Teju Cole’s Superfluous Man: *Open City*

I  loved Teju Cole’s Open City—  it’s the best new novel I’ve read in quite a while. Everyone cites W.G. Sebald, and yes, it definitely recalls him in its wandering, melancholy, essayistic qualities (no photos, though, too bad!), and the impression it conveys of a permeable boundary between the fictional and the autobiographical– although the tone is lighter and the voice more (albeit ambivalently) American than in Sebald’s work, immersed in the media-saturated everyday of the 21st century U.S.

It would be a great novel to teach as a test case in an introduction to critical theory; it has a lot to say about mourning and melancholy, memorialization, repression, urban space, race, class, and identity, violence, whiteness, empathy, migration, nationalism. And about classical music (Mahler plays a key role) and literature, and psychiatry and medicine: its Nigerian narrator Julius is a psychiatric intern at what seems to be Columbia University, working on a research project about affect and depression in the elderly. This may all sound heavy-handed or a bit much, but these topics emerge naturally within the thought process of a narrator who simply happens to be educated, intellectually curious and interested in philosophy, theory, and such.  (Also in humbler topics like bedbugs.) The episode in which Julius, on a visit to Brussels, befriends a politically-radical Moroccan named Farouq also reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. James Wood comments about the passage in which Farouq explains how his academic advisors failed his dissertation on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space that it is “one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.”  Nicholas Dames in N&1, similarly, counts Cole as a member of a new “Theory Generation” of novelists for whom critical theory is taken for granted as part of the intellectual atmosphere: “what allies [Sam] Lipsyte’s Milo, Cole’s Julius, and [Ben] Lerner’s Adam …is how fundamentally diagnostic they are. Theory has taught them to treat the world as a set of deceptive signs; they doubt, reflexively, the communications of others.” [I love those novels too, btw: Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.] Julius reads, among other books, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and once back in New York, he sends a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to Farouq as a sort of guilt offering; Farouq is one of several less-privileged interlocutors who inspire guilty responses from the psychiatrist-in-training Julius, who struggles in locating himself in relation to “blackness,” class, and Africanness. The question of whom he calls “brother,” and vice versa, recurs throughout.

Another book Open City recalled for me, although I read this many years ago and so my recollections of it are pretty vague, was Saul Bellow’s early novel Dangling Man. Like Bellow’s narrator, Julius is a “superfluous man,” a free-floating wanderer in the wartime city, in danger of drifting loose from all social connections.

It’s certainly one of the best, if not the best, “post-9/11” novels I’ve read, fundamentally concerned with the question of how nations, cities, and individuals mourn, memorialize, and repress trauma. And although it can feel nearly plotless, I’ll say without any spoilers that there is more to the story than may initially appear to be the case, and that Julius emerges, only towards the very end of the book, as a more morally-complex and less “reliable” narrator than he’d previously seemed to be. It’s a novel that looks different in hindsight, so that now I feel I need to go back to reconsider various details that seemed random or happenstance when I first encountered them.

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5 Responses

  1. On my bedside now–thanks for the push and the contextualization!

  2. It had been on my bedside for a long time… those job talks gave me the nudge!

  3. Reminded me more of ‘The Stranger’ than Sebald when I read it last spring. I had trouble with the flat uninflected narrative voice, although the middle part (in Brussels) seems more engaging than what came before or after. The narrator (the only character really) never seems very interesting, so I had trouble caring where he had lunch, or which streets he walked along (in the NYC parts).

  4. Well, I can see what you mean about the flatness, although by the end I felt that this affect acquired various kinds of meaning.

  5. Pushing the like button. I’ll read it too.

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