If there is to be a new literature born from the influential shadow of the great W.G. Sebald (who died tragically in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57) then Teju Cole and his enigmatic, sparkling first novel, Open City, occupies the place of inevitable heir by reaching back through the past while firmly, concretely settling itself in the present. The young Cole (he is in his mid 30s, and is also a photographer and an art historian) achieves this by eschewing traditional plot and using a preternaturally crystalline prose that both invites and calms the reader while shattering expectations of resolution and remapping and redesigning the terrain for that over-used phrase: the Great American Novel. Open City is a novel concerned with questions, not answers, and it is this questioning nature that permeates throughout, stopping to digress on such disparate topics as consumer society (ruminating on the disappearance of a Blockbuster video store), politics, classical music, relationships, books, movies, medical school, and academia.
Julius is in his early 30s and in the final year of a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian. He was born in Lagos to a German mother (who he is now estranged from) and a Nigerian father (who died when Julius was fourteen) and has always felt like an outsider. Being light-skinned he was always aware, while in a Nigerian military school, of not being as black as the others, and in America he feels what it’s like not to be white. In the U.S. Julius is the perpetual “other,” belonging to neither group. A friendly glance between him and a group of young black males carries sufficient weight, though it is fleeting when they pass again:
There had earlier been, it occurred to me, only the most tenuous of connections between us, looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; in other words, on our being “brothers.” These glances were exchanged between black men all over the city every minute of the day, a quick solidarity worked into the weave of each man’s mundane pursuits, a nod or smile or quick greeting. It was a little way of saying, I know something of what life is like for you out here. They had passed by me now, and were for some reason reluctant to repeat that fleeting gesture. (212)
Another example portrays Julius interacting with his neighbor, not knowing that his wife had passed away a number of weeks ago. This scene illustrates how the people who live close to us can, in reality, remain forever distant:
A woman had died in the room next to mine, she had died on the other side of the wall I was leaning against, and I had known nothing of it. I had known nothing in the weeks when her husband mourned, nothing when I had nodded to him in greeting with headphones in my ears, or when I had folded clothes in the laundry room while he used the washer. I hadn’t known him well enough to routinely ask how Carla was, and I had not noticed neither her absence nor the change–there must have been a change–in his spirit. It was not possible, even then, to go knock on his door and embrace him, or to speak with him at length. It would have been false intimacy. (21)
Hovering in the background of the novel is 9/11, and Julius meditates while wandering the streets of New York thinking about the losses surrounding this event as well. Memory is both a blessing and a curse in this world; we wade through our day to day activities until the detritus of the past reaches out, strikes us cold, and leaves us wondering where we are and why we are here. Julius then decides to fly to Brussels in hopes of locating his aging German grandmother, and while there he meets a woman and, in an internet café, an angry Moroccan student; they eventually have lunch and discuss politics. Various other events accumulate: Julius visits an older former profesor of his; he takes in both a movie and a concert; there are digressions surronding his patients and talks with friends. What this aggregate of “fragments” does is give the reader both a veritable glimpse of Julius’s life and interactions while also portraying the city and the world as a living, breathing essence.
What Teju Cole has done with Open City is usher in a new idea of the American novel. Now, it is no longer strictly “American” but a composite of “others,” populated by the remembered and the forgotten, or like Primo Levi’s, the “drowned and the saved.” This wandering, meditative literature encapsulates a new aesthetic that best exemplifies the new American and new American novel: it asks questions without expecting answers, it is both in awe of, comfortable in, and frightened by the world; it is not loud, sprawling, or in your face, but solitary, enigmatic, and eerily prescient for the strange times we are currently living in.