Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: Open City by Teju Cole

Open City by Teju Cole is one of the most interesting and thoughtful books I've read in a long time. The novel opens with our narrator Julius, a Nigerian-born psychiatrist who daily takes to wandering the streets of Manhattan, where he now lives and practices, as a means of warding off insomnia. As his feet take him in various directions uptown or downtown, his mind freely meanders elsewhere: his military school upbringing in Nigeria, his German mother, his girlfriend who has recently left him, his visit to a local immigrant detention center, a trip to Belgium, where America stands in the current international political climate, and even the nature of New York City itself.

It is an extremely quiet and contemplative book; though the prose styles are quite dissimilar, Open City reminds me very much of Paul Harding's Tinkers, in that it's a meditation on a character's past actions and memories more than a present day narrative, where all but the most provocative actions and memories lose their edge, softened by time and distance. Even his present day narrative is emotionally held at arm's length, never more so than with two disturbing encounters that occur at the very end of the novel that jar the reader far more than they do the narrator: one in which something happens to Julius, and one in which another character relates something that happened to her. In fact, this lack of reaction may call Julius's narrative reliability into question for some readers, but the more I know of other people and the more I grow in self-knowledge, the more I find myself growing increasingly comfortable with ambiguity and learning to accept the fact that people are equally capable (and sometimes simultaneously so) of actions both tender and heinous.

I admit that at times it was easy for me to put this book down, but I'm certainly glad that I always picked it back up again, as the rewards in finishing it were tenfold. This novel is definitely not for everybody; you should give it a pass if you're looking for a linear story with resolution, if you're uncomfortable with ambiguity, or if you're inclined to read predominantly plot-driven books. If, however, you're interested in the workings of memory and its effects on storytelling, the structure of narrative, the immigrant experience, and the quiet but erudite, politically-tinged musings of a man who may or may not be what he seems, do yourself a favor and pick up Teju Cole's Open City. I predict that it will be on more than one shortlist for major literary awards this year.

Open City will be published by Random House in February 2011 and Cole will be appearing at the Odyssey Bookshop on February 11, and his book is that month's selection for our signed First Edition Club.


1 comment:

Joel said...

I am very surprised it wasn't one of the finalists for the National Book Award. But so it goes. Some thoughts on the finalists are in my blog post, here, if you're interested. Cheers!