Open City by Teju Cole

June 26, 2011 § 8 Comments

I reviewed Teju Cole’s Open City for Pop Matters. I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve been having trouble reading fiction for awhile now. I’m not sure if I’m having trouble or I just haven’t been interested enough to read a novel or a collection of stories. I’d read only good reviews of this book prior to reading it and, as a result, was dreading it. But having read it – count me in among the swooning masses.

This book was hard to get through because I read it during a time when I wanted to escape my own mind – and it was impossible, because Open City places you smack dab in the narrator, Julius’ mind, and of course this means you’re in your mind while in Julius’ mind. I wanted to be less think-y. Julius is think-y. So I read it slowly, and felt slowly consumed by the ever-present consciousness that belonged not to me, but to a fictional character, and yet one that was refracted through my own consciousness. Short of escaping myself, it was an invitation to dwell.

I think I’ve recommended Open City enough in my review and on Twitter that I probably don’t need to say more besides invite you to read the review for yourself, if you’re into the sort of thing. Speaking of Twitter, Teju Cole is on Twitter, and you’ll want to follow him. None of that “I will be launching my book at ______” or “Read a review of my book at __________.” Nope. “News from the Lagos papers, remixed” is what Cole’s Twitter bio tells us, and that is exactly what you get.

(If I swoon a little too much when I talk about Teju Cole it has nothing to do with anything.)

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§ 8 Responses to Open City by Teju Cole

  • John Ling says:

    I’ve been dropping in on your site for a while now, and I really enjoy your reviews. Very evocative. Very informative. Do keep up the good work. =)

  • homiletic says:

    Love love love your blog and writing. I facebook your Popmatters articles all the time. But I couldn’t stand the book. My Goodreads review went –

    [Too didactic. And the twist in the end feels forced merely to season a really bland narrative. unless the point of the book was to work up a fine pitch of contempt for the narrator, whom the author qua narrator in an act of self loathing (SPOILERS) turns into a loathsome sex offender. Large parts of the book consist of the narrator’s soliloquies – meandering regurgitation of collegiate Marxist talking points which was tiresome and heavy handed. Which further reinforces my initial position of the author deliberately creating an unsavory character who gets his comeuppance, but then..why bother? I merely find Julius a pretentious bore, why would I care if he’s genuinely evil? Is it some kind of a hoary sermon on the commonplace-ness of evil? Oh, the triteness.]

    I hope that’s the last time we disagree 😦

    • Subashini says:

      Thank you so much.

      And yeah–we seem to disagree quite strongly! I do think that Cole was trying to create an unsavoury, or morally ambiguous character, which is why I think it hit quite hard, for me. I didn’t see it so much as pretentiousness as a veneer of bourgeois respectability (okay, maybe the same thing?!) that implicated both Julius and the reader. Even if one were to see Julius as pretentious and trite, he comes off as damaged and/or annoying as fuck but harmless, until you’re made aware that he wasn’t even conscious of how he had violated someone else. That breathtaking ability to not know this–what does it mean? Can it be chalked up to mere male privilege and fuckery? It was hard to tell … that was a punch in the gut, I thought.

      But I’m glad we disagree? I am tempted to reread it at some point to see if I’m still enamoured of it as I was the first time. (& you’re criticism of it makes me question why I found the book powerful, which is great–if not exactly the most comfortable feeling 🙂

      • homiletic says:

        Yeah I was tempted to filter it as the male privilege of an over-achieving alpha male, and to be honest I think I kind of ended up doing just that. Which was boring to me – really, why would I care that Julius is more than merely a holier than thou dick? What is interesting to me is the thousand privileges that not so alpha men get away by dint of exisitng under the general rubric of patriarchy which is the default in America, and then feigning persecution when called out on their actions. The only interesting result of this read was that I wondered about his Belgian sexual encounter – was it actually forced? The no-means-yes style of non-consensual seduction that alpha (and not so alpha) males have forever relied on..etc that isn’t explicitly revealed by the text?

        Also I suppose it was supposed to be a literary coup of sorts that a sophisticate (albeit verging on boorishness) like Julius is capable of extreme acts of violence against women? I feel it’s regressive to celebrate this as evidence of moral maturity, when in truth I feel like I have known that all along. Sophisticated misogyny is merely the flipside of repressed perversion.

        I also admit that I am guilty of doing what Tom Ewing says he does in the blog you linked to in your review of the awful sounding Partitions. For good or for ill, I perversely look for negative reviews of books that have been ubiquitously and overwhelmingly praised. Thanks for linking to that piece btw, I love Tom Ewing’s criticism. Perhaps the only Pitchfork writer I enjoy reading.

      • Subashini says:

        Yeah, I think the book was meant to alienate, actually, which is not a bad place to be in relation to whatever you’re reading (or watching). But your question of why bother? I don’t know whether Julius falls neatly into the category of alpha male. I don’t know if his looks are ever described but he seemed to lack the essential swagger of dickish cockiness that I would associate with, I don’t know, a thousand blonde frat boys, or Idris Elba in, say, Prometheus. The key thing, and I think this is where we differ in our reading, is that Cole managed to give enough of a backstory to Julius to draw me in, to become invested in the character as it were (not to say that I didn’t find him ponderous, or pretentious, which I did), invested enough that the ending felt alike a massive punch in the gut. I mean, I cared, which I guess is why I wasn’t bored.

        I’ll agree that sophisticated misogyny is part of the issue here, which I think is something we’re always grappling with most male writers/characters because PATRIARCHY but Cole seems to destabilise the idea of this straightforward heterosexual male subject, which is why I thought of Freud in my PM review. Repressed memories, dreams, the uncanny; all of Julius’s surface attributes (the bourgeois, well-spoken, intelligent man with a certain amount of social/cultural capital) either mask the latent psychopath inside or enabled him to do precisely the kind of violence that he did and then forget about it. We seem to be talking about the same thing in the book but we’ve clearly had distinct reading experiences of it, which is pretty fascinating. I’ll admit that most of the reviews of I read of Open City were positive, so your take on it is one of the few that really go into the details of why someone might have loathed it.

        Yeah, I enjoy reading Ewing too. And Partitions frustrated me because I got the sense that Majmudar was sort of appropriating the history of a tragic event to write a book that’s essentially meant to signal his entrance into the Literary World as a Serious Literary Writer (all the advanced praise from American reviewers seem to suggest that it was a job well done, then) and I have no patience for that sort of thing…

  • homiletic says:

    It’s amazing to me that what I was (somewhat reductively) calling college marxism is actually the perambulation of a theory novelist.

    I did want to engage with parts of your last comment, but got caught up with other things. I feel that the moment has passed now.

    • Subashini says:

      I haven’t read it yet; thanks for passing it on. (Feeling a bit of trepidation–I am, of course, a member of the Theory Generation and a child of the 80s, when everything started to go wrong with the World and the Novel.)

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