FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Walker in New York City

by CHARLES R. LARSON

In Open City–one of the most powerful novels in years–Teju Cole (an American, who grew up in Nigeria) begins his addictive narrative as follows,

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther a field each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.”

The paragraph is deceptive, almost secretive, like the narrator himself, known as Julius, who walks the streets of the city night after night: observing others, visiting recognizable sites (museums, concert halls, famed streets and bridges), talking to total strangers with whom he appears to have a natural affinity. He enjoys classical music (particularly Mahler). He summarizes his conversations with others (a shoeshine man or one of his dying professors from years ago). Although most of his observations are about New York City, there are flashbacks to his childhood in Nigeria, and a brief sequence in Brussels, when he searches unsuccessfully for his grandfather. Julius’ mother, from whom he’s estranged, is German; his Nigerian father died some years ago. Moreover, he has few friends, other than a couple who appear very briefly in his mesmerizing narrative.

Julius’s observations of New York City are unique, poetic, perceptive in every way. Here, for example, what he says about the island of Manhattan: “This strangest of Islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused.”

The city’s surface slowly becomes a palimpsest for Julius’s own hidden life, a burial site not only for others but his own past. “We experience life as a continuity,” he tells us, “and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.” The passage suggests repression, perhaps even a death wish for some event still stuck under the skin.

Occasionally, Julius finds comfort in crowds, a desirable anonymity, perhaps a disambiguation or searching for what has been buried or repressed, though this lone walker, with a philosophical proclivity for analyzing everything, rarely expresses joy or comfort. The first section of the novel is titled “Death is a perfection of the eye,” and the second, “I have searched myself,” clues about his own movement towards self-discovery, of coming to grips with something from the past. Open City is reminiscent of the novels of Walker Percy and of Andrew Holleran’s Grief, the unforgettable account of a man’s reckoning of his mother’s death while he walks the streets of another city. Yet in a more obvious sense, Teju Cole is Walt Whitman, describing, analyzing, singing of New York City with equally exquisite language. If the great American poet were alive today, he would praise the utter brilliance of Julius’s observations, his song of himself.

I have spent nearly fifty years reading and writing about African literature, but Teju Cole is no more African than any other writer who considers himself an American, a New Yorker. Open City will be one of the most discussed works of the year. As 2011 rolls to an end, the novel should sweep the major literary awards.

Open City
By Teju Cole
Random House, 259 pp., $25

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

February 20, 2018
Nick Pemberton
The Gun Violence the Media Shows Us and the State Violence They Don’t
John Eskow
Sympathy for the Drivel: On the Vocabulary of President Nitwit
John Steppling
Trump, Putin, and Nikolas Cruz Walk Into a Bar…
John W. Whitehead
America’s Cult of Violence Turns Deadly
Ishmael Reed
Charles F. Harris: He Popularized Black History
Will Podmore
Paying the Price: the TUC and Brexit
George Burchett
Plumpes Denken: Crude thinking
Binoy Kampmark
The Caring Profession: Peacekeeping, Blue Helmets and Sexual Abuse
Lawrence Wittner
The Trump Administration’s War on Workers
David Swanson
The Question of Sanctions: South Africa and Palestine
Walter Clemens
Murderers in High Places
Dean Baker
How Does the Washington Post Know that Trump’s Plan Really “Aims” to Pump $1.5 Trillion Into Infrastructure Projects?
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail