In “Open City”, Teju Cole attempts to play with our perspective by showing that America is a great distraction from the true essence of humanity: suffering. The inevitable end to this illusion is a death of historical perspective with dangerous consequences. How it’s dangerous exactly, I’m not entirely sure. Though Cole offers some beautiful insights into the human condition, it is ultimately a failure because he does not back up his conclusions with a well-structured plot, and his dull, flat characters cannot carry the weight of his themes.
As someone who enjoyed who enjoyed “Moby-Dick” and “To the Lighthouse,” I am very tolerant of weak plots so long as the author has something profound to say, which Cole clearly does. Unfortunately his story just rambles along and doesn’t provide a very thorough examination of suffering. There is hardly any conflict within the story that demonstrates how different ideas play out in the world. Occasionally one character may contradict the ideas of another, but this is hardly a conflict, instead Julius just casually dismisses one or the other.
When Melville and Woolf wrote books lacking a strong plot, they filled their stories with three dimensional, complex characters that beautifully illustrated human themes through interactions with other characters. Instead, Cole presents us with flat characters who recount simple ideas already familiar to us without adding any new perspective. Some of this is likely due to our unreliable narrator, but if Cole wanted us to question Julius, he didn’t have to make the people populating his novel so monotonous.
Julius, our main character and narrator, is most disappointing of all. Initially Cole introduced him slowly and carefully without revealing the most noticeable aspects of human identity like gender, name, and ethnicity well into the first chapter. This lack of hyperawareness seemed to suggest there was more to our identity than these superficial factors, but as the novel continues, Julius become increasingly detached from his identity. Since Julius lacks the motivations and goals fundamental to all beings that drives them to action, he becomes another flat character whose mind I can’t wait to leave.
The major problem with “Open City” is that Cole doesn’t understand that truth is stranger than fiction. Instead he creates a novel more boring than reality as his characters and conversations are all too familiar to us without any of the strangeness embodied in all beings. Occasionally Cole will blend past with present to develop something truly strange and wonderful, but sometimes he goes on explaining how surreal it is, breaking the basic rule in film of show don’t tell. The best authors will have to draw on all their abilities to write a truly beautiful passage, but Cole occasionally ruins his passages by explaining how beautiful they are, which is a shame because his prose is much better than many contemporary authors.
It’s not all bad. Cole does show abilities in prose and technique that I have already alluded to. I honestly enjoyed and agreed with the message he was trying to get across, but without a well-structured plot and complex, three-dimensional characters to give it verisimilitude, Cole creates a poorly explored and ineffective message.