Why is the city open?

Teju Cole’s, Open City, written in 2011, narrates the life of a Nigerian man named Julius who wanders the streets of New York and then Brussels. The novel indirectly critiques the positive and negative aspects of globalisation, largely based in a western setting, but with flashbacks to Julius’s childhood in Nigeria. The novel lacks a strong plot and the only definitive element of progression is Julius’s break up with his girlfriend who then gets engaged to someone else. Otherwise we meander through the book, as Julius wanders through the streets, encountering different people and cultures. After finishing the novel I questioned, why the title Open City?
In an interview with Jeffery Brown, Cole offers some answers. Firstly the book is named Open City because of the ‘idea that this city is accessible to him. It’s open.’ This is certainly true. Julius is a doctor, working in New York and so he doesn’t have any financial worries, which allows him to explore New York and later on Brussels. He also is an American citizen which gives him access to all the destinations in New York which he would not have had access to if he had remained in Nigeria. This global accessibility would not be open to everyone, such as those who live in the slums in Chris Abani’s Graceland. The slum dwellers are trapped by their economic status, with only the very few, like Elvis, able to escape. Lagos in turn could then be considered as a closed city because people are often hindered in their economic progression and are not able to leisurely wander around as Julius does in New York. In the Open City, the city appears open because Julius easily passes from one place to another. For instance he explores Broadway (Open City, p.45), and then he travels to Trinity Church (Open City, p.49) and so on.
Yet, as well as Open City communicating a positive meaning it can also be regarded negatively according to Cole: ‘It’s a city that has been invaded, but a city that is trying to deal with the enemy to prevent physical destruction of its infrastructure.’ The ‘siege mentality’ that Cole is trying to invoke gives the ‘sense of invasion happening on several levels, historically, psychologically.’ New York is under siege from many problems such as the 9/11 attacks which Cole mentions as background information in his novel, the meeting of cultures, the history of the slave trade and current racism.
As New York can then be considered as under siege, perhaps the title Open City isn’t appropriate? By being under siege defences have to be implemented and therefore the city is no longer open to all. One issue that Cole narrates is how New York could possibly be under threat from global warming and therefore there is the need to defend the city. The character of Julius admits to the reader that ‘the way my thoughts returned to the fact that it was the middle of November and I hadn’t yet had occasion to wear my coat’ (Open City, p. 28), makes him believe that the weather in New York is changing due to global warming and it is a problem that New York will encounter in the future.

Katie Parris

Abani, Chris, Graceland (New York: Picador, 2004).
Cole, Teju, Open City (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2012).
Conversation: Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’, posted by Jeffrey Brown, March 18, 2011.

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