“Every work begins as an obvious metaphor,” John Berger writes. “The metaphor allows [the artist] to imagine the familiar world from above, and his own liberation from it.” Most novels move beyond metaphor toward something resembling a plot; Teju Cole’s Open City (out this week in paperback) does not. Rather, it is itself a single metaphor: aimless wandering as a reading experience.
It’s not the easiest kind of book to dive into. I had to let the aimlessness of it wash over me for awhile, until I began to see how Cole was working, at which point the simple enjoyment of reading quickly became separate from my expectation of what reading should be like — a distinction not so easily grasped. Though the influence is visible, Cole refrains from copying the stream-of-consciousness style of Joyce or the minutely detailed explorations of Baker, and instead works with his own method that interweaves writing style with subject matter into the cloth of a familiar yet original protagonist.
The novel begins as a young man named Julius, seeking “a release from the tightly regulated environment of work,” begins to take long, “inconsequential” walks through New York as “a reminder of freedom.” It is a carefree occupation and a promising device, yet within this premise, an event of consequence fails to follow: Julius just keeps meandering through New York and through the book, an “aimless wandering” that slowly, ultimately, releases us from the tightly regulated environment of the novel.
The narrative takes us through a year or so in Julius’ life, but time and place are often jumbled: chapters jump to Nigeria and Brussels, to Julius’ childhood and his budding psychiatric career. As we let ourselves drift with Julius, reading itself also begins to feels aimless, though not insignificant. Liberated from the constraints of a plot, we begin to wonder why we need it at all.
In this respect, Open City isn’t so much a story as an inquiry, and Cole focuses on the means of action rather than its ends. From this rare perspective, the act of storytelling is accomplished through the details of smaller episodes, not a linear progression of scenes. In one childhood anecdote, Julius recounts saving another boy’s life at a swimming pool, trading the glory of what could be a typically heroic tale for a ponderous consideration of the act itself:
The moment that has stayed in my mind is of having not yet reached the boy but having already left the crowd of children behind. Between his cries and theirs, I swam hard. But caught in the blue expanse around me and above, I suddenly felt like I was no closer to him than I had been a few moments before… I thought, for an instant, that I would always be swimming toward him, that I would never cross the remaining distance of twelve to fifteen yards.
Much as Quentin Tarantino uses still frames to accentuate the action in his films, Cole carefully situates his narrative in the space between choice and outcome, the space in which the ambiguity of a decision becomes visible.
Indeed, for the majority of the book, very few choices are actually made. Julius’ world is always happening both with and without him, and he can only occasionally line up his own desires with it. The only capacity in which he proves capable is in bringing a vast catalog of historical and literary references to bear on just about anything he sees: at one point he whips out a biography of Antony de Hooges and the Dutch settlement of upstate New York; later he casually relates the history of Ming Dynasty lacquerware. These intellectualisms do not substitute for actual participation, though, and Julius’ inability to act is a weakness that does not escape his own notice. “I found my admiration for decisive choice increasing,” he admits while reflecting on political engagement, “because I was so essentially indecisive myself.”
It’s not entirely clear whether we should side with Julius — who, we eventually learn, has not always been an innocent bystander to his own life — and the delight of the book is that it coaxes us to at least attempt to decide. A plot would certainly make doing so easier, but its absence is ultimately a blessing. Julius is constantly swimming towards something that feels important, even necessary, though it’s unclear what it is or why it’s so captivating. Cole’s achievement is that he has crafted a novel that needs no beginning, middle, or end because it so humbly imagines actual life: a string of events that follow each other without any perceptible rhyme or reason. His focus on the moment, not the outcome, grants us the chance to “imagine the familiar world from above” and ask whether we’re swimming hard enough.