Open City, by Teju Cole

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Julius is a doctor of Nigerian descent, a young psychiatrist entering the final year of a fellowship at an Upper West Side hospital in New York, not sure about what he will do next. His girl friend has just relocated to San Francisco — it is apparent from the start that that represents the end of their affair and that it wasn’t his choice. He may live in one of the world’s most populous, bustling cities but his life is at a crossroads and it is a lonely, dislocated one; his response is to take frequent walks around Manhattan:

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy, they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking. Work was a regimen of perfection and competence, and it neither allowed improvisation nor tolerated mistakes. As interesting as my research project was — I was conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly — the level of detail it demanded was of an intricacy that exceeded anything else I had done thus far. The streets served as a welcome opposite to all that. Every decision — where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side looking across to Queens — was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom.

Those Manhattan walks form the backbone of the first third of Open City; for this reader at least, they brought back powerful comparisons to Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the first of the novels in his New York trilogy. While I don’t know Manhattan well, I do know the popular parts of it and Cole’s strolls brought many of them vividly to mind. Here is the way that he begins one:

One Sunday morning in November, after a trek through the relatively quiet streets on the Upper West Side, I arrived at the large, sun-brightened plaza at Columbus Circle. The area had changed recently. It had become a more commercial and tourist destination thanks to the pair of buildings erected for the Time Warner corporation on the site. The buildings, constructed at great speed, had just opened, and were filled with shops selling tailored shirts, designer suits, jewelry, appliances for the gourmet cook, handmade leather accessories, and imported decorative items. On the upper floors were some of the costliest restaurants in the city, advertising truffles, caviar, Kobe beef, and pricy “tasting menus”. Above the restaurants were apartments that included the most expensive residence in the city. Curiosity had brought me into the shops on the ground level once or twice before, but the cost of the items, and what I perceived as the generally snobbish atmosphere, had kept me from returning until that Sunday morning.

Anyone who has ever strolled around randomly in any of the world’s “great” cities will have little trouble identifying with Cole’s portrayal of Julius’ walks and his response to them. At one level, there is the direct observation of the surroundings, well illustrated in the example quoted above. Close to that comes the casual acquaintances and overheard conversations that strollers inevitably run into — for a Nigerian in New York, that usually involves other blacks who have arrived there from equally distant parts. And finally there is the introspection that strolling anywhere produces — memories of the past dating from childhood through to the near present. In Julius’ case that leads to a decision to visit one of his former English professors, now 89 and living the life of a shut-in, albeit in an apartment on Central Park South with an expansive view of the park itself.

I loved this portion of the novel: for me, it was even better than Auster (and I like the New York Trilogy a lot) in developing an image of the city and the people who have arrived there. About one-third of the way through the novel, however, Cole heads into much more introspective territory. Julius’ wanderings take a more global form (a four-week trip to Brussels occupies a goodly portion of the mid-section of the book) and the conversations with those he meets involve much more political, or metaphysical, content. If the first portion of the book is reminiscent of Auster, this part brings The Reluctant Fundamentalist more to mind. As well, the narrator’s introspection into his personal history becomes much more predominant — the author unfolds the details of this thread of the novel very gradually and I want to respect that here so I will let you discover them for yourself.

Perhaps because I liked the tone and surroundings of the first third so much, I became increasingly frustrated as the novel proceeded. If you will permit reference to yet another book, Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet does much the same thing but in Judt’s case it is a real life that is being remembered and he carries both personal memory and metaphysical tangents off in a much more rewarding manner. For me, Cole had not established Julius well enough as a character for his memories to be sufficently interesting and the “thoughtful” conversations he engages in lacked the depth required to produce true insight or engagement — I found myself eager for him to move on to the next one.

Open City has attracted a fair bit of attention for a “memory” novel based on “aimless wandering” (I am stealing that from the title of Will Rycroft’s recent review of the book at Just William’s Luck). Indeed, Open City is on the 16-book longlist in this year’s Tournament of Books where it will face The Art of Fielding in the opening round. As much as I enjoyed Cole’s portrayal of Manhattan from the sidewalk — and respected his character Julius — I’d have to say that Chad Harbach’s novel is likely to advance to the next round. Open City is an entirely worthwhile debut novel which promises more from the author in the future but simply has too many “stumbles” in its later pages to go beyond that in the present.

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14 Responses to “Open City, by Teju Cole”

  1. Kerry Says:

    I am pleased to see this review. I am looking forward to Open City and you’ve only made me more eager, despite your very conditionally positive review. Partly, Brussels is a city to which I have been and I did wander a bit. (Ditto New York, of course.) So, I am looking forward to what I recall, whether our paths cross at all, etc.

    Others have indicated that the novel continues to improve as it settles in memory. I know you’ve had that experience with other works, so I will be curious to see if that happens for you with this one.

    The other part of this is that you’ve lowered my expectations. You and I share many of the same likes and dislikes in literature, so I will read it eagerly, but without expecting too much.

    I suspect, despite some positive reactions to it, that you are right about its TOB chances. The Art of Fielding seems to please everyone, the differences mainly being in the degree of pleasure.

  2. Trevor Says:

    I read Open City last year and still haven’t gotten around to writing a review of it. On the one hand, I loved it; on the other, I had no idea how to put that down on page. At this point, I’m not sure I should attempt a review without a reread, and, to be honest, I don’t think I can summon the will just yet — but someday I believe I will.

    I found this interesting:

    For me, Cole had not established Julius well enough as a character for his memories to be sufficently interesting and the “thoughtful” conversations he engages in lacked the depth required to produce true insight or engagement — I found myself eager for him to move on to the next one.

