Sunday, 24 March 2013

Week Twelve - Jeanette

Open City by Teju Cole (2011)
Recommended by Oliver

A Tale Of Two Readers reaches its first crossover point…

You may remember in Week Two, when I was cogitating on the Armenian genocide with Black Dog Of Fate, Jude was both amused and touched by Danny Baker’s autobiography, Going To Sea In A Sieve. It’s now my turn for a gift from the Oliver library.

Interestingly enough, most mutual friends of Jude and I have chosen different books for each of us. And the one Oliver picked for me is a book without a narrative arc, told by a grown-up only child, a loner without much family who feels cut off from his roots, and who likes to wander around city streets tossing around the contents of his head.

More, far more, on this in a moment. But first: Oliver.

For a good few years, during London life in my early twenties, I liked Oliver – how could one not like such a warm and funny man? – but really, I knew him only superficially. He was the first one to career onto a dancefloor. He was the last one left awake at a party. He was the music fan with every one of the good (and plenty of the shit) pop CD singles of the 1990s. He was the one who made up silly affectionate names for his friends. He was from Sheffield, and thus my first taste of a city that I came to settle(ish) in. 

In short, if there seemed an opposite to Open City’s protagonist, Oliver was it.

As we all started to grow a little older, entertainments became calmer, and it was then when I really felt Oliver and I became better friends. At that point, he was going out with my best friend and flatmate Kathryn, so there was watching CD:UK over Saturday morning breakfast as well as drinking the night away. Of course he was still a natural extrovert, and remains one of the most sociable people I’ve ever met, but it was so nice to grow into the nuances of his personality (which had previously, and perhaps inevitably, been blunted in noisy North London pubs).

One of those nuances is his love for, and knowledge of, modern fiction. Whilst I snuggle into the known-quality of past writing, Oliver is a voracious consumer of the new: so it was not a surprise, but still a delight, to get a book of such recent vintage from Oliver.

Unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.

Julius is a doctor-researcher, specialising in older people’s mental health. Born in Nigeria to a German mother and Nigerian father, he left the country in his late teens to study in New York. Fifteen or so years later he’s still in the city. He spends most of his time (when not working) indulging his cultural and intellectual interests, and unpicking his own opinions, observations and history.

That’s how little, and how much, Open City is about.

A typical passage from early on reads:

In that sonic fugue, I recalled St. Augustine, and his astonishment at St. Ambrose, who was reputed to have found a way to read without sounding out the words. It does seem an odd thing – it strikes me now as it did then – that we can comprehend words without voicing them. For Augustine, the weight and inner life of sentences were best experienced out loud, but much has changed in our idea of reading since then. We have for too long been taught that the sight of a man speaking to himself is a sign of eccentricity or madness.

Extracts such as these reminded me of a work that impressed me greatly last year – À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French book written in 1884. In that, the ‘plot’ consists of the narrator surrounding himself with intellectual stimuli and then chatting about it. Open City isn’t quite as balls-out solipsist as À Rebours, but the idea of retreat into one’s head, combing over its landscape and often in reaction to what art, literature and music tells us of life, is similar. Also, Cole’s writing is really very, very good, and almost up to Huysmans’s astonishing standard.

But what Open City has – and what À Rebours largely does not – is human contact. Julius analyses the microscopic encounters of a day.

At a light on 124th were two men in their twenties, fragments of whose conversation floated around me as we crossed the street. He come up, word? said one. He come up yo, said the other, I thought you knew that nigga. Shit, said the first, I don’t know that motherfucker. They acknowledged me, and I them, then they turned right and went down the street, toward the south.

Open City is the most layered book to deal with ethnicity that I’ve ever read. Julius considers his position as a mixed-race, non-American man in a multi-ethnic city. For instance, when he attends a classical music concert, he notes that the overwhelmingly white audience seems unsurprised and even pleased that he’s there, but is nevertheless relieved that he’s a rarity. His encounters with African-American people are often difficult. Julius is particularly uncomfortable when he meets a post office worker, who moonlights as a radical poet.

Brother Julius, he said, with great feeling, you’re a visionary, keep hope alive. I think we should see some poetry together. I can see that you instinctively get it. We must be a light for this generation. This generation is in darkness, you feel me?
I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.

Julius is not perfect, by any means; he’s a snob and show-off, and his attitudes to women and relationships leave much to be desired (and may even be very dark indeed).

      What does it mean when, in someone else’s version, I am the villain?

Despite the differences in gender, race, and geography between Julius and I, I have not felt as if a character so mirrored me, and my own mental situation and coping methods, for a long time. I responded to his only-child haughty autonomy keenly. But, even more so, I related to Julius’s relationship with Nigeria. He says he left for America ‘to begin life in the new country, fully on my own terms’. Yet, even though he never admits it explicitly, he often seems unmoored: there is a hole within him.

I wrote briefly during Week Eight (inspired by Italo Calvino) of my relationship with the city I live in, Sheffield, and the emotional dramas its streets had staged. Open City had me thinking of Norwich, my birthplace and home until I was eighteen. I have no parents and no siblings and so I rarely visit. Still, Norwich’s absence is a presence. It is like a bubble inside of me. That bubble gets bigger, taking over my whole heart, until it’s unbearable, and I pop it. There’s nothing, nothing there, and I ache for this nothing, before I shrug, and get right back on with my Julius-esque inner monologue.

Meanwhile, the bubble renews itself, hiding in a ventricle, expanding silently once more.