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Open City: A Novel by Teju Cole

Open City: A Novel (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Teju Cole

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Title:Open City: A Novel
Authors:Teju Cole
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2012), Paperback, 272 pages
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Open City by Teju Cole (2011)

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Julius, the narrator and protagonist of Teju Cole’s debut novel, is a psychiatrist doing his residency at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital. He lives a solitary life that consists of long work rotations, and long walks through nearby parks and onward to locales in mid-town and lower Manhattan. He travels infrequently and when he does he puts together all of his vacation time in order to spend a number of weeks in Brussels in rainy mid-winter. Julius is, perhaps surprisingly, well-read — he has a long-standing friendship with his aged former English professor from his university days — and he is a deep and subtle appreciator of classical music and art. In a country of immigrants, it is not surprising to learn that Julius is also an immigrant. He spent his formative years in Nigeria, the privileged only child of a mixed race couple. His widowed mother, from whom he is estranged, was originally from Germany. And it is those roots that he is chasing during his Belgian holiday, since he believes that his mother’s mother (the two are also estranged) has moved to Brussels. Time passes. Julius meets some new people and encounters a few people from his past. He reflects upon literature and art and music and, more rarely, the fundaments of psychiatry. And then the novel ends, without comment or cause or resolution (if there were in fact anything there to be resolved). The effect is rather like reading a single volume of a multi-volume diary. Which rather heightens the challenge that Cole lays down for his anti-narrativist narrative.

The writing here is lean and unemotional. Cole’s narrator describes his day, his walks, some of the sites in New York, his engagement with certain novels and certain composers, and yet the reader never feels as though they are penetrating beyond the burnished exterior of this character. It is as though he, either deliberately or unintentionally, is holding us at bay. It is a style often associated with W.G. Sebald, but it might also be seen latterly in Joseph O’Neill. Cole’s mastery of this technique is remarkable, for a first novel. It has the advantage of facilitating abstruse discussion of art and politics and race and history. All of which makes this novel both a challenging and an intriguing encounter. But such a distancing technique can also limit understanding even as it suppresses emotional engagement.

What do we really learn of Julius? Is he a trustworthy narrator? Do we gain any insight into his Nigerian background? What about the surely compelling story of his mother? What about that grandmother whom he only vaguely attempts to trace in Brussels? In some ways this is a frustrating novel, even if that frustration is both compelled and compelling. So I find myself uncertain, finally, about what to say about Open City. Yet, I have no hesitation in recommending it, if only because you will want to be sure to read everything that this young novelist eventually writes. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Jan 19, 2014 |
One of the most elegant writers I've read. ( )
  newskepticx | Dec 18, 2013 |
Another first reads book (Thank you Goodreads and Random House!)
Much has been said here, and I need not repeat. Language that Cole utilizes is poetic, though not as much as, say, Winterson's. The narrator is an intellectual and the language perfectly delivers the desired effect. What's interesting is that no matter what it sounds exactly like a Nigerian intellectual immigrant would sound at times; all the right words and high concepts are there, but there is a certain way of saying things that points to the continent. This makes the narrative voice very believable and effective.

There is a lot of contemplation, silent walks littered with historical facts about New York City, Nigeria, Lagos, slavery, colonization, language, film, literature, music, music, music... There are many things unexplained or half-baked, and there are no apologies for any of it.

I enjoyed reading the book. The confrontation towards the end and the lack of engagement from the point of view of the narrator was interesting, but I am not sure if I liked it or if I would prefer some sort of reaction, analysis, catharsis. ( )
  bluepigeon | Dec 15, 2013 |
Usually if the term "stream of consciousness" is in a review, I run the opposite direction. Just because so many reviewers told of the huge part New York City played in this novel, I decided to give it a chance. I was not disappointed. With almost no plot, the novel is played out in the mind of Julius as he roams New York and later Brussels. There are two reasons I found this novel so fascinating.

First, the author does an excellent job of laying the events on top of the history of the place. He refers to the World Trade Center ruins as a "palimpsest." I had to look up the word, (refers to parchment used again after earlier writings have been erased) but what an excellent way to describe our current world built upon all the ruins of the past. "There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verranzano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portuguese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson....and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories." I loved that connection the author draws between not only Julius but other characters with the historical or global. Along this same line, the reference to the demise of Tower Records. "I was touched not only at the passage of these fixtures in my mental landscape but also at the swiftness and dispassion with which the market swallowed even the most resilient enterprises."

Secondly, this is really a book about connections. Some reviewers have referred to Julius as detached and making no connections; I see it just the opposite, he makes the connections, but without all the mental hand-wringing and angst found in so many modern novels. The author aptly demonstrates that extremely superficial connections are often highly overrated and that other deep connections have almost no basis. Because Julius is be-racial, he is often immediately referred to as "brother". The cab driver assumes he is a "brother", Saidu immediately asks if he is African, Farouq calls him "brother. The incident with the muggers is another example of a connection that really isn't even there. "There had earlier been, it occurred to men, on the most tenuous of connections between us, looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; based, in other words, on our being 'brothers...a way of saying, I know something of what life is like for you out here." Calling someone a brother implies an understanding, a connection, but it takes more than outward appearance to make one a true brother.

On the other hand some connections are so strong yet based on so little. Julius' rememberence and tenderness of his Oma is based on treasuring her hand quietly kneading his shoulder when he was young. His interactions with Professor Saito were "cherished highlights." Even the story told by a minor character demonstrates how one-sided connections can be; what is important to one, is hardly noticeable by the other. The bootblack says of his past employer, "The loss of Mr. Berard was like the loss of my own brother. He wouldn't put it that way, of course."

Just like a palimpsest, there are many layers to this novel. It is one that is worth re-reading. In addition to what I have pointed out, there is food for thought about racism, religion, and cultural clashes. All this, but without all the "oh, poor me". Some may dislike the fact that Julius is so unemotional, but I believe he is just someone who realizes he is not the center of the universe. Interesting, intelligent, and thought-provoking. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 22, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (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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'Death is a perfection of the eye' (Part 1)
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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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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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