out memories live without us: shadows on the edifice of time.
What Cole achieves, which breaks from his strong literary traditions in Sebald and Proust, is a distinctly American flavor. The "American issue" is race, has always been race, and Cole's novel is concerned as much with race and Deleuzian "difference" as it is with memory and walking. Throughout the book there are a number of unusual conversations about race, that take place casually: in the street, at the telephone booth, etc. and Cole's view seems basically to be culminated in Farouq: "There’s always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has the noble ideas; I disagree with this expectation."
Throughout the many disparate narratives: of war, violence, discrimination and revolution, the policy of civil disobedience is called into question over and over, and the narrator is especially attuned to the diversity which is around him. His view of the world is one which is sinister, sometimes cruel, but which he seems vaguely removed from: not that he sees himself as an exception, but rather as an observer. He does not dwell on his own hardships very much, but rather absorbs the pasts and hardships of others. When we are confronted with an episode of his past in which he is decidedly cast as the villain, as the oppressor, as the active-aggressor, he evades it, he picks it up and drops it. His mental response to Farouq's observation on the victimized Other is: The victimized Other: how strange, I thought, that he used an expression like that in a casual conversation.
The novel, for it's many strong points, lacks in credulity of dialogue, at least for those of us whose days are not filled with metaphysical conversations with strangers on airplanes and subways (I doubt many of my subway companions could pronounce
Deleuze, let alone carry an extended discussion on him - but maybe I take a lower-brow subway than most). Cole's novel at it's best is when he is walking around, thinking to himself, communing with his memories and his active senses (particularly auricular), his musings and meanderings in the same stride with no destination.
The novel is prescient in many ways: political, social, psychological, but it's epiphanies and flourishes of style lack consistency, lack rhythm: Cole attempts to fit in too much, and his own diversions are occasionally his undoing. However, some of his observations are tremendously moving:
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. Who, in the age of television, hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and imagined his life as a show that is already perhaps being watched by multitudes?
The spectacular media loves to remind us that ours is the age of narcissism, spectacle, illusion
. I can think of no more astute way to define our modern normalcy than a self-styled heroism, a moral impunity, and a constant flirtation with the dream of celebrity. What is often lost in our modern era is the self-communion, the walks about town, the mental and psychological ordering and re-ordering which we must do when we are humbly ourselves: when we are Odysseus, but Odysseus in Ogygian exile. Julius is often alone within himself, even in crowds he is the isolated observer: but his spectatoriship is false, a defense against his own memories which at turns haunt and amuse him. He retreats into the memories of others, into larger-than-self issues such as race, war and oppression, to escape the tiny daemon of his own villainy.
As humans we escape into routine, into obsessions and compulsions which distract us, which we feel better inform us: for Julius walking through New York City (and briefly, Brussels), or observing auspices in the migrations of birds, for Bellow's Herzog it is letter-writing; we all have our retreats, our ticks which mark time for us, keeping us within our bounds of normalcy. Julius's New York is alive for him with details, small horrors, small miracles: the City is alive with change, blood pulsing beneath the surface, ever changing and ever maintaining it's identity like Argo's ship. We are all Argo's ship: we must change, we must shed our sorrows, we must outgrow our pleasures, but we must remain ourselves: we must not
shed our memories of what we are, of what created us and of what we have created, or we become wherries whirling in the open sea, lost and unprotected.