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