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.