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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Open City by Teju Cole - Literature Review

Teju Cole – born Obayemi Babajide Adetokunbo Onafuwa - is a Nigerian-American writer. Originally born in Michigan, United States, he and his mother returned to her native Lagos, Nigeria shortly after Cole’s birth. He then returned to Michigan when seventeen years old, to attend college and later receive his bachelor’s degree. He is now a part of the creative writing faculty at Harvard University. He has a keen interest in the unpredictability and potential of the city.

Recommended to me – after explaining the basis of my PhD to him - by a friend from Brussels. This book – released in 2011 - tells the tale of a Nigerian immigrant living in New York City. The main character Julius – seemingly a quasi-fictional version of Cole – comes across an array of characters throughout the city. Written in first person, Julius documents his meetings with former university professors and New York marathon runners among other personalities. Julius – completing his final year of a psychiatry fellowship - allows his moods - in a very un-doctor-like way - to influence his reactions to people. It deals with issues of alienation, national identity, multiculturalism, racism, loss and boredom. The book is filled with engaging, night-time glimpses of Manhattan that bring the city and the characters that inhabit it to life.

Cole’s writing – especially in Open City – has been compared to the style of W.G Sebald. One review in the opening pages by author Anthony Doeer describes him as “W.G Sebald for the twenty-first century”. Significantly for me, the book is indeed similarly composed to Sebald’s magnificent 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn – of which I am familiar with from my previous academic studies. Akin to Saturn, Open City goes on lengthy expressive passages that lead into tangents that lack breaks, even for speech. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward instead of structure is accidental inquiry and randomness. Although Open City does have chapters breaking its narrative – unlike Sebald’s work - each section feels as though they are unbroken lengthy pieces of prose. In fact, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for contemplation, autobiography and repetition throughout. The comparisons to Sebald continue as there is a sense of estrangement throughout the character’s journey – Julius in this case struggling to settle in the hustle and bustle of the city. He never truly feels as though he belongs there, despite New York arguably being one of the most multicultural cities in the world.

Open City is a fabulous novel, obviously written by a talented and intelligent author and one I thoroughly enjoyed - although I struggle to categorise it as psychogeography. I have come to realise during my PhD that Sebald’s work is not necessarily regarded as psychogeography– therefore could Open City be painted with the same brush. Although Cole’s character begins his walking as a break from work – like the roots of Situationist dérives breaking from monotonous capitalist labour – he does so for the wellbeing of his mental health, rather than being disdained by work. Every night, upon returning home, Julius reimagines the events of his strolls in his head – described as “like a child with building blocks”- as an exercise to aid his mental being. Although reviews within the book’s opening pages claim Cole as a “knowing flâneur” and writes “on urban layers of history” very psychogeographic features. I would instead christen Open City as an accessible, “coffee-shop” version of a psychogeography novel, rather than outright being one. This is not a knock on the book’s quality, Cole – as previously mentioned is a gifted author – he uses phrases that enlighten the page such as “the human race rushing into subways like movable catacombs” or “walking is the only true way to become twisted together with a city” when commenting on commuters on underground trains for example. However, I do feel it lacks a true sense of what psychogeography is about – political aspects largely, resembling more of an entrée to the practice than a true pillar of it.

Set in New York, Cole’s book provides a distinct setting to many I have been delving into. New York – and America in general – has significantly less literature about walking than European capitals, especially Paris and London. This may be down to America having a lack of a “history of walking” – as they have notoriously travelled by horse back or later-day cars, meaning using walking as a tool to aid literature may be less engrained in an American’s mindset. Dickens, De Quincey, and American Poe wrote about London, their roots in nightwalking – all stemming from European traditions rather than American ones.

9/11 hangs over Cole’s New York throughout the piece, an event that will forever haunt the city. In post 9/11- the book covers roughly a year, between 2006 and the summer of 2007 - New York’s psychogeography is heavily shaped by the events of September 2001. Trauma and disaster add a different layer to writing about place. However, for me this contrasts with London – a setting appearing commonly in psychogeography. The British capital has arguably had more disasters occur over a much longer period – and yet they do not haunt the streets as much as 9/11 plagues New York. Tales of Jack the Ripper, The Fire of London, The Blitz – as much as an impact they have had on literature and the history of the city – do not feel to fuel as much ghastly flashbacks as New York’s 9/11. It is an area I sense I need to delve into more – to utterly understand why.

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