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Open City by Teju Cole

Open City (2011)

by Teju Cole

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Showing 1-5 of 70 (next | show all)
I've ingested 180 pages this weekend and have been struck spellbound. Yes, the influence of Sebald pervades, but the book I am most reminded of is Zone by Mathias Enard.

It was the NYTBR which brought this seminal work to my attention. It is staggering, it is the deft employment of a inchoate mirror to our fractured lives. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
Some books have opening lines that are immediately moving for the reader. This is one of those books. This uncommon novel begins with the narrator commenting on on his daily walks: "And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall. . . "
While this line may seem unassuming, and the whole book contains vignettes that, taken individually, may seem unassuming, the entirety of this memoir-like narrative is powerful indeed. What is it that makes the individual parts come together in such a fashion that they had such an impact on this reader?

There are two parts containing short chapters. In Part One the story follows the main character, Julius, who is a Nigerian doctor doing his psychiatric residency in New York City. Julius takes up walking as a way to diminish the pressures of his job working with his patients. Julius even uses the walks to clear his mind of personal matters, such as a recent breakup with his girlfriend, Nadege. Throughout the novel, the narration of the story does not include any dialogue among the characters, but is told in exposition - in short chapters. He is an observer of humanity and as he walks he shares his experiences in a somewhat random manner. What we learn from this is not just the experiences but his ruminations on history, literature, art, and eventually his own family. He starts to recognize what a true melting pot New York is as far as cultures and ethnicities are concerned. In the face of living in such a diverse city, however, Julius also notices that stark separation that still draws an imaginary line segregating one ethnic group from another.

As Julius walks, he also thinks back to his childhood in Nigeria. His father died when Julius was 14. He is now estranged from his mother. while his father was of Nigerian descent, Julius's mother is white and of German descent, making Julius a mixed race. Due to his mixed race, and light colored skin, Julius feels out of place, even in the worlds where he belongs. As he wanders around the city, black people seem to connect with him, recognizing his African roots.
One of his run-ins with someone he grew up with in Nigeria even reveals that Julius raped her. Subsequently, Julius blocked out the memory of this event and never reveals if he recalls it when his Moji tells him what he did to her.

Near the end of Part One of the novel Julius visits Brussels. He is only just visiting Brussels, but it has a similar impact on him as Manhattan. He is impressed by the feeling of history from the ancient buildings, since Brussels was an "Open City" in WWII and was thus exempt from bombing. But beyond the history and his own internal meditations he feels just as impermanent in Brussels as he had in New York. It was like he being awestruck by it for the first time despite being world-weary restless. He is a perpetual tourist, stopping in his steps to gawk, never in a hurry but always moving somewhere—if not forward or backward, still somewhere.

By the end of the novel, Julius finishes his residency and moves into private practice. It seems as if he has come to terms with some of the events in his life. On the other hand, he never fully addresses some of the other issues to reveal to the reader as to whether the issues are ongoing or resolved. The lack of resolution did not diminish the cumulative power of the stories shared by the narrator.

Open City is the debut novel by author Teju Cole. the story of narrator Julius’ wandering through New York, and, briefly, Brussels. It gains power and presence through his contemplation of immigration and nationality in the U.S., his fleetingly depicted but often strong friendships, the way we manufacture brotherhood as a way to both unite and distance ourselves from humanity. ( )
  jwhenderson | Nov 12, 2018 |
A timely book written some time ago. Our narrator Julius is superficially alluring - thoughtful, intelligent - but as the book progresses a darker truth emerges of pretension, selfishness, and something even worse. A fine study of toxic masculinity masquerading as ‘nice guy’ness. ( )
  alexrichman | Sep 18, 2018 |
Why now: I read it in preparation for a talk Teju Cole was giving at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the opening of a show of Otobong Nkanga’s work*.

I am not totally sure how I feel about this book. I was a bit rushing with the novel to finish it before the lecture,, and it perhaps suffered as a consequence. I will say I found it very male, and like I couldn’t quite access it. It reminded me of Hemingway in that sense - very sparse, well written, and (to me) wholly without emotion.

For instance toward the beginning there is a scene where he learns of the death of his neighbor’s wife. He is talking about how upset he is about how he didn’t know about this monumental thing that happened on the other side of the wall.

