25 March 2012

Open City, by Teju Cole

I keep coming across references to this book. It happened so many times that I checked a copy out from the library, and now that it's been recalled from me, I finally got around to reading it. I understand why there's so much buzz about it - it manages to hit a whole cluster of hot topics in politics without seeming overtly preachy. This is one of those books where I am so obviously the choir it's preaching to that I can't help but be suspicious of my own enjoyment. The novel meanders between New York streetscapes, encounters with strangers laden with thoughtful reflections on race, identity, and politics, and references to literature and cultural theory. I mean, come on. Of COURSE I ate it up. Moroccans living in Brussel discussing Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King Jr and Walter Benjamin? Yes please.

That said, I honestly don't know how enjoyable the book would be for someone who isn't picking up on those references. I suspect that they're explained clearly enough for it to still be interesting. I think the questions the novel raises are given life in ways that will appeal to people from a variety of political backgrounds (though you probably do need to be at least left-leaning), and I enjoyed the way the book gave you space to interpret situations in a variety of ways. The bigger question, for me, is whether the lack of a strong narrative arc will be enough to sustain readers who are looking for more than a kind of talking heads experience. The narrator basically walks around thinking about stuff. At one point he goes to Brussels. He talks a bit about his childhood in Lagos, but not much. There are a few other characters, and some progression of events, but it's pretty sparse. It does, however, read very quickly - I started it last night and finished it this afternoon. It's a contemplative, interesting read, one that you'll probably think about for awhile once you finish it. I was not blown away by it, but I found it very pleasant.

1 comment:

Chris Love said...

Yeah, I definitely want to read Open City this summer when I have time. I've been following Cole's Twitter, and thus, now, his comments on the White Savior Industrial Complex, re: the Kony movement. Have you been reading about this?