Literary settings are often celebrated for richly representing the many details of a particular place. The close association between detail and setting stems from the realist presumption that detail constitutes what Roland Barthes calls an “index of . . . atmosphere”: the accumulation of details provides an authentic sense of place. But the detail’s usual role in constructing immersive worlds seems antithetical to the project of the so-called global novel, which has often been characterized by placelessness and by cosmopolitan, jet-setting characters. This essay examines the relationship between place, detail, and narrative in Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), which has often been praised for its intimate portrayal of New York. With Open City Cole offers a metanarrative commentary on the detail’s function in previous literary periods and modes, from the nineteenth-century novel’s harnessing of detail to create plush, seemingly real worlds to modernist and postmodern fiction’s interrogation of the detail’s supposed referentiality. Engaging with the detail’s many legacies, Cole underscores the latent violence of detail in the global novel, namely, its capacity to draw something into the foreground or make it recede into the background.

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