The City is Open, but the Man is Closed: Teju Cole’s First Novel
There is much to Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City, but there is also little to it. It’s a book of wandering ruminations without much of a narrative arc, and it ends as delicately and unobtrusively as it begins. Filtered through the perceptions of Julius, a Nigerian born-and-raised psychiatrist on his residency in New York City, Open City is a thoughtful journey into the impressions of a observant, sensitive, but emotional reticent character as well as into the nature of a city known for brashness and ambition but predicated on cooperative, laissez-faire individual self-interest.
Mostly, the novel consists of Julius’ thoughts, reactions, and observations of the city set during habitual long walks, his interactions with the people in his life (who tend to vanish, gradually, one by one), as well as reminiscences of his African youth. Not a whole lot happens, plot incident-wise, outside of Julius’ vaguely-reasoned holiday in a wintry Brussels (which has dire consequences for a troubled patient of his) and a tense reconnection and confrontation of past wrongs with a woman he knew in his teenage years in Nigeria. But once the reader settles into the rhythm of Cole’s prose, it can be a revealing journey through a poetic vision of modern life.
Like his protagonist, Cole was born in Nigeria and moved to America in the early ‘90s, where he is now employed as an art historian. I became aware of Open City through a blog mention of Cole’s Twitter account, which he employs almost exclusively to characterize microcosmic human fates with tragic irony and droll humour. A whole novel predicated on this sort of approach, which reflected Cole’s evident sensibilities on a novelistic scale, seemed a very promising prospect to me.
That Open City does not quite meet these expectations likely says more about the expectations than it does about the book itself. It’s an odd book; certainly well-written, carefully considered, and (despite its calm lack of incident) never dull or meandering. Cole’s narrator alter-ego is not as clinically detached as he may seem; indeed, he often enters into conversation with strangers and makes strong impressions, and does have close friends upon whose acquaintance his personal qualities are imprinted.
But, as Cole writes about late in the novel, Julius constructs himself as the hero in the story of his own life, even though he is sometimes far from heroic. He is removed from the consequences of his action not by emotional detachment so much as by narrative omission. Cole repeatedly pulls off a neat trick of eliding the importance of key developments by slipping them in between Julius’ lengthy reveries about paintings or photography or classical music or politics.
Sex, love, death, break-ups, and accusations flit by like darting sparrows or fleeting breezes, while the quotidian minutiae that generally escape notice take up the lion’s share of his prose’s attentions. Julius has more to say about Gustav Mahler’s late years than he does about his estrangement from his mother, and this psychiatrist never analyzes what is wrong with that. This beautifully-curated subtlety and indirectness turns a novel that might merely have been called insightful into a work that feels more timeless and zen. Cole’s city may be open and inviting, but his central denizen is closed. That powerful contrast stands firmly at the centre of his cool-headed but still strangely empathetic novel.