Book Review: Open City

This work was presented as part of a class I had on Global Cities. The assignment consisted of reading Teju Cole’s Open City and reflect on the novel on it in a ‘non-academic’ manner. The open city in the book is New York city, the book has come to be very dear to me.

Open City: A Novel, By Teju Cole.

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 17, 2012)

Open City Cover
Open City Cover

Open City is a novel about walking in cities. Mainly the walking takes place in New York, but walking through the pages of the novel takes place around the globe. We see the city through the eyes of Julius. He is doing a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyteria, lives in Manhattan and regularly walks around the streets of the city. The author chose to describe the city from the point of view of an immigrant. A decision that is as important to the reader as the choice of the city itself, and the loneliness of an immigrant is reflected throughout the whole novel. In my opinion it provided the novel with a fresh look on the city and detached it from the sense of belonging that a native New Yorker might have.

The writing is made in sections, each telling a story of its own, connected in time and flow of events. However the book is far from telling a story in a traditional way. In page 151, he writes “we experience life as continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuity” and his writing style breaks out of being a story towards resembling life itself with its discontinuity.

Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese- French writer and one of my personal favourites, writes in his [Disordered World]: “what is at issue is the gulf that is opening up between our rapid material evolution, which brings us closer together every day, and our too slow moral evolution, which does not allow us to face the tragic consequences of our shrinking world”. In the novel, globalization is manifested also by reflecting on the same two aspects; the connectivity of the world and the disconnectivity of its inhabitants. The former is easily identified by examining the main character; a Nigerian/ German descendant living in the U.S. And as Julius’s journey extends geographically to Brussels in a hopeless search for his grandmother, and timely to his childhood in Lagos, we as readers follow his planned and spontaneous encounters. In each step enriched by different views on immigration, identity, and racism, all which are issues of concern around the world, while enjoying allusions to transnational music pieces and books. The second aspect is portraying severe social disconnectivity. Julius didn’t even know that his next door neighbour died months ago. In page 96 we hear of a story of a bloody robbery that took place during rush hour on a crowded platform in Brussels. The book tries to bring to our attention that we are so fully engrossed with our material matters to question the decline of our moralities.

The issue of disconnectivity or solitude is a dominant thought in the novel. Julius and the other secondary characters are all isolated. Even Moji, who is in a romantic relationship, is excluding her boyfriend from stories of her past. Loneliness is the one thing in common between all the characters; whether they are in a delicate age [Professor Saito] or after a personal achievement [marathon runner], and Julius is always comparing his own solitude to theirs. His solitude intensifies around others. This and other contrasting images are used by the author to engage readers in the character’s experience.

The novel dwells on the many contradictions found in the city; the dream of freedom and the history of slavery, belonging and difference, functionalism and identity, happiness and sadness.  What I found most interesting is the topic of difference. Julius carries his difference as a burden, as an obstacle to his integration into the city. He says in page 77 “the name Julius linked me to another place and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart”. A view that is similar to Farouq’s, the Moroccan student who quotes Palestinian writer Edward Said’s: “difference is never accepted. … It is never seen as containing its own value”. While Dr. Maillotte who had criticized New York for its racism (or not being color-blind) doesn’t believe immigrants need to show their difference in their new society: “Why would you want to move somewhere only to prove how different you are? And why would a society like that want to welcome you?”  (Page 140). Personally I am inclined towards the opinion of Julius’s friend, whose name we never know of, saying that people are like trees. We might be of the same specie but each one is a different tree “can’t have too many trees in the city”.

“Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tin interior had scant sense about what flowed around them”

At the start of the novel, Julius questions how the city could have been seen by the birds flying over it. I think the book is trying to answer the same question. Other than being a place of many contradictions, the city in the novel is also a place of diversity, anonymity, an environment of violence and constant flow. This last thought articulated in its physical and metaphorical sense like describing the relationship with the water in Manhattan, “Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tin interior had scant sense about what flowed around them” and he continues in page 54 to condemn city dwellers for their unjust replacement “… and the generations of New Yorkers who had come here to the promenade to watch wealth and sorrow flow into the city”. In a few more pages he returns to this flow, this time with less criticism, and a desire to fit in; “Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.”

There remains an idea in the novel that draws my attention, probably because of its relevance to my home city, Damascus. That is the question of integration and diversity. As Farouq puts it, in page 109 describing the people calling places all over the world while sitting in one physical space maintaining their individuality; “people can live together but still keep their own values intact”. Historically, cities guaranteed freedom for their citizens, but integration of difference is another question. I used to view Damascus as a city of integration and tolerance, and I like to believe, naively maybe, that cities can still be the place where anyone can maintain their true identity, no matter how fragmented it may be, because it resembles the identity of a city; defragmented as the sum of all different pertinences and a whole at the same time.

The book calls New York an open city. Its history is based around waves of immigrations, every wave driven to the city by the myth of freedom, still observable in the statue of liberty and the history of Ellis Island. And while the city is open to receive them like it had done through its history, it also offers the cruel reality that will harvest the lives of many, in a way similar to hundreds of dying birds disoriented by the alluring flame.

Written on 24, November, 2013