11 October 2011

Black Noise

  • Teju Cole. Open City. Random House, February 2011.

New York makes so much noise about itself, discusses itself so endlessly on its streets and in its bars, lends its name so freely to magazines and websites and newspapers, that the novelist foolhardy enough to engage with this nonstop tantrum of a place has little choice but to turn himself or herself into a noise-comprehender (The Fortress of Solitude, Netherland) or a noise-amplifier (Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, The Puttermesser Papers). I wasn’t aware that a third path exists until I read Teju Cole’s Open City—a novel that simply blots out the noise in favor of moments of eerie tranquility and solitude, moments than can be achieved without much effort if, like the thirty-something narrator of the book, you are willing to ditch the rush-hour roar and enter a museum, a classical concert, or the house of an aging friend. 

“Every time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.” “Prayer was, I had long ago settled in my mind, no kind of promise, no device for getting what one wanted out of life; it was the mere practice of presence, that was all, a therapy of being present . . .” “When I eventually walked down the stairs and out of the museum, it was with the feeling of someone who had returned to earth from a great distance.”

These are feelings many temporary New Yorkers experience at some point during their youthful exile to the city, but that have been purged from the historical record of novels because they offer a lower-level of reality instruction than, say, a brawl in a bar or a game of cricket on Staten Island; they smack of the staid PhD seminar rather than of lived life. The brilliance of Open City lies in its ability to straddle both worlds at once—the worlds of high art and low life—and to treat each as a privileged window into the other. A visit to the Folk Art Museum, for instance, might be followed up, a few pages later, by a run-in with a Barbadian guard from the museum. The novel, like the city, is full of such “fatigued immigrants who rarely raised their heads to look above street level.”

Open City unfolds as a series of walks in Manhattan, allowing for coincidences and linkages to occur naturally, without the superstructure of a plot. The narrator, Julius, who is half-Nigerian and half-German, and completing a year-long psychiatry fellowship at Columbia University, has no specific agenda other than to make sense of his adopted home, to read his landscape the way one might re-read a favorite book. But the city reads its own inhabitants as well, and though Julius would rather spend his time musing silently upon the pit of nothingness at Ground Zero or discussing the arcana of bedbugs with friends, he is repeatedly accosted by other lonely black men—the museum guard, a shoeshine, a USPS clerk—who see him as a kindred spirit, a “brother.” The novel never needs to justify its juxtaposition of the world of high art and street life; the conflict is built into Julius himself.

Refreshingly, Julius does not use his status as a cultural double-agent to rage against the obvious injustices of liberal Manhattan. He does not, for instance, decide to throw in his lot with the oppressed footmen or grow paranoid about his own blackness: the novel maintains a sober approach to race, treating it as yet another experience available to a certain type of educated man of color. Julius is happy to participate in the experience, serenely recording the stories of the immigrants that come his way: a Haitian man who has escaped the killings in his nation to become a shoeshine in the “underground catacombs of Penn Station”; a refugee from the Liberian civil war who takes a plane to JFK seeking asylum and ends up in a detention facility in Queens, where he turns himself into an expert reteller of his own story; and a gay, 89-year-old Japanese-American professor who was committed to an internment camp during the Second World War but prefers to talk to Julius about poetry. What these people have in common is a sort of bracing, needy loneliness, as if the city, which claims to be so hospitable to immigrants, is actually a place of brutal anonymization. Cole’s task in the novel is to get these anonymous people into the open, to reveal the invisible pathways of immigration that deposit individuals on the streets of Manhattan, and to show how the fate of these people has become all the more precarious after September 11. The tranquility, it turns out, is a way into a quieter kind of trouble.

But for all the pull they exert on Julius’s attention, none of these people manage to break through his solitude and enter his life in a meaningful way. Julius’s portraits are drawn at a remove, with the hushed stillness of the Dutch paintings he admires, and one of Cole’s great achievements is that these people feel like fixtures in the landscape of the novel rather than edifying moments in a picaresque tale. 

Julius too does not reflect on these characters further once he moves on with his walks. He is mostly interested in maintaining his tranquility, and we begin to realize that, though the city is open, our narrator, for all intents and purposes, is closed.


