Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Club Recap--Teju Cole's Open City, a Meditation on New York and Identity.

I guess there is something a little intimidating about Teju Cole's Open City. After all, there's not much of a plot on the surface. Julius, a psychiatry resident at what appears to be Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, He shops, visits museums, attends concerts. He winds up talking to other people on his journeys, many of them loners like himself. He takes one trip to Brussels, with the idea of possibly locating his estranged grandmother. And he recalls his childhood in Nigeria, in particular, life at a military boarding school.

Like many a first-person narrator, Julius is not a dependable one, though one wonders weather he is lying or simply repressing truth. Certainly the way he reacts to other people's misfortune is at times heartless. But at the same time, his character is so curious, and the Cole's writing is so graceful, that you can help but be drawn in to appreciate and often love Julius.

And Teju Cole is not Julius. For one thing, he's trained as an art historian, not a doctor.One did wonder sometimes how much of his own experiences he wrote into the book. The exhibit at the Museum of Folk Art? That was going on around 2007. And yes, it's not hard to figure out when the book takes place, because unless he's done some time shifting, Tower Records didn't have a closing sale for that long a period.

I found it odd how he used so many actual names of businesses, but he refused to call attention to bookstores. The first store was Borders, while the second was Barnes and Noble, by the way. Maybe the issue was that indie bookstores wouldn't get behind a book where the character only went to chains. But I thought, in this case, that it would have been more to the dreamlike quality of some of the walks for all the stores to be masked. I can't help it; I get obsessed with little details.

We had a smaller group than normal at this week's in-store lit group talk. Busy? Intimidated? I haven't yet learned the reason, though for the most part, the group was grateful for reading Cole's novel. In fact, one attendee said it was the best thing she'd read since joining. When we started discussing some of the reviews, J. noted that James Wood, who reviewed Open City for The New Yorker, was often right on the money for her. I immediately ran to get W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, and seeing that the introduction was by James Wood, I put it in her hands and said, "I think I know the next thing you are going to read." Oh, it's fun when it's so easy to hand sell.

The idea of the flâneur came out, the French term for the person who walks the city in order to experience it. When folks talk about Open City, they often first mention it as a novel about New York. I think interviewers have asked if the book could be set anywhere else. I guess the legacy of immigration and merging identity might limit its locations. And the pull and push of an African to feel kinship and distance from African Americans would probably not make as much sense in New York.

And we feel the same push and pull with Julius himself. As he notes in an interview, "he's one of us; he's not one of us." In particular, there are a pair of incidents towards the end that first draw us closer to him and then steer us away as readers. Well, some of us, anyway.

Certainly there are unique aspects to New York in the story--the internationalism, the Dutch origins, and so forth, but probably the real issue would not be what New York really is, but what it appears to be in people's heads, and other cities would simply be too provincial, or would have other images associated with them. And then there is the supposed curse of Los Angeles--it's apparently hard to have a successful novel set there.

But mostly it's just that the myth of New York and immigration are joined at the hip. And this is the story of immigration and identity. In some ways, it reminded me of another book we read early on in the lit group, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. Other folks have compared his work to Zadie Smith's White Teeth as well. Though there might be some similarlity in theme, structurally Cole is coming from a different place, and he credits, in addition to Sebald, J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul as influences. And just to know all the connections, one of our attendees who wasn't able to come had noted the similarities and differences to the recently read How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu.

There was a bit of discussion on whether this was a first novel, as claimed, or not. Mr. Cole had a book published called Every Day (also sometimes referred to as Every Day is For the Thief*) in Nigeria, but it's claimed to be a novella, not a novel. But when I looked on the publisher website, they refer to it as a novel. I'm confused, but that is in keeping with the book's meditation on identity. "Im a first novelist" means one thing to critics, while "I'm a second novelist means something quite different." Read more about his African publisher, Cassava Republic Press, on their website--they are doing some interesting projects in Nigeria and I like their logo.

Our attendee who had the most problems with the book (certainly didn't dislike it, but liked it less than the others) noted that she loved his writing, and had read his piece on the white savior industrial complex and loved it. She hoped that he would turn to more journalism in the future. Interviews with Cole have noted that he intends to do just that.  He hopes to write a book on Nigeria in the future. More in the Tin House interview. But for the majority of attendees, Open City was a wonderful gift, a book they didn't expect to even like, and wound up loving.

Next up, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Monday, May 7, 5:30 pm. This special time is so we can all hear Bechdel talk afterwards.

Then Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, winner of the National Book Award. This will be in paperback in late April. Our meeting will be Monday, June 6, 7 pm. It looks like right now this will be a special no-Daniel meeting, as it is the evening before Book Expo starts, and at least for now, I'm scheduled to go.

*I spoke to Cole's editor, David Ebershoff, who hopes that one day this book will be published in the United States, but no plans yet. We'll all keep watch.

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