Belinda's Reviews > Open City

Open City by Teju Cole
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's review
Jun 11, 2012

it was amazing
Read in June, 2012

Reading “Open City” by Teju Cole evokes for me the same experience as viewing “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the post-impressionist masterpiece by Georges Seurat. The painting depicts a composite scene of weekend life in 1880s France, a whole created from small clusters of figure groups and scenery. A closer examination shows each figure and element to consist of tiny dots of color, placed side by side, each dot slightly modified by the hue-related qualities of its neighbor.

And what does an old painting share with a modern novel? The narrative of “Open City” develops as Julius, the main character, takes walks throughout the city. The larger art work is the novel, but its vignettes are contained like Seurat’s figure groups in small parcels, and closer inspection peels back the “how” to reveal the dots of “why.”

Cole is achingly spare with the “how” and “why” of Julius. He keeps his reader on a need-to-know basis, the tiny details – sometimes only a few words in passing – quietly shared. For example, we know Julius and his mother are estranged, but the root of this disconnect is not discussed. You learn early on Julius is Nigerian, but it is a few stories before you learn his mother is German.

It’s as if Cole wants you to make an assumption about his characters, start building a relationship with them based on your POV, and then Cole will later insert a key piece of information – for example, Julius is bi-racial and comes from a well-to-do family – and then forces you to reassess what your attitudes based on this new information.

Cole is creating a literary experience of what Seurat achieved in his painting. The tableau appears to be filled with hues of violet, except what you’re really seeing is how blues and reds bounce off each other and create a fuzz of lavender. While black Americans often reach out to Julius as a “brother,” the undercurrent of tension is that he has as much Caucasian European heritage as he does African. And, he’s not an American.

This methodically slow reveal of character obviously annoyed some readers, some of whom who wrote reviews complaining of a meaningless, stream-of-conscious plot, and some gave up on the book after a few chapters.

This is a shame because you cannot know or understand the whole of the book without catching the little details and pieces that slowly congeal to give you an almost-complete picture of Julius. His is a complicated life, with shards of race, identity, memory, friendship, music, art, history, intellect and denial that push up against each other in an uncomfortable friction to create who he is. Details emerge until the very end of the book, and it’s through that more complete lens that the reader should reflect on the novel as a whole.

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