Teju Cole's 'Open City': walking the length, breadth and heart of post-9/11 New York
Nigerian author Teju Cole's debut novel "Open City" is a magnificent portrait of post-9/11 New York City, seen through the eyes of a half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatrist whose walks through the city become both therapy and a pursuit of the metaphysical.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Teju Cole
Random House, 272 pp., $25
The wonder and the tragedy of flight come up again and again in Teju Cole's magnificent and shattering post-9/11 novel "Open City," whether it's geese migrating over Manhattan at dusk, wrens mysteriously slamming into the Statue of Liberty in the dark of night or planes crashing into the Twin Towers in the clear light of day.
"Open City" is the debut novel for Cole, a Nigerian writer, photographer and historian who lives in New York City, and it's a novel in the loosest sense. Plot is a minor consideration in the eloquent musings of the central character, Julius, a Nigerian-born, half-German psychiatrist on residency in Manhattan.
We get to follow Julius, an avid walker, as he explores the Big Apple and tries to gather his bearings on a shape-shifting physical, social and emotional landscape.
"New York City worked itself into my life at a walking pace," he says in typically poetic language early on. The strolls are clearly not just for leisure.
Julius has just broken up with his girlfriend, and he uses the walks as a form of therapy, as well as a way to decompress after long days traipsing through the subconscious chambers of his patients' minds.
His walking adventures start around the Morningside Heights section of upper Manhattan. But over time the sojourns extend farther and farther afield, so far that they start to feel like odysseys, requiring him to take the subway back to his apartment.
An essential part of a mental-health provider's job is to navigate though someone's interior world, to home in on the troubled areas of the soul and figure out how that influences one's direction in life.
The walks, by contrast, allow Julius to be aimless if he so chooses. At first he's assaulted by the "incessant loudness" of the city, but over time, the walks become oddly metaphysical pursuits.
"Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance," Julius tells us, "each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks."
Julius floats around the city like a time traveler hang gliding through the centuries.
His solitary aloofness has its drawbacks, though. Ironically, given his keen sense of observation, he at times seems oblivious to events happening right under his nose, such as the death of a neighbor's wife. He's also estranged from his German mother.
Julius is more preoccupied with the bird's-eye view of things. But at every turn, he must confront his own reality as foreigner in a terror-obsessed society, an African in a nation where "African American" has mixed meanings, an immigrant in a nation established and forever molded by newcomers, a single man figuring out how to love. His emotional journey eventually takes him to Brussels and through memories home to Nigeria, and as he searches for a sense of self and a sense of place in a world increasingly shaped by human migration, it seems as though he will be plagued by a weary restlessness, a psychic jet lag.
But like a lot of difficult journeys in life, the trip is as meaningful as the destination. "Open City" is a remarkably resonant feat of prose.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine.
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