Professor Saito shook his head, and I could see that he had enjoyed the story, that its strange and unhappy contours had amused him (and troubled him) in the same way they had me. People choose, he said, people choose, and they choose on behalf of others. And what about outside your work, what are you reading? Mostly medical journals, I said, and then many other interesting things that I begin and am somehow unable to finish. No sooner do I buy a new book that it reproaches me for leaving it unread. I don't read much either, he said, with the state my eyes are in; but I have enough tucked away up here. He motioned to his head. In fact, I'm full. We laughed, and just then Mary brought in the persimmons, in a porcelain saucer. I ate half of one; it was a little oversweet. I ate the other half, and thanked him.
- Teju Cole, Open City (2011)
I'll start by saying that this is not a review, since you won't get much out of it if you haven't read the book. Open City is great, and it's selling for a pittance, so you should go get a copy regardless of what I say here. Teju Cole has one of the most sensitive and thoughtful voices I've encountered in modern fiction, and unlike most of our most celebrated writers he doesn't resort to wearisome and easy satire or psychologized, claustrophobic narcissism. Open City is thought-provoking in the truest sense of the word: it inspires genuine thought in an original way without beating you over the head with its pretensions to profundity. (It's astonishing to think how many books that are typically considered intellectual touchstones are just haphazardly assembled piles of Deep Thoughts woven together with sly winks and innuendo.)
To a great extent, I suspect that the reason I like the book is that the narrative style is so close to what I imagine my own interior monologue would be, were I smarter and more contemplative and so on. (Musil, though a classic example of the Deep Thoughts school, scratches the same itch.) Yet there is more to it than that. As several reviewers have already noticed, the real heart of the book is its strange anxiety about globalization, and it is this that sets it apart. Julius, our half-German, half-Nigerian protagonist, never lets us forget that we are living in a globalized world: he constantly encounters people who, just like himself, awkwardly straddle the boundaries between states and continents. Rough crossings of whatever kind are constantly on his mind.
That, in itself, is not very new. The Dilemma of Globalized Modern Man, in various forms, has been a literary staple since the eighteenth century, and in its peculiarly tormented form since the first half of the twentieth. Open City, paradoxically, is new precisely in the indifference of its portrayal. Its most "global" characters are not exoticized or meant to stand in for the particular troubles of their faraway ethnic group. They aren't hawking beads in the big multicultural world-music bazaar that '90s books so often ended up describing. Travel, immigration, and the Internet have made everyone in the book so familiar, in other words, that their "globalness" no longer functions as a substitute for characterization. This rings far truer to me as a depiction of the global world than any of the "encountering the Other" business that emerged several decades ago.
Cole. in short, globalizes the banal and banalizes the global. He is thereby left free to explore his real theme, which is self-justification. Almost every character in this book talks as if arguing before a hostile jury. There's always something in their past that they're uneasy about, and the neat and convenient stories they tell only emphasize this anxiety. (The book itself is, in fact, an exercise in self-justification.) What globalization allows them to do is displace the feelings of guilt, to embroider away their sense of responsibility. Not unexpectedly, Open City takes for granted the standard liberal depiction of the global world order as fundamentally grounded in guilt: about slavery, economic inequality, genocide, racism, war. This inborn corruption becomes a fertile ground for self-justifying narratives which are only rendered more troubling by their plausibility.
We can, if we like, call Open City the first post-global novel. (At any rate, it's the first one I've read to which this tag could be adequately applied.) Cole is clearly trying to start a conversation with the reader, but the question he is asking is no longer "How is the global world changing us?" It's "How do we live with the global as a permanent part of our background?" I've long felt that the latter was much more interesting, and this is an admirable attempt at answering it.