Julius, the narrator of this novel, is a Nigerian-German postgraduate student in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship in New York City. He develops the habit of taking solitary walks through the streets of Manhattan, that are “a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work”. These long walks also intensify his sense of isolation, as he nurses the pain of a recent break-up with his girlfriend.
The concept of the open city of the title is used both metaphorically and ironically. New York is the open city of Julius’s wanderings and wonderings. As he traverses the city streets, he also reflects on the layered history of post-9/11 New York that is revealed (or concealed) by city landmarks (even the missing ones).
“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall . . .” begins Julius, the perspicacious narrator of Teju Cole’s admirable and excellent début Open City. That opening “And” is significant, an immediate signal to the reader that this novel will refuse to align itself along (or even against) traditional arcs of plot and character development. We will meet Julius in media res, and we will leave him there, and along the way there will be learning and suffering and compassion and strange bubbles of ambiguity that threaten to burst out of the narrative.
As noted, Open City begins with Julius’s peripatetic voyages; he walks the night streets of New York City to ostensibly relieve the “tightly regulated mental environment of work.” Julius is completing his psychiatry fellowship at a hospital, and the work takes a toll on him, whether he admits it or not. In these night walks—and elsewhere and always throughout the novel—Julius shares his sharp observations, both concrete and historical. No detail is too small for his fine lens, nor does he fail to link these details to the raw information that rumbles through his mind: riffs on biology, history, art, music, philosophy, and psychology interweave the narrative. Julius maps the terrain of New York City against its strange, mutating history; like a 21st century Ishmael, he attempts to measure it in every facet—its architecture, its rhythms, its spirit. And if there is one thread that ties Julius’s riffs together it is the nightmare of history:
- Open City by Teju Cole
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