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

by Teju Cole

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Member:erezv
Title:Open City: A Novel
Authors:Teju Cole
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2012), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
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Open City by Teju Cole (2011)

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English (42)  Dutch (3)  French (1)  German (1)  All languages (47)
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
open city n. an undefended city; spec. a city declared to be unfortified and undefended and so, by international law, exempt from enemy attack.

Julius, a Nigerian psychiatrist living in Manhattan, is Teju Cole’s humane, aesthetic, and highly observant narrator in Open City, a debut novel that has earned Cole comparisons to such heavyweights as Proust and Sebald. While Cole’s project is similar in how he explores how our surroundings shape and inform our experiences, our subjective realities, and our relationships with others, the voice here is all his own even though some of the structural arrangements follow Proust—e.g., apart from the descriptions of Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” Julius’s description in Open City of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is perhaps the most wonderful writing on music ever written—and Julius’s various meanderings about Manhattan (and also Brussels) echo sections of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with which I’m as yet only tangentially familiar.

The concept of the open city, which is emphasized in the novel during Julius’s visit to Brussels, is critical to Cole’s examination of how many city-dwellers thrive on feelings of safety: “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world.” This is especially prevalent in Julius’s post-9/11 Manhattan, and also in the many conversations he recounts—with relatives, with strangers, with patients, with Al-Qaeda sympathizers, with colleagues, with neighbors—that blend the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII, the Nazi occupation, the Vietnam War, and other domestic and global conflicts in order to consider how these relate to collective and individual cultural identities, especially at the level of dislocation and fracture, poised between living and dying: “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 be split off, to be reflection alone.”

Cole’s salient prose takes in the breadth of human experience while living in a city whose ever-changing architecture, public spaces, crowds, and landscapes go unexamined by so many who live there. By contrast, because he is an outsider, Julius takes in everything, and on his walks through the city he is as able to observe a car accident, relate being mugged, offer the history of beached whales and birds dazed and dead by the Statue of Liberty’s torch as intrinsic (but often forgotten) parts of New York City’s narrative, and also reflect on the emotional experiences of a life lived straddling two very different worlds—that of Nigeria and that of Manhattan, that of childhood and that of adulthood, that of becoming and that of still becoming, only more consciously so. Just as the city has depths and hidden stories (“What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten”), so, too, do individuals, and Julius’s narrative is as much about coming to terms with his adopted city as it is with himself: “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories” as it is “unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.”

Open City is a profound meditation on how one should live one’s life with eyes wide open, taking in the inconsequential and relishing it for how it will later attach itself to our own subjective narrative, both in terms of how we view our lives looking back in time and also how we morph and change along with the cities we call our homes. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
open city n. an undefended city; spec. a city declared to be unfortified and undefended and so, by international law, exempt from enemy attack.

Julius, a Nigerian psychiatrist living in Manhattan, is Teju Cole’s humane, aesthetic, and highly observant narrator in Open City, a debut novel that has earned Cole comparisons to such heavyweights as Proust and Sebald. While Cole’s project is similar in how he explores how our surroundings shape and inform our experiences, our subjective realities, and our relationships with others, the voice here is all his own even though some of the structural arrangements follow Proust—e.g., apart from the descriptions of Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” Julius’s description in Open City of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is perhaps the most wonderful writing on music ever written—and Julius’s various meanderings about Manhattan (and also Brussels) echo sections of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with which I’m as yet only tangentially familiar.

The concept of the open city, which is emphasized in the novel during Julius’s visit to Brussels, is critical to Cole’s examination of how many city-dwellers thrive on feelings of safety: “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world.” This is especially prevalent in Julius’s post-9/11 Manhattan, and also in the many conversations he recounts—with relatives, with strangers, with patients, with Al-Qaeda sympathizers, with colleagues, with neighbors—that blend the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII, the Nazi occupation, the Vietnam War, and other domestic and global conflicts in order to consider how these relate to collective and individual cultural identities, especially at the level of dislocation and fracture, poised between living and dying: “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 be split off, to be reflection alone.”

