Open City, by Teju Cole (Random House, 272 pp., $25)
Plotlessness has rarely seemed such a virtue as in Open City, Teju Cole’s debut novel. The book is narrated by a Nigerian psychiatrist, Julius, doing his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian in Manhattan. The plot consists almost entirely of the workings of Julius’s mind and memory as he walks around New York and Brussels (where he goes for a holiday) and interacts with people. He tells of his troubled patients. He describes the way his mind seems to shut down in winter and come alive again as the air thaws (though if all minds were as vigorous as his during cold months, the world would be humming along quite nicely). Cole gives us a narrator whom we get to know much more by what he thinks and feels than by what he does, because we never see him do anything beyond the mundane. The walks Julius takes around the city stand as metaphors for a searching mind, one that seeks deeper understanding while coming to no definitive conclusions. He refers to a sweeping range of art, fiction, music, history, and politics, both in his own thoughts and in the frequent long conversations—always conducted sans quotation marks—that make up the novel’s action.
What do Julius and these people talk about? Just about everything. His old mentor, Professor Saito, who is dying, tells him that each generation will experience a war that shatters them and that this can happen only once. After the war of one’s youth, Saito tells Julius, you’ll accept subsequent wars with sadness and resignation; you might still oppose them, but never again will your innocence be threatened. Julius’s Moroccan acquaintance in Brussels, Farouq, is a learned man who runs an Internet café and believes that the social unity of the kind preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. is overrated. Difference is precious, Farouq says; in difference there is power and distinction. Farouq invites Julius to dinner with his friend Khalil, who tells Julius frankly that he can “understand” why al-Qaida committed the 9/11 attacks. “Your friend is an extremist,” Julius tells Farouq, but without rancor. He sees the two men as engulfed in the angry claims of ideology, with which he wants no part, and he regards them with some detachment. Yet he also wonders whether his detachment is not “an ethical lapse graver than rage itself.”
Throughout the novel, Julius presses upon the reader the weight of history, especially the kind that is invisible to us, hidden behind the structures we pass every day—from the slave burial ground in lower Manhattan to the now-forgotten city streets obliterated by the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s. The transitory nature of experience only deepens its spiritual implications. Julius describes the feeling of happiness in seeing the sunlight bounce off an appealing wooden table at a restaurant and the way that such happiness begins to depart the moment one recognizes it: “I became aware of just how fleeting the sense of happiness was, and how flimsy its basis: a warm restaurant after having come in from the rain, the smell of food and wine, interesting conversation, daylight falling weakly on the polished cherrywood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard. Even to be aware of this, in the midst of a happy moment, was to push one of those pieces, and to become slightly less happy.” Happiness cannot be possessed, he implies, in the way that we possess other things—though our hold on these other things is more tenuous than we seem ever to recognize.
Open City is a deeply humane and reflective novel, but it ends on a discordant note. Until the novel’s waning pages, all of its events are interior, within Julius’s mind. That begins to change when he is mugged one night on his way home. The mugging brings Julius into the world of action, but his response is what we have come to expect from him: rumination, suppressed anger, disgust, and ultimately gratitude as he takes refuge in an outlook that he had initially rejected: “It could have been much worse.” Though the mugging comes as a surprise, it seems less like an intrusion than an inevitable dose of everyday reality.
This is emphatically not the case with the revelation, near novel’s end, that Julius, at the age of 14, had committed a cruel act that we would never associate with him. Moji, a childhood friend from Lagos, reminds him about it at a Manhattan party. After Moji describes the event in detail, she finally asks Julius, who has been listening wordlessly: “Won’t you say something now?” But if Julius does speak, Cole doesn’t allow us to hear him, and the incident is not referred to again.
The novel’s final chapter is indistinguishable from those that preceded it: more wanderings, more elevated, fascinating thoughts, suffused in history and memory and art and music—except that now these musings prompt unease in the reader, as they seem an exercise in evasion. Julius ponders Mahler’s final days and his Ninth Symphony, a performance of which he attends. The novel ends with Julius reflecting on the Statue of Liberty and how it had initially served as a lighthouse for ships entering New York Harbor—though its torch light often spelled disaster for migrating birds, which apparently mistook it for land and crashed into it, dying by the thousands. He quotes early twentieth-century reports about thousands of bird carcasses being gathered for medical research. He describes how city officials tried to explain the phenomenon, and how “the sense persisted that something more troubling was at work”—a phrase that could also serve well as an epigraph for the novel.
The novel seems to conclude, then, with a postmodern shrug, the antithesis of everything that has preceded it. I don’t pretend to know what Cole means by ending this way, unless it is to show us, in a novel that never shies away from moral darkness, just how dark the human soul is. Even the ethereal soul of Julius—student of Mahler, healer of psyches, vibrant conversationalist, lover of art, perambulator through great cities, befriender of strangers, nonaffiliated political thinker—can shelter a predator within. Or perhaps Cole, attempting something larger by introducing this revelation about Julius’s character, has proved unequal to the task of resolving it. If so, it is the only time in his searching novel that examination fails him.