Teju Cole was born in Michigan and moved back to Nigeria with his parents when he was five months old. He returned to the country of his birth in 1992 to attend Kalamazoo College and later enrolled as a doctoral student in the art history department at Columbia to study the Dutch painter Bruegel. It was here, in the trenches of academia, that he wrote Open City.

The academic influence shows in the book. Open City reads like a digressive monograph of the sort favored by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, sweeping up changing seasons, news, gossip, and historical tidbits in service of big questions. What does it mean for a city to suffer an attack and go on pretending nothing happened? How are people holding up five years later? Dialogue is recorded with precision and without quotes, giving the text a flat affect, and some of the wintry descriptions have a dreamy quality, as if the novel were expiring within the line breaks of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” Certain subjects, like the race of the people Julius encounters, are left without discussion, as if they were out of the scope of this particular postracial study. (We always infer the race of a character in Open City from his or her nationality, accent, or life experience.) The novel possesses an air of roving inquiry: it exists to solve intellectual rather than emotional questions.

This turns out to be one of the games that Cole is playing with the reader. Over the course of the novel Julius emerges as more than a mouthpiece for critical theory; he is a complicated creature, a man of enigmas and silences who can’t be pinned down as a straightforward liberal. An unapologetic devotee of high Western art—of Mahler and Barthes and Coetzee—he seems to value his own solitude above all else, cutting off conversations when he is bored or irritated. He also refuses to enter into sustained relationships, and we begin to wonder if the “epidemic of sorrow” he senses everywhere is a manifestation of his own sadness. One gets the feeling that he is the sort of person who will talk to you at length about his favorite books and concertos but never tell you why he is alienated from his widowed German mother (left behind in Nigeria), what it feels like to be a German-Nigerian in the US (there can’t be many of those), or why his girlfriend has dumped him (a trope with which the novel begins, linking it to Netherland, another novel about a footloose immigrant in the city). Even his flashbacks to his childhood in Nigeria have a quaint, coming-of-age quality—though he admits that the name Julius linked him “to another place and was, with my passport and skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria,” not much comes of this difference. As a narrator, Julius thinks all noise—even personal noise—is beneath him.

But something is clearly nagging at Julius, and about ninety pages into the novel he sets off to Brussels to find his German grandmother. In another book, such a digression would feel like a breach of contract, but by now Open City has tutored us in its serene randomness. In Belgium, Julius looks up his grandmother in a phonebook, finds nothing, and quickly tires of the search. Walking around Brussels in the dead of winter, he muses about the monstrosities of King Leopold’s colonialism and its connection to a recent wave of hate crimes against Muslims. Then, at an internet cafe, he befriends an academically ambitious Moroccan youth eager to talk about theory and politics. One thing leads to another and soon the two men are arguing about Israel and Palestine, terrorism, xenophobia, radical Islam—Julius from the liberal left, the Moroccan, named Farouq, from the Islamist right. There is something slightly playful about this conversation—two intellectuals sizing each other up, neither involved in actual hostilities: a debate that might happen in the halls of a large liberal university. But as the argument progresses both men become more serious, holding tight to their positions. Farouq attacks the Jews, Julius defends them. The big guns—Chomsky, de Man, Finkelstein, Mohammed—are brought out and discussed. The conversation enters a sort of sour stalemate, with Julius flailing.

The conversation turns out to be the centerpiece of the novel, a superb exploration of how men dance around their silences. Cole recreates the dialogue with breathtaking exactness, complicating our conception of Farouq at every turn. When we first meet Farouq, he is an oppressed minority working at an internet café and dreaming of the ivory tower. He has a slightly irritating way of recommending books and spouting theory, but he also has plenty to feel defensive about. “What Farouq got on the trams wasn’t a quick suspicious glance,” Julius explains. “It was a simmering, barely contained fear.” But eventually our sympathy, and Julius’s, begins to wear. Farouq is utterly unyielding in his views about Jews, Palestine, and Islam. He is a good talker, but not much of a listener—there is no real compromise that can be reached between the two men. He is a man who reads liberal thinkers but has lost his liberal inclinations. He only begins opening up to Julius when Julius gives up arguing  and takes on his usual role as interlocutor. Soon Farouq reveals a predictable source of hurt: his thesis was rejected by a European university. “How many would-be radicals, just like him, had been formed on such a slight?” Julius wonders as the encounter abruptly ends. But this is not a sentimental question. We can’t feel too sorry for Farouq because we cannot know how much of his failure is owed to discrimination or to his own intransigence. We are left only with a sense of lost promise, a sense so overwhelming that, by the time the section ends, we have forgotten that Julius’s own mission, to find his grandmother, has also been a failure.

