Teju Cole’s Open City is, in some ways, virtuosic—I have no double that Cole can write, he can set a scene like few other contemporary writers I’ve come across and has incredible patience letting the place unfold—but ultimately, I’m not sure there is enough “there” to make this a book that’s anything greater than the sum of its scenes. In reviews, I’ve seen it likened to W. G. Sebald’s work, but I feel like Sebald, even when describing places or scenes, holds an interest in how scene effects the speaker or the other characters. In Cole’s book, however, the scene setting seems to extend not only to the people around the speaker, but to the speaker himself. Even when the speaker is being brutally beaten there isn’t desperation or humanity. It’s more a question, for the narrator, of how he should talk about it, how best to set or manipulate the scene, both for others and for himself.
Much like, for example, Under the Volcano captures the sad end of a raging alcoholic, Coles’ novel captures the numbness of his main character, a contemporary immigrant. A man who lives on the margins of America, Europe, and Africa, both black and white America, and who has no real identity within the mass of people around him and feels no camaraderie with them. He is a stranger, but interestingly, it seems he’s as much a stranger to himself as to the reader. He intellectualizes, he describes, he pontificates, but he doesn’t self-reflect or emote.
I feel confident enough in Cole’s writing to think that he made these decisions consciously, and the numbness of the character mirrors the numbness of post-9/11 New York in an admirable way. The portrait is right on, but there’s no moment in which that portrait is expanded, investigated. The book ultimately felt devoid of a challenge to the writer (okay, you’ve created this character, you’ve created this world, now what does it mean?) I don’t know if I’m right to think I deserve such an investigation as a reader, but I do think it’s the element that would have made this book great, rather than merely pleasing. I admire Cole’s deft handling of a myriad of topics, the melting pot of race, culture, even architecture, and above all a speaker that becomes less likable until he just may be a monster by the end. But the book feels as if it plays the game, if that makes sense. It has the requisite literary allusions, it has the complex racial and cultural touchstones, but it’s most intriguing dilemma, the question, “why have we come to a point where we lack passion/horror/outrage?” is asked by this book’s very bones, but never really wrestled with. This is a disarming book, a subtle yet difficult book, and at times a beautiful book, but I wonder, if in trying to capture a culture that has become numb through a cultural artifact that is itself merely numb, has Cole merely made something that’s just one more snowflake atop the blanket of snow?