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.
By Teju Cole
Random House, 259 pp., $25
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.