Exciting Rookie Writer Debuts with Open City

Aaron Botwick, Staff Writer

“And so I began to go on evening walks last fall,” begins Teju Cole’s fantastic debut novel, Open City, with a fluidity that becomes characteristic of the book: This is not a traditionally structured narrative, but an open gate into the mind of Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatry student in Harlem. In 1995, W.G. Sebald wrote The Rings of Saturn, a kind of walking tour of East Anglia in which the narrator tries to reconstruct his relationship to the past through a series of anecdotes related to the sites he passes. Similarly in Open City, Julius finds himself presented with the “futile task of sorting” — that is, of making sense of his place in the world through his knowledge of history. The very ground he walks on, after all, contains the remains “of some fifteen to twenty thousand blacks, most of them slaves,” but, as he notes with wry irony, “most of the burial ground was now under office buildings […] all the endless hum of quotidian commerce and government.”

As the son of a German mother and an African father, and as an immigrant in the United States, Julius has never quite escaped his “feelings of isolation.” As he ambles around New York City, he provides a running commentary on his life, often preferring this pensive quietude to the company of friends. While on 33rd Street, he mistakes a dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold for the body of a lynched man dangling from a tree. Later, in a particularly beautiful digression, he notes that while the torch of the Statue of Liberty acted as a beacon of hope for so many people reaching New York’s harbor, “that same light, especially in bad weather, fatally disoriented birds.” Throughout the years, tens of thousands of dead birds were found in the statue’s crown. Like these birds, it seems, the light of America’s freedom has also seduced Julius.

And yet, he is no more comfortable around blacks — whether African or African-American — than he is around whites. Three times, he is addressed as “brother,” only to dismiss it as a phony attempt at connection: “I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.” Of course, he is guilty of this same behavior in other circumstances, and when he gives a glance to a group of people meant to indicate solidarity (“a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male”), they beat him up and take his wallet. Earlier, Julius noted that in one experiment, “bedbugs survived four months of isolation on a table in a sea of kerosene without food, they came through a deep freeze lasting 244 hours without being harmed, and were able to remain alive underwater for an indefinite amount of time.” There is almost a trace of envy in this observation, as if Julius would appreciate that kind of lonely resilience. His relationships with all people have a kind of clinical quality, and it is unlikely that he will ever truly know or be known by another person. There is a feeling of inevitability, after all, when he informs us, “For important social reasons, people like to think that other people are totally unlike them — but these differences are, in reality, for most functions, rather small.” In an odd paradox, then, people are isolated but not dissimilar; they are fiercely conflicted but incredibly predictable. Perhaps the tragedy of the novel is that while Julius can recognize this condition, he has no power to overcome it.

Open City is admittedly bleak, but it is a blistering, open-eyed novel, one that hardly feels like it is written by a first-time novelist. Cole’s prose is careful, precise and, at the same time, totally effortless. This is a contemporary American novelist whose future works we can look forward to.