Open City by Teju Cole
Teju Cole’s cerebral debut novel is a rich, if at times slightly dense, meditation about a young man trying to find his place in a crowded world. Julius, the book’s young Nigerian immigrant narrator, is a wanderer. As a respite from his residency as a psychiatrist, he walks through New York City detailing the lineage of obscure museums, concert halls and city parks. As Julius considers the rich architecture and listens to the many voices of the metropolis, he frets about a recent breakup and obsessively considers his future employment possibilities. His circumstances have pushed him into a state of embattled surrender, much like the open city of the book’s title.
Cole’s walking tour of Manhattan, which makes up the bulk of the novel, occasionally becomes too tightly packed. Thankfully, it is broken up by a brief trip to Brussels, during which Julius embarks on a halfhearted attempt to track down his maternal grandmother. While there, he encounters a retired doctor and a young Muslim, the latter of which offers an intriguing European perspective on how racial groups coexist in the United States. The events and aftermath of 9/11 are also considered in a way that feels oddly fresh; in one passage Julius personifies NYC as a patient who may have rushed through the mourning process.
Cole, like his protagonist, was born in Nigeria. As a writer he is often more of a dispassionate observer than a storyteller, spiking Julius’s inner-monologues with history lessons in some places where he ought to have an opinion, or something resembling an emotional response. But the final effect of the narrative is that, more often than not, the reader feels compelled to follow Cole’s young doctor, even when it seems like Julius himself has no idea where he’s going.