“As I put away my groceries, I tried to remember when, exactly, it was that he had knocked on my door to ask if I played guitar. Eventually i satisfied myself that it was before, and not after, his wife’s death. I felt a certain sense of relief at this, which was taken over almost immediately by shame. But even that feeling subsided; much too quickly, now that i think of it.”

Maybe this disassociation is part of the point of the novel, but it just comes across as feeling like I should pat you on the back for recognizing it. Perhaps men don’t need to work on these things?**

All that said, there is a lot of good here. The depictions of the scenery and events are vivid and beautifully described. There are moments that perfectly capture the joy in discussion and companionship. The wandering around the cities narratives are descriptive and evocative of what it’s actually like to do that. (Another grating aspect for me is I quite happily moved from NYC a year ago so all those parts felt very name-drop-y and made me roll my eyes).

A few beautiful and true lines:

about the confusion in waking in a strange place - “The effort of gathering this ballast for my identity…” - lovely.

“We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.”

“I wonder why so many people view sickness as a moral test. It has nothing to do with morals or grace. It’s a physical test, and usually we lose.”

“Each person muse, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.”

So all in all I didn’t come away with a clear feeling about this one. I guess I recognize it as good literature but never really saw past the veil.

* The talk was interesting though a bit above my head. There was a good bit of discussion about catastrophe and if we are heading for one. A lot of her work is discussing ground and the bodies relationship to it which I find intriguing, but her work is very centered on rock and crystallization while my sort of feeling or ethos or whatever you want to call it is decidedly soil and water-centric.
** Every relationship I’ve ever had laughs at this.
  janemarieprice | Jun 7, 2018 |
Sort of shapeless, but lots of great, beautifully written passages. No plot at all, really, and no ending to speak of -- the book just stops. (I was reading it on the Kindle and really didn't realize how close I was to the ending; I expected another chapter!) ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 70 (next | show all)
Want to write a breakout first novel? The conventional wisdom says ingratiate yourself (Everything Is Illuminated), grab the reader by the lapels (The Lovely Bones), or put on an antic show (Special Topics in Calamity Physics). Teju Cole's disquietingly powerful debut Open City does none of the above. It's light on plot. It's exquisitely written, but quiet; the sentences don't call attention to themselves. The narrator, a Nigerian psychiatry student, is emotionally distant, ruminative, and intellectual. His account of a year spent walking around New York, encountering immigrants of all kinds, listening to their stories and recalling his own African boyhood, achieves its resonance obliquely, through inference—meaning you have to pay attention. But Open City is worth the effort.

Immigration and exile are not new literary subjects (Salman Rushdie, Chang Rae-Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri), but Cole's treatment of them has a quiet clarity and surprising force. Will Open City find a breakout audience? I wonder, given its slow pace and darkness of its theme. Still, I hope so; it's the most thoughtful and provocative debut I've read in a long time.
Teju Cole’s Open City is neither a melodrama, nor is it about a city that has technically been declared "open" during wartime. The novel is set in New York City, no more than a couple of years ago, and narrated by a Nigerian psychiatrist on a research fellowship. Throughout the novel, the psychiatrist, Julius, wanders the streets of the city taking careful note of everything he sees, and everyone with whom he interacts. His observations are recorded in beautifully clear prose with the precision of a clinician, or at least the way one might wish to imagine the precision of a clinician. The descriptions of the cityscape around him are interspersed with memories of his boyhood in Nigeria. His time in New York is interrupted by a trip to Brussels which Julius takes using up his entire four week vacation time, in the vague, unrealized hope of somehow encountering his grandmother there. He is, however, unsure as to whether she is still alive, or even if she lives there at all. Without a clear plan to find her, he continues his habit of wandering, observing, interacting, recording.
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And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.
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Jeder Mensch muss sich unter bestimmten Bedingungen als Sollwert der Normalität setzen und davon ausgehen, dass seine Psyche für ihn selbst nicht undurchschaubar ist, nicht undurchschaubar sein kann. Vielleicht verstehen wir das unter geistiger Gesundheit: dass wir uns selbst, so verschroben wir uns auch finden mögen, niemals als die Bösewichte unserer eigenen Geschichte wahrnehmen.
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Feeling adrift after ending a relationship, Julius, a young Nigerian doctor living in New York, takes long walks through the city while listening to the stories of fellow immigrants until a shattering truth is revealed.

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