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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Teju Cole's Open City

Photo: Teju Cole, by Teju Cole
Teju Cole's Open City, his debut novel and one of my favorite books in recent memory, is about nothing and everything (like Seinfeld, just keep the wit and lose the slapstick). The protagonist Julius, a native Nigerian with Nigerian-German parents, is doing a psychiatry fellowship in New York. From his apartment in upper Manhattan, he discovers the city through walks and acquaintances. Each anecdote offers a facet of his biography that shapes and gradually defines him. Yet just as a picture of Julius begins to emerge for the reader, an old friend's confession reveals a shocking episode that makes us reassess him, and he himself.

Julius is like many New Yorkers: non-native, and of a non-Caucasian heritage that alternately hinders and provides access to opportunity; cultured, yet sometimes lacking in street smarts; a voyeur of those who do things, and a sounding board for those who have strong opinions. His family is either deceased or unlocatable (he visits Brussels thinking he might run into his estranged grandmother), but in spite of this, or because of it, he has created a network that functions in makeshift familial roles, as many New Yorkers do.

He mentions visiting the giant panorama model of New York City at the Queens Museum, and in some ways, Open City parallels that experience. At times, Cole surveys the city from afar, like a promenading Godzilla might; at others, he zooms in to view small details with clarity (although Brooklyn is not in his book's scope, he will be here for BAM's Eat, Drink & Be Literary on March 15). Encounters with strangers and friends of African descent reveal an ever-shifting assessment of the complexities of racial identity, and the creeping feeling of never fully belonging.

Cole writes in beautiful, smart, accessible language, without quotation marks or superfluous stage directions, but with masterful descriptions. He mentions a soaring public space on Wall Street:

When I moved back into the center of the nave, which was almost free of human presence, a solitary man hurrying across to the subway escalators dropped his briefcase with a loud clatter. He got on his knees, and began gathering pieces. His oversize, mouse-colored trench coat fell like a Victorian dress around him.

Even violent or strident situations are described in ripe language that somehow seems to soften them, and complex concepts of politics or philosophy are suffused with a tangible humanity. Shifting between internal and external, micro and macro, banal and signficant, Cole eloquently expresses the nuances of daily life in all its coarseness and transcendence.

Susan Yung

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I read the book and found it to have an interesting perspective of life in New York City. Cole gives an eye view of what we take for granted and how we zoom into our own circles to create, shift, and align ourselves into something familiar and different as it fits our needs, wants and desires.