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Open City
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2018 Book Discussions > Open City--Spoiler thread (Aug 2018)

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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
This thread is for discussion of the entire book or any part of it.


Cath | 10 comments Having gotten used to the fact that many, if not most, of Julius' encounters lead to conversations about, and later reflections upon, various weighty matters concerning mankind and the world, I was amused when, in Chapt 14, he turned his mental energies to the contemplation of the more mundane subject of the bedbug.

In particular, I found his recitation of the work of Charles A.R. Campbell pretty funny in places: "...but now I found the report written by Charles A.R. Campbell in 1903, and in his writing I got a sense of the disgust and awe in which Cimex lecturalius was then held." Of Campbell, Julius continues, "He also described a half dozen experiments he had carried out, ostensibly in the interest of scientific research but which gave the impression of an obstacle course designed to prove the bedbug's hardiness and intelligence. Campbell would have been disappointed, I felt sure, had the bedbug failed to pass any of the trials he put it through."(pp. 174-75)

Julius then discusses Campbell's assertion that bedbugs seem to possess, to some degree, the power to reason. Julius tells us that, to back up his hypothesis, Campbell pointed to work done by one Mr. N.P. Wright of Antonio - whose qualifications in the field of study apparently include being "a very reliable citizen" - which, for some reason, struck me as funny: Campbell "...described an experiment by Mr. N.P. Wright of San Antonio - 'a very reliable citizen and close observer' - in which, as Wright moved his bed farther and farther from the sides of the room, the bedbugs climbed up the wall to the precise height from which they could jump and land on him." (p. 175)


message 3: by Lily (last edited Aug 17, 2018 10:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2503 comments Hmm -- I thought when I entered this discussion earlier today there was a thread specifically about an incident from the final pages of the book. (view spoiler) Was it an interloper thread that I somehow got linked from elsewhere?

I read this book several months ago and did not intend to read it again now. At the time, I appreciated the read, loaned the book to my son and his wife (who both went to college on Manhattan), and felt it reflected many aspects of New York (professional? middle class?) and its culture/milieu, including some of the troubling aspects.


Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments It was OK, but as I mentioned on the no-spoiler thread, I would probably liked it more if I found New York charming.

One interesting thing about the book is, since it is all Julius' musings, we have only his view on anything. This is what the twist Lily refers to depends on, but you can even get very meta about even that, and wonder if that conversion (never mind the events eluded to) actually occurred or was it something Julius fantasized? Is anything in the book an actual event? Can we tell? Does it even matter? Is this a novel of subjectivity alone?


Hugh (bodachliath) | 2835 comments Mod
On the whole I agree with Peter - I could have done without all of the walking round New York. I have very mixed feelings about this book - Cole is obviously intelligent, erudite and well-read but to me there is no direction to this book and it ends up rambling. And the alleged sexual assault in the penultimate chapter was left unresolved - presumably we are being asked to make up our own minds about Moji's account. The whole thing just fizzled out in an anecdote about the history of the statue of liberty. So I can understand both of the extremes in the reviews, and will probably end up sitting on the fence when I get round to writing mine.


message 6: by Hugh (last edited Aug 21, 2018 04:55AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2835 comments Mod
I have now posted my review. I am hoping the discussion will bring out what I missed. In a way, it also reminded me of Iain Sinclair's books about London. 3 stars feels a little harsh (at least on my scale), but 4 would be generous.


Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments Open City reminded me of the older "travel" genre of books. I enjoyed the strolls around NYC and learned some new things from his ramblings on music, art, etc. I've done some research into some of the topics he mentioned and found the exploring to be fun.


Cath | 10 comments I agree readers will arrive at different conclusions about the assault. I decided it did happen.

After it happened, according to Moji, Julius never acknowledged it. And to me, this parallels what we get in the book after Julius tells us about what should have been a very emotionally consequential conversation with Moji, when she recounts the assault to Julius. After that conversation, Julius never acknowledges for the reader what kind of effect Moji's accusation had on him. Typically, most people would have some kind of reaction, but apparently not Julius. Instead we are treated to a long ramble about his new practice setting and various digressions such as how his new office is decorated, details about his postcard of Heliopolis, and his thoughts about Mahler.

