Sunday, May 15, 2011

Walk Of Life

A slightly different version of this appeared in today's DNA.


A young man walks the streets of New York City. He talks to strangers, meets friends, gets mugged and muses on incidents from his childhood. He visits Brussels and returns to New York, where he resumes his rambles, observing changes and drawing associations.

Those don’t sound like ingredients for an especially remarkable novel. Yet, debutant Teju Cole’s digressive Open City is noteworthy for its portrayal of pauses in life’s frenetic rhythms and for the links it forges in the midst of disparity. Opportunely, it also takes forward the form of the novel in the manner of W.G. Sebald.

The narrator, working in a hospital on a psychiatry fellowship, is not as much self-aware as he is aware of the people and places around him. His rambles across the city, from Wall Street to Harlem, from the 92nd Street Y to Tower Records, are matched by rambles within, and the connections he makes give the novel its unique flavour. This is a narrator whose mind is more well-stocked than most. He spots a woman wearing black on the subway, and this puts him in mind of paintings by Velasquez; later, the architecture of another subway station in lower Manhattan evokes the interior of Winchester Cathedral.

He’s also fascinated by the living city as a palimpsest, recording forgotten aspects of its Dutch heritage as well as the rise and fall of small and big businesses. He ponders on subjects as diverse as changes in the way we read to icons from Vito Corleone and Cannonball Adderley. At other times, he obsesses over the quotidian, be it the persistence of bedbugs or forgotten ATM pin codes.

Cole’s sentences are graceful and lucid, with loping rhythms that match the flâneur-like mood. Of his meditative sojourns, he writes: “…I was one of those people, the overinterpreters. This was part of my suspicion that there was a mood in the society that pushed people more towards snap judgments and unexamined opinions, an antiscientific mood; to the old problem of mass innumeracy, it seemed to me, was being added a more general inability to assess evidence.”

As the narrative progresses, a central concern becomes apparent: that of assimilation and the differences that remain when one immigrates. The narrator, born of a Nigerian father and German mother – like the author himself -- comes across others from Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean: illegal immigrants, cab drivers, museum attendants, bootblacks. Some of their stories merge into the narrative through the expedient of doing away with quotation marks. This concern with the Other, with blurred identities, is also brought out in a long novelistic detour, when the narrator visits Brussels as a counterpoint to New York. Here, among other things, he engages in theoretical yet fascinating conversations with an autodidactic Internet café manager with a “seething intelligence”.

We learn a little about the narrator’s upbringing in Lagos, in particular his stint at a military training school and relationship with his parents. Despite mentioning an estranged girlfriend, picnics with friends in Central Park and visits to an ailing former professor, he remains something of an enigma. The reason for this is made clear towards the end, when a disturbing revelation disturbs the book’s languid surface. This makes one reassess all that has come before: his obsessive wandering, musings on the mind’s blind spots or even the choice of psychiatry as a profession.

The form of Cole’s novel emerges organically from its content; it would be a mistake to look for conventional structure and incident here. These observations are held together by an incisive, mediating consciousness, and much of the pleasure of reading Open City arises from simply following it in operation.  

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