Teju Cole’s Open City is largely introspective, quite serious, completely insular novel about, as the back cover puts it, “identity, dislocation, and history.” In literary speak, it is all of these things, but these themes take a bit of unpacking before we arrive there. On the surface, the novel is about a man in New York post 9/11 who takes to wandering the city (and, once, another city) and taking us on a journey with him and his many, many thoughts.
Our protagonist is a Nigerian-German man named Julius who moved to New York from Lagos in 1992. He is a psychiatric student on a fellowship, and this fact adds another element to his constant analytical thought process. The narrator speaks to us as though he’s dictating his diary, and in this we very rarely get any outside description – we piece together that Julius is African from clues that come throughout the first 30 or so pages, his knowledge of Yoruba cosmology, his understanding of Ida Amin through childhood mythology, and finally, an anecdote when an Indian-Ugandan medical doctor tells his dinner crowd, “When I think about Africans I want to spit.” This leaves Julius to tell us, “The bitterness was startling. It was an anger that, I couldn’t help feeling, was partly directed at me, the only other African in the room.” Julius then clues us in by going on to say, “The detail of my background, that I was Nigerian, made no difference, for Dr. Gupta had spoken of Africans.” It’s this type of side-stepping inference that may frustrate some readers who are used to a bit more straight forward storytelling (to them I say, please, step out of your literary box), but it does make for an interesting take on the novel.
Through his wanderings, we get a deep sense of isolation (seemingly self-induced) but I’d argue that this fact does not necessarily make us feel like Julius is depressed in his aloneness, but rather a fact of his life. (Though a review in NY Times labels our narrator “lugubrious.”) Even Julius’s friends, who we meet in the latter third of the book, provide little sense of communal enjoyment through their company (which would be a reprieve from the heaviness of nearly all of the book), and instead we’re pulled to Julius’s ramblings on our total unpreparedness for mass extinction:
Families that lost three of their seven members were not at all unusual. For us the concept of three million New Yorkers dead from illness within the first five years of the millennium is impossible to grasp. We think it would be total dystopia; so, we think of such historical realities only as footnotes. We try to gorget that other cities in other times have seen worse, that there isn’t anything that immunizes us from a plague of one kind or another, that we are just as susceptible as any of those past civilizations were, but we are especially unready for it. Even in the way we speak about what little has happened to us, we have already exhausted ourselves with hyperbole.
I’d been going on. It was Lise-Anne who saved me from myself by changing the subject.
We travel with Julius throughout New York and Brussels, and we are right with him through the people he encounters from all different cultures and classes and places in his history. We hear his thoughts when encountering a politically angered Moroccan man working at an Internet cafe in Brussels, we’re with him through a brief, non-passionate, random sexual experience, we see him get jumped by a group of young men while walking late at night, and we hear a woman from his childhood with whom he believes to be flirting charge him with sexual assault (this latter narrative line came much later in the novel and felt a bit out of nowhere, but did work to complicate the narrator, who suddenly became not the sensible, critical eye we’d known him to be up until that point). Julius has a wealth of knowledge on literature, music, philosophy, and world history, but even while delving into the life of photographer Martin Munkacsi’s or tangents on plague, war, and famine in 17th century Europe, we never feel that he is boasting or condescending to us. We get the sense that this is how his mind works, and here we are, along for the ride. In this, Cole’s greatest strength is his ability to see both the world and the people around him with an analytical eye that never comes across as heavy handed.
Open City is not a novel I would recommend to the faint at heart (ahem, those who read only in the ten minutes before they fall asleep at night). The dense prose leaves little room to breathe, but thankfully, at under 300 pages, its length makes it digestible. The writing is tight and enjoyable in the way that one might continue to listen to a very smart person talk because, though they leave no room to answer back, everything they say is very interesting. Cole avoids using any quotation marks, line breaks, or punctuation to denote dialogue, so character speech becomes easily intertwined and somewhat indecipherable from our narrator’s thoughts. This creates the effect of feeling stuck to him from page one, which is not entirely a bad thing, because though his narrative tone comes off a bit monotone, his voice is just conversational enough to make us not feel like we’re being talked at through the whole novel. It’s not the tightly woven drama of more recent contemporary novels, but it’s not the doldrums of 200 pages of farming in 1800s Russia (lookin’ at you, Tolstoy!) It’s something else entirely. Something somewhat pleasant, somewhat strange, somewhat poignant, and certainly somewhat difficult. It’s a bit of an enigma.
But then, there are moments when the writing is just so literary, so absolutely gorgeous, that we as readers must stop and appreciate. Sentences like “In the spring, life came back into the earth’s body” and “To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to split off, to be reflection alone” read more like the words of a poet than of a novelist, but it is the beauty of the language that will keep most people turning the page, not, I would argue, the somewhat ineffectual storyline.
The reality, Julius, is that we are alone out here. Perhaps it’s what you professionals call suicide ideation, and I hope it doesn’t alarm you, but I often paint a detailed picture in my mind of what I would like the end of my life to look like. I think of saying goodbye to Clara and other people I love, then I picture an empty house, perhaps a large, rambling rural mansion somewhere near the marshes where I grew up; I imagine a bath upstairs, which I can fill with warm water; and I think of music playing all through this big house, Crescent, maybe, or Ascension, filling the spaces not taken up by solitude, reaching me in the bath, so that when I slip across the one-way border, I do so to the accompaniment of modal harmonies heard from far away.