So I find it very believable that he could have had an experience like that with Moji, and then never given her any indication, any acknowledgment, that something had happened between them.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Like Hugh, I was bothered by the lack of direction in this book. I was also bothered by the monotone quality of Julius' ramblings. At the end we get the very intense conversation with Moji, in which she explains how he ruined her life, and we get no reaction at all from Julius. He gets much more emotional about Mahler. The more I read of this book, the more I disliked Julius.

I was disappointed by this book. I had hoped for something much better.


message 10: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2881 comments Mod
I'm afraid I don't remember this book very well, but I do remember the kind of philosophical musings it left me with. I enjoyed sort of going along for the ride and experiencing all these observations, but feeling there was not necessarily a point or narrative arc per se. I did prefer Every Day is for the Thief, although that is also not what one might call heavily plot- or character-driven.


message 11: by Elaine (last edited Aug 27, 2018 04:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Elaine | 103 comments I was puzzled by the opening of Ch. 15. It seems to be a brief flashback to when Julius was in Basra with his mother and Nadege and the pet market was bombed. Can anyone add to this?

I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm getting the impression that Julius may be suffering from some kind of trauma, say PTSD. That would be consistent with the monotone, with repressed emotions that are too painful to deal with. At times too he comments on areas where the past, say the slave trade, have been smoothed over. There are a number of references to slavery and African history, so this is relevant.

Also, Julius is a psychiatrist. Doctor, what ails thee come to mind. Given the comments on the ending, I expect we are going to have an eruption from the unconscious.


message 12: by Elaine (last edited Aug 27, 2018 04:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Elaine | 103 comments I just finished it and am not disappointed. It is mysterious and beguiling till the end. I also happen to love Mahler's 9th. I'm not sure why he had to end up locked out on the fire escape, though, but the boat ride was inspiring.

The confrontation by Moji was a surprise. Julius doesn't seem to remember the incident -- nothing less than rape, in fact. So it is clear there are things he blanks out of consciousness, those dark regions of the psyche. Which is what I thought the dying birds signified, but there is a lot more in that symbolism.

It was not what I expected, but Cole gave much to ponder. He's certainly a promising author.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Elaine, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I kept feeling like I must be missing something. I was not sure whether to believe what Moji said, but I gather you think it was true and Julius has suppressed the memories. I was wondering whether it really happened, and how Julius could have such a non-reaction.


message 14: by Elaine (last edited Aug 28, 2018 04:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Elaine | 103 comments Yes, it's one of the mysteries of the novel. Recall that when Julius runs into Moji, he doesn't remember her at all, even though she was the sister of his friend. Something seems to be blotted out there, no?

Having slept on it, I think one of the ways the novel works is that Cole is pointing to an analogy between the geographic world and its history (what is covered over, or hidden) and the way the psyche is mapped. He actually uses that word. There are dark, repressed territories in both. It's really a fascinating concept. Memories are after all highly subjective and often distorted.

It's interesting too the Julius is half black, Nigerian, and half white. His mother was German but the product of a rape, when the Russians swamped Berlin at the end of the war. So his personal history runs deeply into world history.


Whitney | 2254 comments Mod
I liked this book a lot more after finishing and reflecting than I did while reading it. I would have liked it less without the accusation from Moji in the penultimate chapter. The accusation shined a very bright light on what Julius had been withholding from us (and himself); that he's basically a shit. There isn't much doubt in my mind that her accusation was true, Julius himself says that what Moki says had nothing in common with the narrative falsehoods he recognizes professionally.

Julius responds to Moki's accusation the same way he responds to almost everything, with detached, intellectual musings about philosophy. There's a hint that he is consciously suppressing a more emotional response with the story he chooses to reflect on, Scaevola, and later Nietzsche, stoically holding a burning coal rather than give anything away. There's an additional hint about his own unreliability, when he reveals he later found out it wasn't a coal but matchsticks, which had been knocked from Nietzsche's hand when they started to burn his palm.

