In the Telling

Open City feels like a collection of vignettes, rather than a novel. Narrator Julius wanders New York and Brussels and while doing so is given the stories of those he meets. These interactions are not limited to people you’d think would share stories: those you have a relationship with, the guests at your dinner table, your family finally telling you their secrets. To make this concept work, complete strangers are somehow compelled to tell Julius intimate details and life-stories. It makes for wonderful reading — new points of view and fresh narratives abound — though it strains credulity a bit. Further, Julius never seems comfortable with all this telling. For all that this book is set up as almost micro-fictions, told by the characters he meets, Julius often tries to avoid hearing their stories, or at least seems unhappily resigned that he is (unusually) someone people feel compelled to talk at, for lengthy periods of time. Julius doesn't usually say much in response, and seems so interior of a person. I can picture his face not being scowling or openly condescending, but not particularly friendly; not someone I would approach and tell my life story. Perhaps though, it is his profession. Julius is a psychiatrist; he is paid to hear people talk, and perhaps there is something in this that he carries outside, so that people everywhere talk to him.

Each person, must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy.
Cole forces the reader to examine how they approach stories and the biases they bring along with them. For example, there were several instances in which I assumed a character was white. First, a friend of Julius outlines his family’s situation: His father is "out there in South Caroline somewhere right this minute, looking to score blow. That's what he lives for"; Mom had "six children from five different men"; he has an older brother "who's doing time for dealing"; and his Uncle Raymond "was a mechanic in the Atlanta area. He had a wife and three kids. [...] He went into the backyard and shot his brains out." For whatever reason, I had a white-trash hillbilly family in mind, but another in the group, Moji, says to The Friend Not Named "black* people [...] like you, who have been here for generations." A similar thing happened a little bit later when Julius is with a patient, and it's only when the patient says "Doctor, I just want to tell you how proud I am to come here and see a young black man like yourself in that white coat, because things haven't ever been easy for us" that I realise the patient is black. I feel this is deliberate on Cole's part. He knows that whoever is reading this book will default somewhere, and he lets them. For some readers, their biases will be totally wrong. Moji later wonders if Julius is asking her leading questions about her relationship in order to ascertain if her boyfriend is black; Julius carries bias as well. I don't think this unconscious assuming is just me, but it does make me wonder how other people would default with these pieces of the text. Without information otherwise, do we all default to what we are, because it is the most comfortable and familiar? Julius, as a kind of Mischling (with a German mother and African father, he grew up in Nigeria and seems to identify as black for the most part [and this reminds me of the erroneous notion that Africa is a country, that North Americans often have]), lives every day knowing difference, never quite fitting one category or another. He recoils at the notion of instant brotherhood based on nothing but religion or skin-colour, knowing that the inbuilt bias can lead to surprising revelation later; he’d rather just avoid getting close. (Julius is also set upon by black youth, beaten and robbed. The ties that bind us to race or religion vanish easily in the face of violence.)

Following the idea of bias and prejudice, there is a subtle yet real examination of xenophobia here. It’s not just in the obvious conversations people have about people from other nations, but in the way people speak everyday about their environment. I began to notice that the invasive "Chinese" species of trees and insects are a topic of conversation. I wondered if this was significant, somehow, and dwelt a bit on how news stories on invasive species are always careful to name where these plants/insects/fish etc come from. Moji articulates what I’d been thinking:
The name Africanized killed bees is a piece of racist bullshit. Africanized killers: as if we don't have enough to deal with without African becoming shorthand for murderous.

Anecdotally, the differences tend not to be exaggerated—for important social reasons, people like to think that other people are totally unlike them—but these differences are, in reality, for most functions, rather small.
A major point happens about half-way through, and it's not until you finish the book you realise this is a lot of what Cole's on about. That in trying to eradicate the hatred of difference, we've attempted to subsume everyone into one category. In order not to offend we've forgotten that difference can be exciting, interesting, and glorious. A man who works the cash register at an internet café in Brussels becomes somewhat of a friend. As he begins to talk, his education comes out (in this passage we are also confronted with how we default into categorization not only by race, but by class).
You are different, okay, but that difference is never seen as containing its own value. Difference as orientalist entertainment is allowed, but difference with its own intrinsic value, no. [...] Let me tell you something that happened to me in class. [...] We were supposed to choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and I was the only person who chose Malcolm X. Everyone in class was in disagreement with me, and they said, Oh, you chose him because he is a Muslim and you are a Muslim. Yes, fine, I am a Muslim, but that is not why. I chose him because I agree with him, philosophically, and I disagree with Martin Luther King. Malcolm X recognized that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value.

The city in Open City is the world. I know this sounds a bit wide-eyed and peacenik, but it’s quite real. Immigration makes cultural identities of place extremely fluid. Julius is an immigrant to New York, as are many of his friends. Like North America, Europe has always had immigrant populations, and he spends time not only with the current wave of Arab immigrants, but a symbol of the old guard, a rich, white woman. People move, and because of movement, experience is necessarily individual. With an open ear and open mind, the “global village” becomes not an economic concept, but a humane one.

Further reading, which doesn't fit into my post anywhere, but is interesting:

Julius goes to a photography show in NY on Martin Munkacsi. At it, he contemplates a famous image of "three African boys running into the surf in Liberia.” There is some controversy surrounding the setting of this portrait.

There's a lot of description in the book about the physical environment of Manhattan. Early on:
The strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in the concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused.
I had read this Paris Review article just a couple days before about Minetta Brook

Donna Bailey Nurse's piece in the National Post today, while focused on Canadian black literature, is easy applied to Open City.

*I tend to capitalize “Black” when writing about race, but Cole doesn’t, so I’ve kept that format throughout this piece.

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