Although Open City is his first novel, Teju Cole is no stranger to the world. Undoubtedly a multitalented artist, he regularly contributes to The New Yorker and the New York Times, has made a name for himself due to his infamous witty contributions to the Twittersphere, and is also a photographer. I stumbled across Open City sort of by chance after I met Cole at an event in Lagos earlier this year and he handed me a copy. While reading the novel, I couldn’t help but wonder to what degree the protagonist was a projection of Cole’s personal life and experiences.
Open City is written from the perspective of the protagonist Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German young psychologist living in New York City. The reader is instantly engulfed by Julius’s introspective and highly analytical presence as he journeys through the minutiae of his life in Harlem. Julius’s various struggles and the endeavors he embarks on awaken the multifaceted identities he possesses synthesized from his life experiences, including his frequent aimless wandering through the streets of New York City, his relationship with a former professor, his ex-girlfriend, and growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. Open City is definitely not a conventional novel. Instead of a more “traditional” dramatized linear plot, various snippets of Julius’s experiences and thoughts take the reader deep into his unrelenting analysis of his surroundings. Sophisticated intellectuals will easily relate with Julius, who is highly appreciative of the arts, history, and literature.
In a way, Open City is an interesting microcosm of New York City and America as a whole from the perspective of an African immigrant. Julius leads a solitary life even though he is surrounded by a copious amount of diversity. Despite his chaotic environment, he is isolated in both his thoughts and actions. The effects of America’s individualistic society and New York City’s paradoxical tendency toward apathy among its citizens are apparent in Julius’s character.
Despite the fact that I was constantly on the lookout for a climax to the story, Open City was a pleasure to read. Each time after reading a portion of the book, I was left with a sense of comfort, as if everything was as it should be. Although not everyone will be able to relate directly with the protagonist’s journey, Cole does an excellent job of subliminally portraying the raw, sincere human experience that anyone can relate to. Surprisingly, Cole is somehow able to convey the most fundamental elements of being a human being while almost completely omitting the protagonist’s emotions. Julius, as introspective and analytical as he is, surprisingly embodies a detachment and lack of insight into his own feelings. He lets you into his head through his diary-like prose and unrelenting analysis of both the mundane as well as the unusual experiences in his daily life; however, he is surprisingly evasive in regard to his emotions. Cole’s crafty development of Julius’s character allows nearly everyone to relate to him without being privy to his feelings.
Cole once wrote in an article, “A good novel shouldn’t have a point.” This belief is more than evident in Open City. Despite the apparent lack of “a point,” the novel leaves the reader thinking and basking in the comfort of everything, nothing, and knowing we are all human at the end of the day.
By Kevin Barry