- Narrative and Cosmopolitan Mobility: Teju Cole’s Open City, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Global Fiction
Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) deluge readers with images of the urban landscapes their narrator-protagonists explore. The narration of each novel painstakingly lists consumer goods, traits of neighborhoods, street names, subway lines, and monuments these characters encounter as they travel around New York and other major cities. Cole and O’Neill have their narrators begin active exploration of New York in early chapters, and their movement around the city and the globe triggers narrative leaps to memories of each migrant-narrator’s homeland, other places they have lived or locations they visit, as well as ones they imaginatively construct. The texts root their fictive protagonists in actual streets and buildings in New York and elsewhere, then consistently connect their diegetic locales to other places or times.
Both born outside the U.S., highly mobile within New York and around the globe, highly educated and culturally sophisticated, Cole’s Julius and O’Neill’s Hans also lost fathers young, have complex relationships with their mothers, write a substantial amount about birds, and seem quite good at and insistent upon figuring out people’s nationalities by looking at them.1 This last feature lets each narrator linger on the diversity of New York and the other global cities they inhabit, calling attention to the “intense flow of human traffic across all and any territories” that Zygmunt Bauman says is characteristic of “liquid modernity” (8). Hans grew up in [End Page 200] The Hague, spends time in India, and lives in London before and after his time in New York; Julius spends four weeks in Brussels and narrates passages regarding his upbringing in Lagos. The places they visit contain large numbers of people like them, individuals who have come from elsewhere and might be reasonably expected to live somewhere else eventually.
Because each novel has this international range of reference, as well as deploying metaphorical figures of flight and devoting attention to population shifts, Open City and Netherland conjure a feeling of global reach and awareness. These characteristics indicate that these texts belong to the category of global fiction, a genre enjoying both critical and cultural prestige as well as insistent redefinition, despite each featuring first-person narration. Both O’Neill and Cole seem intent on working within the novel’s limitations to produce a narrative sensation of a large, complex, interconnected world. They sidestep one of this ambition’s potential pitfalls—simply affirming the banal idea that humans are all linked2—by making their cosmopolitan narrators, the very figures offering this sophisticated vision of the world, objects of critique. As Nasia Anam and Simon Gikandi have noted, globalization’s preferred face is the white-color cosmopolitan, but refugees or migrants seeking economic opportunity or safe haven account for a far greater proportion of the global shifts in human population (Anam, “Nervous Condition”; Gikandi 22–35). Each author’s decision to situate cosmopolitan figures like Hans and Julius as our guides into this shifting landscape might seem to blunt the texts’ ability to comment critically on the globalized present. Yet each novel makes the contrast between their cosmopolitan narrator’s immersion in and movement across inegalitarian environments, filled with less mobile and less privileged individuals, a manifest component of each work.
Bauman writes that the collapse of “the structuring centers” of the postwar, midcentury Western consensus “seem[s] to run parallel with the emergent centrality of the orphaned self ” as a common form of subjectivity (14). Cole and O’Neill give us orphaned narrators, isolated individuals physically separated from their origins and from their families, but whose isolation means they do not feel constrained by a sense of authority to which they must submit. While Bauman imagines fluid modernity’s orphans as lacking structure and foundation, the symbolic orphaning of Hans and Julius also grants a freedom from physical and intellectual [End Page 201] boundaries, which yields to wide play with narrative space and time. The instability of each narrator’s life is paralleled by the instability of his narration, instabilities further complicated...