From its first sentence I had a hunch that Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) would have been a perfect fit for the Writing New York syllabus Cyrus and I tinkered with for almost a decade, and when we eventually take up the course again — Inshalla — I take very seriously the possibility of using this novel to close the semester. Our final text has varied over time: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, most often, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The final emphasis on sunshine and shadow, utopia or dystopia, varies depending on how we end, but Kushner’s plays, more than any thing else we teach, have seemed to wrap up some big narratives that run through our course: the relationship between performance/theater and urban life; the legacies of immigration; the real-world force of imaginative acts (especially ways of imagining the city itself); the meanings and uses of history; and issues of identity (consent v. descent), assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. Something about Open City, from the start, promised to take up most of these issues but also others: the impact of 9/11; New York as global city; and — another favorite trope in New York and other urban writing — the appeals of flânerie.
“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place to set out into the city,” the book begins. James Wood suggests Sebald as Cole’s model here, an influence Cole himself isn’t shy about, although he’s also given nods to Calvino. But the first thing I thought about as I tried to ease myself into a relationship with Cole’s narrator, Julius, was Rousseau’s posthumous Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), which like Open City serves as a meditation on psychology and memory as much as it dwells on political theory or current events. Rousseau described his book, a sort of coda to his Confessions, as “a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint.” Rousseau was more obsessed with his public reputation than Julius appears to be, perhaps, but the digressive character of both books, which seek to recreate thought processes and external stimuli, come off feeling like the books’ production processes actually form a significant portion of their contents. If Open City feels digressive it’s because it’s about digression, as a habit of mind, an educational program, a psychological defense.
Julius never reveals too much about the means by which he acquires knowledge about the city, or art, or music, with the exceptions of a quick nod to Internet radio, his current book list, and some descriptions of his formal education, including his friendship with a former teacher. But it feels like Julius’s habits must be somewhat in harmony with Cole’s own writing process. (That said, I don’t really feel the need to assume too much about Julius is autobiographical. I like Cole’s comments, on the misguided conflation of Julius/Cole, from this interview, in which he acknowledges a passion for Mahler he shares with his character: “I could not write about Mahler in that way if I did not have an interest in Mahler. Julius probably knows more about Mahler than I do (laughs). But he knows a lot less about jazz and hip hop than I do. So he’s not me.”)
If the novel’s episodic structure is a significant component of its content, this suggests a lot about the book’s take on issues of temporality and history. Julius’s thoughts — his stimulation to new knowledge about the place he inhabits, his recall of episodes from the past — depend as much on his “aimless wandering” as anything else. But perhaps we should speculate about a gap between Julius’s habits and Cole’s. Julius simply recalls things: he encounters runners from the New York Marathon while walking near the Park and remembers an anecdote about “Phidippides’ collapse,” the instant death of the first marathoner. He comments in detail on the classical music playing at a Tower Records fire sale. Are these details Cole just had in his arsenal? Or, more likely, is his own research underwriting Julius’s apparently brilliant marshaling of dozens of historical details? It’s not hard to imagine early versions of some of these sketches being drafted on the fly, out and about, in a writer’s notebook, then fleshed out with aid of research later. You walk, you think, you notice things. You probably take notes on street names, peculiar buildings, historical details recorded on plaques here and there, odd architectural details that suggest the past lives of some buildings, the CD being played in a store you wander into, the details of Alexander Hamilton’s epitaph, and then you do a bunch of Googling when you get home to deepen your understanding of where you’ve been and what those places had been and seen before you got there. Reminds me a little of our friend David Freeland‘s approach in Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.
It’s this obsession with New York’s history and the curiosity — and expertise — of the flâneur that appeals most to me about Julius. How could it not, when a walk near Trinity Church almost inevitably winds up with the magnetic pull to the waterfront and thoughts on Melville? We’re to assume that Julius, or Cole, or both, perhaps, has become a New Yorker by way of this relentless curiosity about the city’s past, about the island’s prior occupants, and through a whole lot of reading. And yet Julius’s curiosity also leads him to take in the stories of other current inhabitants, including the histories that brought them here, which often have to do with warfare or conflict on other parts of the globe. Julius has a thing for New York history, but the boundaries of that history for him are extraordinarily capacious.
One of my favorite passages in the book — the one that really sold me on the whole thing — comes fairly early. It offers an extreme take on the kind of stuff I’m talking about here, historical obsessions and personal identity and whatnot. But it also suggests something beyond Google-gained insights about surroundings. It’s one of the weirdest and, to me at least, most beautiful episodes in the novel. The fifth chapter begins with a moving narrative of a Liberian prisoner, held indefinitely in a Queens prison for attempting to enter the country with a false passport. (“The lawyer they assigned to me said I might have had a chance before 9/11.” And later: “I don’t want to go back anywhere, he said. I want to stay in this country, I want to be in America and work.”) This episode, which has received a fair amount of attention from critics, is followed by one less examined but equally moving: Julius’s encounter with a “a Haitian man in the underground catacombs of Penn Station” who offers to shine Julius’s shoes. In spite of his antipathy to the traditional shoe-shiner’s set-up — the “elevated chairs in the shops and hav[ing] someone kneel before me” — Julius goes ahead and makes himself a customer anyway on the old man’s insistence.
What happens next is rather extraordinary, even in a book that consists almost entirely of reverie. As the man begins to tell Julius his story, betraying the trace of a Caribbean French accent, we gradually get the sense that he didn’t flee Haiti in the twentieth century at all, but in the 1790s. He is, according to his own account, a refugee from the Haitian Revolution, a survivor of New York’s nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemics, a resident of the racially mixed neighborhoods around the Five Points, a freeman who purchased his sister’s freedom before purchasing his own, the proprietor of a school for free blacks. All of this passes us by almost imperceptibly as Julius narrates. I had to go back and read the man’s story twice, since nothing in the novel to that point — and nothing, really, in what comes after, either — brushes this close to magical realism. Julius hardly seems to notice anything odd with the man’s story. He lets the man finish the shine, heads outside, tightens his scarf against the cold, and notices various signs of the war in Iraq. If he worried he’d been time-traveling, he doesn’t betray it. Instead, he continues to imagine he’s stumbled into the New York of the Civil War Draft Riots. He narrates rather matter-of-factly:
That afternoon, during which I flitted in and out of myself, when time became elastic and voices cut out of the past into the present, the heart of the city was gripped by what seemed to be a commotion from an earlier time. I feared being caught up in what, it seemed to me, were draft riots. The people I saw were all men, hurrying along under leafless trees, sidestepping the fallen police barrier near me, and others, farther away. There was some kind of scuffle two hundred yards down the street, again strangely noiseless, and a huddled knot of men opened up to reveal two brawlers being separated and pulled away from their fight. What I saw next gave me a fright: in the farther distance, beyond the listless crowd, the body of a lynched man dangled from a tree. The figure was slender, dressed from head to toe in black, reflecting no light.
Unlike his encounter with the bootblack, this situation resolves itself, rationally, “into a less ominous thing: dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold, twirling in the wind.” But the temporal rip that allowed Julius to hear the voice of a past citizen, to listen to a story — akin to the Liberian prisoner’s — that’s too easily forgotten, provides us with a sense of how history works for Cole. His city is a palimpsest, as commentators on the novel have repeatedly pointed out. But it’s up to us — our obligation, even — to do the hard work of reading through those layers.
Anyone else have favorite/key moments so far?
That scene in Penn Station is my favorite too. The strangeness of it comes on so slowly. And don’t forget the bit of humor when he goes outside. The sign says “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS,” but the first two letters of “troops” are unlit. Support our oops indeed.