A city not his own
Teju Cole’s Open City follows the peripatetic ramblings of its narrator through the streets of New York City. Julius begins to take nightly walks as solace after breaking up with a girlfriend, but the travels soon take on a momentum of their own, offering opportunity for him to process the chaos of his days as a psychiatric intern, while allowing time to reflect on the development and diversity of the city.
Julius is good company: erudite, clever, with a wide-reaching interest in almost everyone and everything. He seeks out new experiences and finds much to remark on. Exhibitions, public monuments, novels—his commentary is as constant as his wanderings. Encounters with fellow New Yorkers, many of them immigrants, give him further occasion to ponder the changes in urban life, especially those wrought by September 11. (A frequently updated website dedicated to the novel, http://op-cit.tumblr.com, features photographs, texts and links to music mentioned in the novel which enriches the reading experience even more).
An impromptu trip to Brussels offers further opportunity for contemplation, not only of his own childhood in Lagos as the son of a Nigerian father and German mother, but on the changing ethnic make-up of this most European of cities. As in New York, Julius is attuned to the diversity of his surroundings, especially when it concerns people of color. He easily connects with his fellow travelers, from the Belgian woman sitting next to him on the plane, to the Moroccan man who runs an Internet café with whom he gets into a thoughtful discussion on the Middle East.
As Open City continues, an air of sadness settles over the story. A patient dies, as does Julius’ college advisor. Once back in New York, he runs into the sister of an old friend who shares some startling information. His response—or lack thereof—is disturbing, forcing the reader to question Julius’ emotional stability. Julius, who is hypersensitive to the traces time leaves behind in an urban landscape, is less attuned to the traces time leaves behind on people, who also bear marks left by prior experiences.
In his previous book Every Day is for the Thief, Cole returned to his hometown of Lagos, seeking out places that were strange or unfamiliar. Open City provides a mirror image of this earlier plot, as Julius looks for familiarity in cities not his own. Though more overtly fictional, it also expands upon Cole’s idea that the past is always with us. Open City is an intriguing work, though perhaps more satisfying for readers who enjoy a little ambiguity in their fiction.