Open City by Teju Cole

Reading Open City, it’s easy to imagine that you’re on the listening end of a psychotherapy session. The narrator, Julius, is a Nigerian-born psychiatrist completing his residency in New York City.  It is from his point-of-view that the reader experiences the novel, which is not so much a sequential narrative of events as it is the gradual dismantling of Julius’ psyche: a man who has emotionally removed himself from the messiness of life.

Instead of a traditional story we are given streams of beautiful, thoughtful prose.  Often Julius reveals more to the reader than he is, himself, aware of.  I wouldn’t go so far as to classify him as an unreliable narrator, there’s a vulnerability to his speeches that screams honesty.  He’s not the most likeable person.  His self-absorption makes it too easy for him to discard the past and its relationships.  With one possible exception, all his interactions with other people are transient.   The careful reader detects a certain amount of self-denial, or mental obfuscation, in Julius as regards his own nature.  When confronted with his true character he is incapable of acknowledging it.

We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.  The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.  Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.

There were several moments when Open City reminded me of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or, more recently, Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (both Chejfec & Cole were part of the Walker in the City panel that I attended at the Brooklyn Book Festival).  Mixed in with unintended personal revelations by the narrator are stunning descriptive passages which pull you into the page and make you forget that you are reading a book.

Their pause let me hear the other sound present, that of an instrument being played at the opposite end of the park.  I wanted to get closer to it, and so I walked under the arbor of elms, passing by rows of concrete chess tables, which were oases of order and invitations to a twinned solitude.  But no one sat at them or played chess.  Around the tables, where they sank into the earth, moss grew, spreading up the concrete and into the ground so that it seemed as if the chessboards had grown roots.  I walked under the trees, past the creak of the children’s swings and, as I moved closer to the end of the arbor, I could make out the sound of an ehru.  The line was breathy and nimble, the precise nimbleness of an old-fashioned thing.  How clear its sound in the park, how unlike the whine the same instrument made when it was played by a subway busker competing with the screech of subway trains.

Julius’ thoughts form a continuous, uninterrupted dialogue with the reader – transitions are created by the changes in the setting.  Our narrator is a walker.  He takes us all over New York City, through the city of Brussels, makes references to the terrains of Nigeria and France.  It gives structure to a story that could easily sprawl out of control.

Open City is Teju Coles’ first novel, but reads as the work of a mature and experienced author.  No surprise it’s on a bunch of the 2011 Best Of lists (including the New Yorker, the Seattle Times & TIME).  I definitely recommend getting a copy.  And, while you’re at it – Teju Cole is also on Twitter.  If you aren’t already following him @tejucole then you’re missing out on some great (& free) flash fictions.  Here’s an example:!/tejucole/status/145413544928739328

Publisher:  Random House, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 4000 6809 8

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7 thoughts on “Open City by Teju Cole

  1. Glad to see that you enjoyed this book – great review. I listened to the book on audio and so found it dry and that it dragged on – I have a feeling I would have enjoyed it more in print. As it were, still interesting but… 🙂

    Question though… what did you think of the… section where he is on the balcony at his friend’s sisters house and what she says / how he handles that? It made me dislike him more and come to find him so much more arrogant and cocky!


    1. Amy –
      I am soooooo glad you asked that question! I’ve been dying to talk about that part but didn’t want to give too much away.

      I thought it was brilliantly handled. Because I think it just goes to show how disassociated Julius has become from life in general, people in particular. Someone close to me works in the mental health field and I’ve come to believe that a certain amount of detachment is a good thing. There’s always a risk, though, of it being taken too far. I believe that’s what this narrator has done. He moves through life in a sort of fugue state, always observing those around him but never connecting. The one exception I referenced in the review would be his relationship to his former professor. There seems to be a true emotional attachment, – yet when the time comes to deal with that loss he seems to have difficulty acknowledging his grief in something other than a clinical way.

      So, to make a long answer longer – I think the response (or lack of response) was in keeping with Julius’ character. He walks away. He does not respond to her statement, her emotion, he does not examine the situation or his actions. He’s a bit like Camus’ Stranger (though I’ve always felt the Stranger failed at the end of that novel – but that’s another post 🙂 ). Yet, interestingly, I didn’t find him arrogant or cocky. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a failure of a human
      being. But arrogance and cockiness would be an acknowledgment/response of which I believe he’s incapable.

      Thank you for the comment! (and I love the new avatar).


      1. Thanks! I, too, just wanted to discuss it! I completely see where you’re coming and think that’s a great point. It really does work to highlight and further the image of his detachment. Interesting that you say arrogance would require an acknowledgement. Personally I found him arrogant simply because he didn’t care and couldn’t even bother to really acknowledge so many others around him, but I suppose that is more detachment than arrogance. Hmm… so much to think on!

        I have to say that reviews like this one make me appreciate the book more 🙂

        Also, if you want to read another review I found interesting Ikhide reviewed it here.

  2. Great link & insightful review! Did you get a chance to look up Ikhide’s reference to the historical meaning of open city? It adds another layer to the novel entirely.


    1. Yes! So much to chew on in both of your reviews, that part was really interesting too. It kind of further highlights his detachment as perhaps a coping method similar to the open city method. That he stops defending or caring or putting effort in, in order to avoid the pain of life? That was my understanding / thought on it anyway.


      1. I agree. I also see it as meaning that he is taking down all his defenses. Julius is an “open city” to the readers. Do we judge/attack him?


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