Open City: A Novel

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These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. Reading Teju Cole's debut novel Open City is really not like reading a novel at all; it is more like reading a journal or a travelogue written for the writer to look back on themselves and use as an aide memoir when wanting to go back over a trip or an experience they have enjoyed. The novel's protagonist, Julius, a Nigerian immigrant to New York City, has recently ended a relationship and is in the process of completing the final year of his psychiatry fellowship.

Julius loves to explore the city and meet as many diverse people as possible.

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Julius is looking for his grandmother, and this search takes him to Belgium, engaging the locals he meets there in deep conversations about philosophy and the meaning of life. New York makes so much noise about itself, discusses itself so endlessly on its streets and in its bars, lends its name so freely to magazines and websites and newspapers, that the novelist foolhardy enough to engage with this nonstop tantrum of a place has little choice but to turn himself or herself into a noise-comprehender The Fortress of Solitude , Netherland or a noise-amplifier Herzog , Mr.

These are feelings many temporary New Yorkers experience at some point during their youthful exile to the city, but that have been purged from the historical record of novels because they offer a lower-level of reality instruction than, say, a brawl in a bar or a game of cricket on Staten Island; they smack of the staid PhD seminar rather than of lived life. The brilliance of Open City lies in its ability to straddle both worlds at once—the worlds of high art and low life—and to treat each as a privileged window into the other.

A visit to the Folk Art Museum, for instance, might be followed up, a few pages later, by a run-in with a Barbadian guard from the museum. Open City unfolds as a series of walks in Manhattan, allowing for coincidences and linkages to occur naturally, without the superstructure of a plot. The narrator, Julius, who is half-Nigerian and half-German, and completing a year-long psychiatry fellowship at Columbia University, has no specific agenda other than to make sense of his adopted home, to read his landscape the way one might re-read a favorite book.

Refreshingly, Julius does not use his status as a cultural double-agent to rage against the obvious injustices of liberal Manhattan. He does not, for instance, decide to throw in his lot with the oppressed footmen or grow paranoid about his own blackness: the novel maintains a sober approach to race, treating it as yet another experience available to a certain type of educated man of color.

What these people have in common is a sort of bracing, needy loneliness, as if the city, which claims to be so hospitable to immigrants, is actually a place of brutal anonymization. The tranquility, it turns out, is a way into a quieter kind of trouble. Julius too does not reflect on these characters further once he moves on with his walks. He is mostly interested in maintaining his tranquility, and we begin to realize that, though the city is open, our narrator, for all intents and purposes, is closed. Teju Cole was born in Michigan and moved back to Nigeria with his parents when he was five months old.

He returned to the country of his birth in to attend Kalamazoo College and later enrolled as a doctoral student in the art history department at Columbia to study the Dutch painter Bruegel. It was here, in the trenches of academia, that he wrote Open City. The academic influence shows in the book.

Reading Teju Cole's OPEN CITY in NYC

Open City reads like a digressive monograph of the sort favored by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, sweeping up changing seasons, news, gossip, and historical tidbits in service of big questions. What does it mean for a city to suffer an attack and go on pretending nothing happened? How are people holding up five years later? We always infer the race of a character in Open City from his or her nationality, accent, or life experience. The novel possesses an air of roving inquiry: it exists to solve intellectual rather than emotional questions.

Open City: Modern Chupa

This turns out to be one of the games that Cole is playing with the reader. An unapologetic devotee of high Western art—of Mahler and Barthes and Coetzee—he seems to value his own solitude above all else, cutting off conversations when he is bored or irritated. But something is clearly nagging at Julius, and about ninety pages into the novel he sets off to Brussels to find his German grandmother.


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If you need a bit of a nugde, begin by reading my blog post on Open City. Cole, 36, was born in the United States and raised in Nigeria. His novel, about a Nigerian […].

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