Contemporary fiction, especially if it is written in first-person point of view, often suffers from the criticism that it is too introverted and navel-gazing in character. Sometimes, the lead protagonist is fascinating enough by him or herself alone to warrant almost exclusive focus on their thoughts, their actions, to the near-total exclusion of those people with whom the protagonists interact on a regular basis. In real life, there are at least as many extroverts as there are introverts, people who want to interact with others and to see what happens when others are asked to open up about their lives and experiences. Those are the types of novels that I enjoy most, perhaps due to growing up in a large family of extroverts and learning all sorts of wonderful events and viewpoints just from soaking in what they had to say. It also is a reason why I became a historian, as I found others’ stories, past and present alike, both American and non-American, to be fascinating and I just wanted to know more and learn more.
Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s first novel (which just won the Hemingway Prize earlier this month), Open City, is exactly that sort of extroverted novel of experiences that I most enjoy reading. It is not a classically plotted novel; there is no readily-apparent conflict around which the novel operates. Instead, it is a looser, more free-form sort of novel that has the feel of an extended series of character sketches, where the people that Julius, the biracial Nigerian/German psychiatry grad student, encounter have short yet powerful snippets of their life experiences to share with a total stranger. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could result in a muted, distracting affair that would weaken the novel’s development. However, Cole displays a writing talent that is even more impressive considering that Open City is his debut novel. Julius is an active, considerate narrator who relates not just what the people he encounters say to him, but also shares his thoughts generated from this contact. Too frequently, the first-person narrator can be too intrusive or too passive in these situations, but Julius is a near-pitch perfect blend of the two. Take for instance this scene roughly thirty pages into Open City, where Julius goes from observing a movie about the dictator Idi Amin to reminiscing about an encounter he had with an Ugandan-Indian doctor:
While watching the film, I recalled an uncomfortable meeting I’d had one evening, in an opulent house in a suburb of Madison a few years before. I was a medical student at the time, and our host, an Indian surgeon, had invited me and a number of my classmates to his house. After we had eaten, Dr. Gupta ushered us into one of his three lavish living rooms, and went round pouring champagne into our glasses. He and his family, he told us, had been expelled from their homes and lands by Idi Amin. I am successful now, he said, America has made a life possible for me and for my wife and children. My daughter is doing graduate studies in engineering at MIT, and our youngest is at Yale. But, if I may speak frankly, I’m still angry. We lost so much, we were robbed at knifepoint, and when I think about Africans – and I know that we are not supposed to say such things in America – when I think about Africans, I want to spit.
The bitterness was startling. It was an anger that, I couldn’t help feeling, was partly directed at me, the only other African in the room. The detail of my background, that I was Nigerian, made no difference, for Dr. Gupta had spoken of Africans, had sidestepped the specific and spoken in the general. But now, as I watched the film, I saw that Idi Amin himself hosted wonderful parties, told genuinely funny jokes, and spoke eloquently about the need for African self-determination. These nuances in his personality, as depicted here, would no doubt have brought a bad taste to the mouth of my host in Madison.
Cole often used moments like this, the sudden flare-up of ugly resentment and xenophobia, to show the darker side of the “open city” (primarily New York, although Julius does briefly visit relatives in Brussels) that Julius is exploring through his walks and encounters through town. He notes how New York City is:
…a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portuguese slave trader Esteban Gómez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furs and timber of the island and its calm bay. 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. Somewhere close to the water, holding tight to what he knew of life, the boy had, with a sharp clack, again gone aloft.
This is a striking metaphor for the city that never sleeps and who has seen wave after wave of immigrants pass through its streets. As Julius travels, he comes to meet with Haitians, Arabs, and other ethnic groups that comprise the latest in the long line of immigrants to step ashore in New York City. He hears accounts of the sufferings and blessings that they have experienced, their hopes and fears, and the occasional xenophobia they had to endure during their time in the city. Set in the 2006-2007 period, there is a lingering sense of fear and animosity from the 9/11 attacks, although these references are inferred rather than baldly stated for the most part.
It is easy to get sucked into the easy-going flow of Cole’s narrative. Julius’ observations are concise and never feel forced or indulgent. By using indirect quotation style, Cole manages to make the other characters’ observations feel as intimate and as important as those of Julius himself, creating a strong interest in the next little story fragment that may appear. Open City feels as open as the title, as if we are just observing only a small fraction of an average (yet interesting) person’s life and that there will be future travels, future discoveries to be made long after the book has concluded. Although some readers may not be satisfied with this approach to storytelling, Open City struck a nerve with me, reminding me of my own encounters walking down the streets of a domestic/foreign city (Miami) and listening to what others were saying, both to each other and occasionally to me as well. Cole is a very gifted writer with keen insight into people’s motivations for sharing with each other and Open City is so accomplished for a first novel that I cannot wait to see what future stories Cole will produce. This easily is deserving of consideration for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award and it is my personal favorite out of the five shortlisted titles.