“New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace…” This reads like an invitation to join an exploration of the place, its sounds and atmospheres, seen through the eyes of Julius, narrator of Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City. And it is, in a way!
Julius is a German-Nigerian immigrant who works as a resident doctor in a NYC psychiatric clinic. As we follow him, meandering – initially aimlessly – through the streets in his neighbourhood and beyond, our eyes and minds are opened to much more than the sidewalks, the brownstones, the parks and other vistas passing by at walking pace… “Each neighbourhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight…” muses Julius as he lies in bed at night, organizing what he has seen during his walk,“until the forms began to morph into each other and assume abstract shapes unrelated to the real city”. At times, Julius describes his environment with photographic clarity and precision, at others he blurs his vision, and looking into his own “mind’s eye”, delves deep into thought and memory: reflecting on historical events, his personal life, music, philosophy, literature and politics…”.
What evolves as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the narration and the narrator’s mind is much more than another “stream-of-consciousness” story or another literary introduction to New York City and some of its illustrious people… Cole’s book is a compelling example of “memory and reality merging into one”: part city portrait, real and imagined, part journey into history and personal life, part reflection on events of our time, fused with insightful recollections on people he encounters and their perspectives on life in all its facets.
It may be his professional training and/or his personal history – growing up in Nigeria in a bi-racial family – that makes Julius appear to always maintain his reserve and detachment, looking at his environment through the lens of the outsider. Somebody calls him a “journeyer”, a “visionary”, someone who “has traveled far”. And he has, of course. His reflections on the aftermath of the destruction of the WTC or his discussion of the situation in the Middle East with Farouq, a North African immigrant in Brussels, are remarkable as they are affecting. But he is also a loner; having lost one girlfriend, he longs for another, no longer “available”. He comes closest in his personal relations to his old professor, Dr. Saito. Yet, he is also restless, facing “this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud.” While he is good at discovering the hidden stories in others, his own secret, if that is what it was, remains a mystery, caught between fact and fiction.
Teju Cole’s book is exquisitely written, descriptive and imaginative: brilliant in many ways. But don’t look for plot or straight forward narration. Go with the flow of the walks, and you get carried by their rhythms, follow this senses and thoughts. Do you need to know NYC to enjoy the walks with Julius? Not really, although, having walked along some of the streets and places, I feel motivated to return, book in hand.