Open City by Teju Cole( who was born in Brooklyn in 1975 to Nigerian parents) is an astonishing debut novel about uncertainty and New York.
‘And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall…”: the first clause of Open City seems designed to throw us off balance, a tripwire tensed across the threshold of the novel. What might have preceded that “and so”? Who, if anyone, is the speaker addressing? And how should we square the phrase’s alienating lack of context with the alluring lull of its rhythm?
It’s entirely appropriate that Teju Cole’s astonishing first novel should begin with this uncertainty, for it marks the first of many discomfiting encounters between strangers. And it’s a sign of Cole’s exceptional control of his material that he manages to establish the novel’s disorienting atmosphere even before its opening sentence has been clinched.
The narrator is Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German doctor in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship in New York. He is single and solitary, with no family in the city and few friends. He sets out on aimless, melancholy tramps across a city that resembles nothing so much as the unnerving landscape of a dream-vision (there are multiple allusions to Dante and Piers Plowman).
Julius parses the dense text of New York’s street life with an analyst’s eye, and annotates it with clippings from a vast cultural vocabulary that reaches from early Flemish painting to Kwame Anthony Appiah and Peter Maxwell Davies. Yet his obsession with interpretation slides into a kind of pathology (one thinks of Thomas De Quincey, or of Cole’s close stylistic forebear, W G Sebald).
He is struck by an “ulcerous sensation of too many things happening at once”: assailed by amnesia, fatigue, time-slippage and confusion. He starts muddling identities and seeing doubles.
The narrative takes pains to deny us the consolations of a traditional plot: Julius’s winter journey to Brussels in search of his grandmother dwindles away into further urban drifting. But the novel’s patchwork of chance meetings, lyrical vignettes, cultural lucubrations and self-analysis stealthily aggregates into something more than the sum of its parts: an inquiry into the strained multiculturalism of post-9/11 New York.
Although the “open city” of the title is primarily a place that promises freedom, it can’t help but entertain a darker meaning: of a city that has lain down its defences in the face of defeat, like Brussels or Paris in 1940.
The novel frets about whether “people can live together but still keep their own values intact”, an ambivalence that Julius shows in his shifting attitude to his Nigerian upbringing.
There are brief moments of solidarity, but more frequently his instinct is to dodge the overtures of cab drivers, museum guards and postal workers as they seek common ground with him in their African origins.
All this is carried off in a tone finely poised between reticence and disclosure. Cole casts subtle doubt on the reliability of Julius’s narrative; its hesitant linguistic tics, for instance, such as “now that I think of it” or “I remember (or imagine that I remember)”, always keep the frailty of memory in view.
We gradually realise, as we notice the kinks and gaps in both Julius’s childhood recollections and his account of New York, that he’s been fabricating “a secure version of the past”. He is bound to remain a stranger to us, and even to himself.