I just finished Teju Cole’s recent novel Open City last night, and although I had some doubts about it early on, it ended up winning me over and by the time I finished, I was loving it. Open City is often compared to W.G. Sebald’s books, and I felt about Cole the same way I feel about Sebald: I love the idea of the books but am not always sure about the execution. What bothers me at times is the reticence and emotional distance of the narrators. That is exactly what bothered me about Peter Stamm’s novel Seven Years. At times the writing in all these books crosses the line from being calm, quiet, and meditative into being dull.
But I do admire much in Sebald, and Cole’s novel finally won me over. It is about a man in his 30s, Julius, who is a psychiatrist in training and who spends his free time walking around New York City and, briefly, Brussels. The novel has no plot, but simply describes the narrator’s experiences and thoughts as he observes and interacts with people and with the city’s art and history. His thoughts keep returning to similar themes, so the various stories, descriptions, and meditations, rather than a plot line, provide the book’s coherence. Julius is fascinated by cities and the way their history is built in layers, with traces of the past existing underneath the present, like a palimpsest. As he walks, he notices traces of history: monuments and plaques and old buildings that don’t fit in their new neighborhoods. He describes the changes shops, buildings, and blocks have undergone. He is also interested in how people interact in cities, the way the crowds look and what it feels like to walk down streets and in and out of shops. He is extremely observant but is not only an observer; he often strikes up conversations with people or finds people talking to him. Although he comes across as reserved, he makes friends, or at least acquaintances, easily.
He also thinks about issues on a larger scale: the long and sad history of human violence, religious and racial conflicts, the way identity is constructed and how that construction can lead to social and political tension. He has conversations with a recent acquaintance in Brussels about orientalism and east/west tensions, and the anger many immigrants in Europe feel at their often unwelcome reception and uncertain status. Inevitably, back in New York, he thinks about the World Trade Center and everything the empty space where the towers used to stand says about human conflicts that just won’t go away.
We also get his thoughts on his own history and personal experiences: his relationships with his German mother and his Nigerian father, what it was like going to his boarding school in Nigeria and moving to America at 17, the racial tensions he experienced in both places, the grandmother he would like to reconnect with but can’t find. It’s in search of this grandmother that he goes to Brussels, but he only looks for her halfheartedly, and he doesn’t explain this reasons for his halfheartedness. I got the feeling as I read along, that there were a lot of things Julius wasn’t really explaining. He and a girlfriend have just broken up, and he describes his ambivalent feelings about her and his sorrow at their ended relationship, but there’s a sense he is not plumbing the depths of his feelings with us. He tends to stay on the surface of things, as one walking around a city observes from the outside and only gets brief glimpses at the life going on inside the houses and shops.
What makes this novel work is the way its themes and motifs weave their way in and out of the text, creating repetitions and echoes that resonate the whole way through. It’s easy to miss these connections if you read too quickly; this is a book that asks you to slow down and savor its images and juxtapositions. There is often a quietly ironic tone as one anecdote contrasts or obliquely comments on another one, and it’s a pleasure to follow the path of Julius’s thoughts, which are as suggestive as his walks, even if they are the same time disorderly and directionless.
Or perhaps the thoughts and the walks only seem directionless. There’s certainly a craft to creating the impression of drifting while at the same time actually getting somewhere. We don’t arrive at any new place or at some new realization or lesson, but we end up at a feeling of completion, of the pieces fitting together, the ideas connecting to one another. The novel reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s tone is much lighter than Cole’s, but both writers use the occasion of a city walk to meditate on subjects large and small, moving (seemingly) effortlessly from the mundane to the philosophical in the space of a paragraph. It’s quite a trick to do that, and it’s a trick I admire very much.