    I believe I felt similar, but in my case I didn’t blame Cole as much as I blamed Julius himself, which, strangely, strengthened the book for me. In other words, I think I read Julius as a bit evasive while at the same time struggling, with the insight tantalizingly just below the surface. I am probably just revising my reading of it slightly here since I remember less what was actually said in the book and more my own impression of it (the walks remain vivid — at least, my memory of the walks is filled with thoughts and feelings which may or may not have been part of the book itself), which has certainly changed in the time since I read it.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry, Trevor: I am sure that as time passes I will come to remember the walks more than anything else — particularly the New York ones since I have only been to Brussels once and that was a long time ago.

    Trevor may well have a point that the conversations in the latter part were meant to illustrate a struggling on Julius’ part to place himself. I read them more as attempts to offer concise commentary on modern issues and that is why I found them wanting. If I do read the book again (which is not on the current agenda), I’ll try to pay more attention to him as a character — perhaps I was guilty of being so attracted to his descriptions of what he saw that I missed the author’s point.

  4. anokatony Says:

    ‘Open City’ is one of the books I started but gave up on lin 2011. There were things I liked about it, but it also seemed aimless. It is difficult to make a compelling book about walking around a city.

  5. savidgereads Says:

    Like Kerry I am intrigued by this book all the more from your great review Kevin. I saw Will’s and though it sounded up my street, if possibly a little complex, and though you found some of its stumbled in parts I still like the idea of a book that uses this ambling around idea of telling a tale. One to grab from the library if I see it definitely.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: All I can say is that I doubt you missed anything by giving up on it. If nothing grabbed your interest by page 60 (and I can understand that response from some readers although it was not mine) there is little reason to proceed.

    Simon: As you can see from the comments both here and at Will’s, this novel provokes a wide range of reactions. I wouldn’t describe it as complex — while “wandering” is the linking overall thread, what happens along the way is “character building” to those who like the novel and “frustrating” or “pointless” to those who don’t. I did occasionally have to back up a paragraph or two and reread, but I’m afraid that was more because of confusing narrative than the depth of the thought being expressed.

    Here’s another take for those considering the book. I suspect that one of the reasons that Will with his stage experience liked it better than I did is that it is a very “theatrical” book in the sense that it moves from scene to scene. If you are better at appreciating it scene by scene than I was (that’s another approach I would take if I reread it), I suspect it becomes a more positive experience.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Your review offers a fine counterpoint to the almost universally ecstatic notices: and I’m glad of it. It couldn’t possibly live up to all that lavish extolling. I will read it very shortly.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I don’t think my issues with the book resulted from overly high expectations — I knew that it had been well received, but not much more. I do have a fondness for “New York” books, which proudly tilted my attention in the first part of the book that I found so attractive and that perhaps led to some dissatisfaction with the rest. Then again, the fact that Open City brought to mind better examples of similar works does weigh against it.

  7. Buried In Print Says:

    This is one that I listened to, having decided that audiobooks while walking here-and-there might introduce another kind of bookishness into heretofore bookish-less parts of the day. As it turned out, with the theme of migration, it was perfect for listening while being on the move. Nonetheless, because I could not flip back across the pages, I couldn’t tell if the narrative felt a little meander-y or if it was just I wasn’t engaging with the book consistently as I was meandering myself. It seems possible that the structure was adjusted to reflect the narrator’s journey (literal and figurative), but I feel like I need print to suss that out. (There are definite advantages to audiobooks that I can see, not least of which is that it’s restful for over-worked eyes, but I need to practice my listening skills — and walk in less interesting parts of town.)

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I’ve never listened to an audio book so this is truly an uninformed response. From my experience reading a hard copy, I would guess that this would be a very difficult book to listen to. There is no action as such and, to make it work, you need to build a strong mental image of just where he is walking. I found some of the conversations difficult to follow, even with the chance to pause or go back and re-read, and can’t really imagine letting someone else determine the pace. And the distraction of “an interesting part of town” would leave me totally disengaged from the book, I suspect.

    • Buried In Print Says:

      I appreciate your thoughts on it nonetheless; I think it’s likely that, after some experimenting, I will find myself with a long set of “personal rules” about which books are best for listening and under which conditions, just as I now have a ridiculous number of such rules (or, at least, habits, for instance, of associating certain styles or genres with particular times of the day or certain reading locations — offering more or less illumination or concentration or what have you — or determining whether hardcover or paperback is best for a particular book) . Chances are that I’ll wish, later, that I had read, rather than listened to this one, especially with so much inward action, as you’ve said, but I also suspect there are some aspects of it the story that I will remember more clearly for having approached it this way.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have a review copy of this, and have been looking forward to it greatly. Like Lee I’ve seen little but glowing reviews, so it’s nice to see a more ambivalent reaction and some caveats. No book benefits from being built up too high before reading.

    I follow the author on twitter (I think he follows me back actually, nice guy). He wrote a series of tiny stores, each no greater than 140 characters, each a little examination of crime and misery from Nigeria. Depressing microworks, but very well crafted.

    At the level of the sentence then I already know he can write, and reading this it sounds like at the level of the book section he can too. The question then is how he is at structuring an entire, coherent novel. Then again, apart from a novella not published outside of Africa this is his first book, so if parts of it work as well as the walking sections did for you and other parts are flawed that’s still no bad start.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I will be interested in your impression when you do get to the book — perhaps you will find something that I overlooked. The writing is just fine (I’m not surprised at your Twitter report — Cole at his best in the book is very concise) and the author’s powers of observation are impressive. He is less good, at this point, in developing ideas and characters which is where I found the book somewhat “aimless” if I can borrow his theme. And I would certainly agree that this volume is a worthwhile start.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hopefully you won’t have too long to wait to see my impression Kevin. Having been reminded of it by your review I started the book this evening.

    I’ll let you know how I get on.

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