There is constant misdirection throughout Open City, a movement from Julius’s private problems to public questions and conversations. After his Brussels interlude, Julius heads back to New York where, with the onset of spring, he spends more time outside, wandering around Central Park, hanging out with friends, and thinking about the city’s history of violence toward black slaves and Native Americans. What does it mean when an entire city has built itself on layers of forgetting? What are the consequences for the rest of us, who aren’t engaging directly with the past? These questions became a bit annoying and repetitive—so much academic white noise, easy to research and even easier to play for sympathetic sighs (no one likes massacres). At this point the novel is in danger of turning into a sort of mournful Wikipedia entry or personal blog about springtime activities. But these digressions turn out to be a patient setup for the revelation that Julius, so quick to uncover the amnesia of others, is an amnesiac himself—another immigrant seeking refuge in New York from his past.


The revelation that comes at the end cannot be discussed except to say: we learn from another character that the great decoder of suffering has likely committed a major crime himself and simply forgotten. The revelation is not foreshadowed by anything that comes before: it goes off like a bomb in the reader’s, and in Julius’s, consciousness. Naturally, some critics have taken issue with this late-in-the-game plot twist, but I think it is a brilliant innovation. In a novel that is a meditation on a sort of fragility and tranquility that exists in cities that are badly prepared for disaster—the fragility of characters like Farouq, in museums, at concerts, in detention facilities, in the homes of old people—the revelation allows the structure of the book, itself a fragile space, to enact the shattering. We spend the entire novel being educated by Julius’s liberalism only to have it brought into question. What does it mean to trust a man who thinks himself above everything and engages in big questions but doesn’t remember his own crimes? Should we trust such a man? Or is he really another sort of postracial innocent, worthy of our pity? The book wisely ends before it can answer these questions, right at the moment when a novel of liberal or racial guilt, the sort exemplified by Coetzee’s Disgrace, might begin.

Open City will be remembered, I think, for its casual radicalism of form. It is a novel about New York that deals with silence, eschewing the usual forays into sex, food, drugs, and relationships, and a novel about the strange privileges and obligations of race that rarely addresses the subject directly (no critic has been moved to declare it a great Nigerian-American novel, a great German-Nigerian novel, or a great African-American novel). Did Cole actively strive to erase these markers of New York noise to produce what is—despite the academic ugliness of the phrase—a truly postracial novel? I can’t say; his methods are obscure. But he has an original way of seeing things and an enormous talent for ambiguous character sketches. He has produced a novel that, in its willingness to look and look again at obvious monuments and symbols in a landscape, reminds one of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, reworked for the environment of urban America.

The novel’s problems come from an occasional impulse to omit too much. In turning down the dial on New York glamour, the prose sometimes clots into touristy lists of buildings and places (Open City does not contain memorable descriptions of the New York landscape). The pacing is haphazard and shifty, never quite living up to the symphonic promise of the opening chapter. I also felt that the absence of white Americans, in a borough that is so white and in a novel that luxuriates in “all-white spaces,” was an evasion rather than an omission. But here Cole was one step ahead of me. Toward the end of the novel, having administered the shock about the crime, he has Julius let down his guard and confess that, when he is attending the symphony, he “can’t help noticing” that everyone there is white; that, sometimes, waiting in line for the bathroom, he feels like “Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House in the Bronx Zoo in 1906.” The moment is poignant because it is delivered not as a cry of rage or self-hate but rather as one of helplessness. The noise of racial differences, playing ceaselessly under and over everything else, is never totally omitted.

Image: Aerial view of Central Park, New York. From Matthew Carbone.

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