There is another references to hands, after Julius' bone is bruised during his beating. His hand starts to ache when he lifts a stone from the neglected Negro Burial Ground. Eventually, he gets a delayed surgery on his hand and "the pain is gone". Julius declares at one point that he looking for his own place in the history of the city, but he choses intellectual detachment over any real self examination, but still gives himself away. As he says about Saito, " I learned the art of listening from him, and the ability to trace out a story from what was omitted."


Whitney | 2254 comments Mod
Elaine wrote: "Having slept on it, I think one of the ways the novel works is that Cole is pointing to an analogy between the geographic world and its history ... Memories are after all highly subjective and often distorted."


Yes, I think you're right. At times, Julius speaks to the unreliability of his memory, such as when he says that he can't be sure of whether what he remembers of his father's funeral was real or was incorporated from images of various art works.

I thought one of the most interesting scenes was the one with the Haitian "bootblack", who starts telling the story of his life with incidences that would have taken place in the 18th and 19th century. Julius then steps out into what he imagines are the Civil War draft riots. It's an unexplained, surreal moment that doesn't have an equivalent anywhere else in the book, except as an example of the personal meeting the historical and political.


Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments But we only have Julius' report of the conversation with Moki. He's such an unreliable narrator, that he's still really a cipher. It could of happened or not (I suspect it did, though).

But if he really is a shit, and did rape Moki, that would explain the (otherwise unexplained) break with his mother.


Whitney | 2254 comments Mod
Peter wrote: "But we only have Julius' report of the conversation with Moki. He's such an unreliable narrator, that he's still really a cipher. It could of happened or not (I suspect it did, though).

But if he ..."


I just can't see any reason for it to be imaginary. If we accept that it happened, it reveals the depth of Julius's character that he has so carefully tried to keep hidden. I can't see any point to him inventing the exchange entirely, and if he's not the kind of person to have done it, his lack of reaction makes no sense.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2451 comments I liked this book, in part because I enjoy wandering in NYC and recognized many of the locals. Jules is very detached from people and it is hard to imagine him as a psychiatrist. I found it hard to understand how he could decline to speak with his author client when he was on vacation and express no remorse when he returns and learns she committed suicide.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Has reading the book changed anyone's ideas about what the title --"open city"--is supposed to mean?


Kathleen | 293 comments Elaine wrote: "I was puzzled by the opening of Ch. 15. It seems to be a brief flashback to when Julius was in Basra with his mother and Nadege and the pet market was bombed. Can anyone add to this?

I haven't fin..."


I read the opening of Chapter 15 as a dream. The second paragraph starts with "It was one in the morning and I had fallen asleep in my clothes."


Kathleen | 293 comments What I found so interesting about this was the way we have a cerebral person, walking around musing about all kinds of topics the way particularly cerebral folks do. But along with that we have these very visual, almost sensual descriptions of his surroundings. I thought it was a unique blend that I really enjoyed.


message 23: by Whitney (last edited Sep 10, 2018 06:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Whitney | 2254 comments Mod
Casceil wrote: "Has reading the book changed anyone's ideas about what the title --"open city"--is supposed to mean?"

Here's how I read it.

On the surface, he's referring to Brussels and how it preserved its art and architecture during the war by declaring itself an open city. He's probably also referring to New York and its endlessly diverse assortment of people. As a metaphor, I think it refers to Julius himself. Brussels escaped destruction by opting out of conflict. Julius also opts out of any serious conflict - i.e. meaningful self-reflection, using art, philosophy and history as a kind of shield.

Julius also noted that, in addition to saving the valuable architecture from the medieval and baroque period, Brussels also saved "the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II in the late nineteenth century." Leopold, of course, was responsible for the horrific atrocities that took place in the Belgian Congo. Half European, half African Julius embodies both sides in historical and ongoing conflicts. But he studiously and angrily avoids anyone's attempts to define him one way or another; again avoiding conflict and maintaining his identity as an open city.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Whitney, I like your interpretation. It seems to fit. I would not have picked up on the things you mention in your second paragraph.


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