The Saddest Symphony: Teju Cole’s Open City

Posted on | February 17, 2011 | 7 Comments

I got excited about Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City as soon as I read Publishers Weekly’s ecstatic starred review: a young psychiatrist “wanders Manhattan, pondering everything from Goya and the novels of J.M. Coetzee to the bankruptcy of Tower Records”? Yes please. Coetzee is one of my favorite novelists, Goya’s portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga one of my favorite paintings.  Cole’s novel unfolds on the streets of my childhood: I remember browsing for CDs in that Tower Records while home on a break from college, sampling predictable indie pop in a store that had already received its death sentence.  As audiences go, I’m a marketer’s dream.  So why didn’t I like it?

Open City is almost comically lugubrious.  The world-historical atrocities mentioned in its pages include, but are not limited to: the Holocaust, Japanese internment, 9/11, the Armenian genocide, the Native American genocide, the Rwandan genocide, slavery, the invasion of Iraq.  I have no shortness of patience for gloom, but Cole seems to have no sense of humor about his tragedian myopia; rather, he shoehorns a vast human history into his small novel as if name-checking these horrors is an adequate account of their cruelty.  “There is a long marriage between comedy and human suffering,” the narrator, Julius, observes, “…and sometimes it is hard to shake the feeling that, all jokes aside, there really is an epidemic of sorrow sweeping our world, the full brunt of which is being borne, for now, by only a luckless few.”  Julius mentions comedy by way of an apology—he regrets playing the loons he treats on the psychiatric ward for laughs—but there’s something to what he says.

Open City feels like the immediate heir of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and more distantly, of W.G. Sebald’s novels.  But where those novelists let their meditations draw breadth from a central historical concern—9/11 for O’Neill, WWII for Sebald—Cole reaches for any- and everything that might conceivably cross Julius’s mind.  His thoughts, for all their grave concern with the human condition, are deliberately impersonal, almost callous.  They often appear to him suddenly, without transition, introduced by stilted segues along the lines of “It made me wonder…” or “I found myself…”  There’s an opacity to Julius quietly embedded within Cole’s language.

Open City begins and ends with Julius listening to classical music, and these references seem a blueprint to how Cole means his novel to be read—as a kind of symphony, a modulated set of harmonic themes.  Yet his is a symphony without tonal variation.  Here is Julius, early in the novel, describing one of his ruminative walks: slots jungle casino download

One Sunday morning in November, after a trek through the relatively quiet streets of the Upper West Side, I arrived at the large, sun-brightened plaza at Columbus Circle.  The area had changed recently.  It had become a more commercial and tourist destination thanks to the pair of buildings erected for the Time Warner corporation on the site.  The buildings, constructed at great speed, had just opened, and were filled with shops selling tailored shirts, designer suits, jewelry, appliances for the gourmet cook, handmade leather accessories, and imported decorative items.

At first, I found this passage vivid, with its shiny skyscrapers and the boundless variety of wooden spoons hanging in the window of William Sonoma.  But I quickly realized I was simply relying on my own memory—I’ve shopped at these places, and the details aren’t in the language.  Cole seizes on the specifics of the space, but his taxonomy—appliances, items, accessories—is curiously empty.  There are limits, we are forewarned, to what Julius sees.

One gets the sense that Julius, despite his inwardness, doesn’t know himself very well, and that his profession is intended with considerable irony.  What psychiatrists know “was so much less than what remained in darkness,” Julius tells a friend, and this darkness, the limits of the mind’s self-knowledge, proves to be Cole’s true subject.  It’s impossible to explain the reaches to which he carries this idea without ruining the one moment the book achieves a real, searing power.  In vague outline, a revelation about a violent episode in Julius’s past, long since buried, recasts the novel as one long exercise in the duplicity of memory.  All his thoughts, all his wanderings, have been a prelude to Julius’s own inhumanity—or excessive humanity, depending how you look at it.  His obsession with these episodic violences of the past masks his own complicity. virtual fusion bingo

Did Cole need to marshal the entirety of post-1492 history to make this point?  Perhaps he means to place his narrator in a lineage of horrors, one more variation on a theme.  I get what he’s going for, but Cole’s refusal to temper Julius’s somber moralizing with any kind of unbridled emotion, anything uncontrolled, exaggerates the lengths the mind goes to to shield itself from its own depths.  To evade the recesses of memory by contemplating the invasion of Belgium is overstating the case.


7 Responses to “The Saddest Symphony: Teju Cole’s Open City

  1. Ian
    February 21st, 2011 @ 1:08 am

    a worthy book

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  3. Kevin
    February 28th, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    Hi Amelia, these words of yours caught my eye, “But where those novelists let their meditations draw breadth from a central historical concern…” Accurate and apt. Thanks for this piece. Cheers, Kevin

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  4. Andrew
    March 11th, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    I just finished the book last night; I think my reading basically corresponds with yours, but I am actually quite bowled over by it. For me, your reaction to Cole’s description of the Columbus Circle area was how I experienced all the talk about atrocities: this is completely familiar ground for me–I know many people who, for hours of almost every day, are engaged in reading, talking, writing, thinking about post-1492 history.

    And what was remarkable to me about the book was that it never really becomes parody or pastiche, but instead truly dramatizes some very startling questions about how and why some of us think about atrocities so frequently. Why do some of us seem to feel a responsibility to (almost compulsively) engage and re-engage with these events, whether it’s through critical theory or novels or history–where does that sense of responsibility actually come from? Why does it sometimes seem as if we believe that the experience of or proximity to atrocity binds its victims closer to one another, that this “luckless few” who are victims of that “epidemic of sorrow” form a sort of brotherhood? Is there warrant for that belief?

    I think that, rather than being rhetorical or polemical questions, these are real questions for Cole, and while I think he offers some answers (his relationship with Farouq is one, I think, his mugging and the last conversation with Moji are others), they are very ambiguous answers–they could just as well be not answers, but other forms of self-deception. I don’t think, in that sense, that he shares that much with Coetzee, who I think (and perhaps I am wrong) does have much room for ambiguity but is quite certain about many things–animal rights, for instance.

  5. atlas
    March 14th, 2011 @ 3:48 pm


    I agree with you in some senses — I certainly think Cole means to ask hard questions, and arrives at an appropriate ambiguity in his search for answers (the scene with Farouq stands out for this). There’s nothing polemical in his register. The issue, for me, was that his inquiry into the nature of memory felt overdetermined. His historical name-checking has a least as much to do with his point about the indeterminacy of memory as it does about actually exploring why we think so relentlessly about atrocity. And as a result, I think Cole ends up treating these events instrumentally, as opposed to following his own line of questioning all the way through.

    Sad to see your blog is going on hiatus!

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  7. aboulian
    September 8th, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Open City is extraordinarily fine.

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