Sunday 17 April 2016

Open City

(March 2016)

A deceptively quick read, for all that this is a book that could never be accused of wearing its pretensions lightly. Never mind the quality, feel the research.

There is no real plot to speak of. Julius, a half-German Nigerian doctor, wanders around New York, making erudite and increasingly irritating observations on culture and history. It’s very reminiscent of the few pieces of Dickens’s non-fiction that I’ve read, in which he walks around London expounding on stuff as he goes. I’m not sure if it’s this resemblance that made me realise perhaps later than I should that the pretention is supposed to lie in the character, not the writer. Cole is certainly not in thrall to his creation, so much so that when, towards the end of the book, Julius gets mugged while in the middle of one of his more asinine mental meanderings, you can’t help but feel a slight thrill of schadenfreude. It’s all very well banging on about the life and times of ‘the city’, but anyone who’s lived in a sizeable city for any length of time should have recognized the warning signs Julius seems to have almost wilfully chosen to misinterpret. This, we appear to be informed, is what happens when you disappear too far up your own arse: the real world intervenes and give you an unignorable slap upside the head.

And that, sadly, is all I can really remember about this book now that I’ve time to write about it. Except to say that, seemingly bored of walking around New York, Julius jets off to Brussels and spends a few chapters walking around there, instead. During this time he engages with some Muslim characters for what felt to me in mid-March like some pretty contrived and superficial discussions about colonialism and resistance. Feelings which were sadly overtaken by events only too soon after, and now it’s pretty much impossible for me to tease the two apart.

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