James Wood on Teju Cole and Open City

A 2011 review of Cole's second novel
Teju Cole
From James Wood (New Yorker):
Publishers now pitch their books like Hollywood concepts, so Teju Cole’s first novel, “Open City” (Random House; $25), is being offered as especially appealing to “readers of Joseph O’Neill and Zadie Smith,” and written in a prose that “will remind you” of W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee. This is shorthand for “post-colonialism in New York” (O’Neill), “lively multiracial themes” (Smith), “free-flowing form with no plot, narrated by a scholarly solitary walker” (Sebald), “obviously serious” (Coetzee), and “finely written” (all of the above). There is the additional comedy that Cole’s publishers, determined to retain the baby with the bathwater, boldly conjoin Smith and O’Neill, despite Smith’s hostility, advertised in an essay entitled “Two Paths for the Novel,” to O’Neill’s expensive and upholstered “lyrical realism.”

This busy campaign for allies does a disfavor to Teju Cole’s beautiful, subtle, and, finally, original novel. “Open City” is indeed largely set in a multiracial New York (the open city of the title). Cole is a Nigerian American; he grew up in Lagos, came to America in 1992, at the age of seventeen, and is a graduate student in art history at Columbia University. The book’s half-Nigerian, half-German narrator walks around New York (and, briefly, Brussels), and meets a range of people, several of them immigrants or emigrants: a Liberian, imprisoned for more than two years in a detention facility in Queens; a Haitian shoeshiner, at work in Penn Station; an angry Moroccan student, manning an Internet café in Brussels. This narrator has a well-stocked mind: he thinks about social and critical theory, about art (Chardin, Velázquez, John Brewster), and about music (Mahler, Peter Maxwell Davies, Judith Weir), and he has interesting books within easy reach—Roland Barthes’s “Camera Lucida,” Peter Altenberg’s “Telegrams of the Soul,” Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “The Last Friend,” Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism.” [Read More]

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