Thursday, August 18, 2011
The wholly unconventional Teju Cole
Okay, I won't give anything away, but in the next-to-last chapter of Teju Cole's "Open City" one of the characters makes a startling accusation about the rather cerebral and passive narrator, Julius - this could be the dramatic highlight of this novel, and most novelists would introduce the element much earlier and the plot of the novel would largely concern the narrator's efforts to refute the allegation or come to terms with it - and yet - Cole is different from almost every other novelist, so what does his narrator do after this allegation is raised? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Doesn't respond to it at all, much less try to defend himself, so where does this leave the readers of Open City? It left me very puzzled, except to think that, yes, Cole is not interested in plot - but perhaps he's more interested in character than I'd thought, because the very passivity of Julius is further evidence that he is among the most isolated, alienated narrators since The Stranger. He feels nothing, does nothing. There are a lot of puzzles here - his frequent references to his "friend," whom we barely meet in the novel, yet whose singular identification - my friend - makes him seem the most important presence in Julius's life, and maybe he is. Is Julius gay? He would certainly have to say so at some point in this novel, where he confesses much else. Is he repressed? Emotionally, yes; sexually, I don't think so. The last chapter is almost entirely on the level of symbol - as Julius takes a boat ride past the Statue of Liberty, and reflects on the days when it was a working lighthouse and birds would die crashing into the crown - laid on a bit heavy here, I think, and the book ends very suddenly, with the mysteries of Julius's life barely explored, let alone resolved. Despite my quibbles and concerns, I'm hugely impressed by Cole's writing and his intelligence, page by page, and though I hope he always retains his unique style and sensibility, I hope he continues to write and as he grows will become at least a nodding acquaintance with the conventions of literary fiction. Readers like plot, and though we also like mysteries we don't like mysteries that are never resolved.