By Gwendolyn Dawson
From the very first paragraph, Teju Cole’s debut novel announces itself as the tale of a wanderer:
“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 … These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.”
As Julius, a Nigerian immigrant, meanders around Manhattan (and also around Brussels during a vacation trip), he ruminates on an astonishing array of topics. Chapter One touches on bird migrations, classical music radio programs, the art of listening, memory and the practice of memorizing, the failure of Tower Records and Blockbuster, and the recent death of a neighbor’s wife. And that’s just the first chapter. Julius transitions from subject to subject effortlessly, if a bit randomly, reflecting on serious subjects as well as lighter ones. Like a cafe conversation with an intelligent and educated friend, nothing much happens in Open City and yet the book is never boring.
Julius’s sense of isolation permeates his thoughts, creating a somber tone for the novel, which is further compounded by recent events including the September 11th terrorist attacks and Julius’s breakup with his girlfriend. Residents and frequent visitors to New York City will recognize Julius’s path through that great city’s distinct neighborhoods, which he meticulously describes with street names, subway stops, and notable landmarks. Those without much experience or interest in the city may be bored by the specificity, but it’s easy enough to skim past these details. Overall, Open City is a thought-provoking meditation on the important (and some of the not so important) issues we all confront in contemporary America and Europe.
Open City is published in the United States by Random House.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License.