Cole’s salient prose takes in the breadth of human experience while living in a city whose ever-changing architecture, public spaces, crowds, and landscapes go unexamined by so many who live there. By contrast, because he is an outsider, Julius takes in everything, and on his walks through the city he is as able to observe a car accident, relate being mugged, offer the history of beached whales and birds dazed and dead by the Statue of Liberty’s torch as intrinsic (but often forgotten) parts of New York City’s narrative, and also reflect on the emotional experiences of a life lived straddling two very different worlds—that of Nigeria and that of Manhattan, that of childhood and that of adulthood, that of becoming and that of still becoming, only more consciously so. Just as the city has depths and hidden stories (“What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten”), so, too, do individuals, and Julius’s narrative is as much about coming to terms with his adopted city as it is with himself: “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories” as it is “unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.”

Open City is a profound meditation on how one should live one’s life with eyes wide open, taking in the inconsequential and relishing it for how it will later attach itself to our own subjective narrative, both in terms of how we view our lives looking back in time and also how we morph and change along with the cities we call our homes. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
That Cole is a photographer as well as a writer is not coincidental. For the protagonist of Open City, the Nigerian-German immigrant psychiatry resident in NYC post 9/11 is for all practical purposes a disengaged roving eye. Quite ironic that he is reading Barthe's Camera Lucida early on as Barthe's passionate relationship to a photograph of his deceased mother might be the polar opposite of Julius's relationship to the mental "photos" he takes as he strolls the streets of NY and Brussels. Out of curiosity, I visited the author's webpage & took a look at quite a few of his "real life" black and white "street" photographs. Gorgeously composed & wonderfully observant. Much like his novel, with one crucial exception. The author's photographs are infused with an empathy that I found largely lacking in his novel. In fact, Julius's most outstanding characteristic is his disengagement from all that he observes. He is perhaps only "with passion" when listening to European classical music (he has no taste for American Jazz)& Northern European painting. He remains always at arm's length, even from his own mugging by 3 young men late in the book. The mood of the novel isn't so much one of generative solitude as one of isolation. The mind may be thrilled but the heart never quickens. I am surprised that not even one of the reviews that I read on Goodreads alludes to a scene late in the novel that takes place at a party given by the wealthy white boyfriend of Moji, the older sister of one of Julius's school friends in Nigeria. Julius runs into Moji by chance while walking in the City. She recognizes him, but he doesn't recognize her. Throughout the novel he pursues an off again on again sort of friendship with her, although he only feels motivated to "flirt" with her when being entertained by her boyfriend. The accusation that Moji makes to him about his having "forced" her to have sex with him at a party back when they were teenagers drops like a bomb into the still waters of the novel, but there is no ripple effect. It doesn't change Julius, nor turn the novel in any direction other than that in which it is already headed. Julius prefaces their one-sided confrontation by remarking that psychiatric patients are unreliable narrators. But who exactly is the unreliable narrator here, Moji or Julius? Impossible to discern, since Julius neither admits culpability nor speaks in his own defense, other than to note that when he looks in the mirror, all told, his accounting of himself to himself falls more to the good side than to the bad. There is a central mystery in this novel, one that haunts Julius & which he never illuminates, which is his estranged relationship (non-relationship in fact) with his German-born mother. He never tells us why he has broken with her. Is it merely because she is the source of his hybridity, the one who keeps him from having specificity in his own eyes (in America he is simply a black man; although in NYC that comes with some nuance)? We don't know, because Julius doesn't tell us & he remains throughout our only source of information. Moji at one point asks him about his mother, saying she always liked her. So, the told story of Moji & Julius becomes linked to the untold story of Julius & his mother. (Perhaps there is more resonance with Barthes than I first thought, since for Barthes, it was always all about his mother). ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (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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Epigraph
'Death is a perfection of the eye' (Part 1)
'I have searched myself' (Part 2)
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for Karen
and for Wah-Ming and Beth
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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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