OPEN CITY by Teju Cole

Book Quote:

“The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (FEB 8, 2011)

When Julius, a young psychiatrist living in New York, looks out of his apartment window, he likes to watch the birds fly past. And when he occasionally spots geese flying in formation, he wonders how our life below would look like to them. This same external perspective—which one could argue immigrants master especially well—permeates Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City.

Like Cole, Julius is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. As the novel opens, we learn that he loves to take walks all over New York City. The walks are freeing, a meditative contemplation not just of the present but also of the past, and Julius treasures them. “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,” Julius says, “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.”

As Julius goes on these walks, he holds forth on a wide variety of topics—from the history of New York to the genius of composer Gustav Mahler. He especially enjoys long talks with 89-year-old Professor Saito, a teacher who had taken Julius under his wing when he was still a junior at Maxwell College.

The reader is afforded brief glimpses of Julius’s past—a fractured history with his mother from whom he is estranged just before he leaves for America at the age of seventeen; a military school upbringing which manages to inject some measure of discipline into an otherwise restless life. Julius’s mother is white (a German) and father, Nigerian. His mixed-race status also turns out to lead to his rootlessness. “The name Julius linked me to another place and was, with my passport and skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria,” he recalls, “I had a Yoruba middle name, Olatubosun, which I never used. That name surprised me a little each time I saw it on my passport or birth certificate, like something that belonged to someone else but had long been held in my keeping.”

About halfway through the book, Julius takes an extended vacation in Brussels harboring a small hope that he’ll run into his grandmother (mother’s mother) there. He remembers Oma’s brief visit to Nigeria when he was young and despite the strained relationship she had with her daughter, Julius suspects there is more to this story than meets the eye.

It is in Brussels that Julius meets a young Moroccan named Farouq, who runs the Internet café that Julius frequents. Through his voice, Cole again holds forth on the larger political topics of the day including the global war on terror.

Open City, with its meandering ruminations of disparate topics, is not for readers who look for books with specific plot lines and incidents. And while Julius discusses many subjects of immediate interest at length (even the New York City bedbug epidemic gets an airing here), he is less than forthcoming about what seems to have been a less than straightforward past. It is never clear for example exactly what happened between Julius and his mother before he left for the United States. It speaks volumes that one learns more about Julius from an old Nigerian acquaintance he runs into, Moji Kasali, than from Julius himself. Such wandering and unresolved questions might try some readers. But readers who love an informed and intelligent voice and are not averse to freewheeling discussions, will love Open City.

As for Moji, she turns out to be the sister of an old friend of Julius and when he suddenly runs into her in the city, he can’t place her immediately. The important fact she reveals about Julius reminds us about how arbitrary memory and its related associations can be. “Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him,” Julius says, “Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories.” But if memory is selective how can we ever be sure about our roles in our lives and in those of others? Cole’s Open City is ultimately an exploration of this central theme: Are we truly not the villains of our own stories? Or do we just choose to remember only those parts of our lives that paint us as heroes?

AMAZON READER RATING: from 96 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (February 8, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another Nigerian immigrant fiction:

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February 8, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Literary, New York City

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