Open City

Julius is his name. He is from Nigeria and has lived in the United States since 1992. His father, a German, died when Julius was young and he is estranged from his Nigerian mother. He has done well in this country, graduating from medical school and is about to complete his psychiatric residency. He is also widely cultured, devoted to classical music, photography, and literature. And he is the central character in Teju Cole's remarkable debut novel Open City.

Julius is also a wanderer, an observer who takes off on long walks in New York City to ease the stresses of his working day and recent, painful breakup with his girl friend. “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.” He often wanders deep into the canyons through Columbus Circle, all the way down to Wall Street and Battery Park continuing up the West Side Highway.

He is an acute observer of everything he sees and everyone with whom he speaks and he records his observations with a clarity that soon become the reflections of a therapist, a philosopher interspersed with memories of his boyhood in Nigeria. He notes it “is unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.” The same can be said of Julius.

He encounters an enormous range of people—immigrants, a Liberian who he visits in a detention center where he has been for two years, a graduate student he befriends at Internet cafĂ© during a visit to Brussels, the doctor he meets on the flight there, and he makes several visits to a dying former professor whose conversations echo the literary class he once took from him. And in these meetings he mulls over art, literature, music and photography, the partisanship and violence of contemporary life, and a countless number of books.

Cole's novel reads like a meditation, a diary without a plot, an autobiography without a beginning or end. “The days went by slowly, and my sense of being entirely alone in the city intensified. Most days I stayed indoors, reading, but I read without pleasure. On the occasions when I went out, I wandered aimlessly in the parks and in the museum district. The stones paving the streets were sodden, liquid underfoot, and the sky, dirty for days, was redolent with moisture.”

Always the observer, the listener, Julius is generally aloof, not one to get involved in the melodrama of the city. Even when he is mugged one night he describes the experience as an impartial observer rather than the victim of a brutal attack.

“I fell to the ground. I don’t recall if I cried out, or if opening my mouth I was unable to make a sound. They began to kick me all over—shins, back, arms—a quick preplanned choreography..The initial awareness of pain was gone, but now came the anticipation of how much it would hurt later, how bad tomorrow would be for both my body and my mind. My mind had gone blank except for this lone thought…We find it convenient to describe time as a material, we “waste” time, we “take” our time. As I lay there time because material in a strange new way: fragmented, torn into incoherent tufts, and at the same time spreading, like something spilled like a stain.”

Throughout Julius poses questions that he cannot answer and he reflects on ordinary matters. On happiness: “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 cherry wood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard.”

And the seasons: “In recent years I have noticed how much the light affects my abilities to be sociable. In winter I retreat. In the long and sunny days following in March, April, and May, I am much more likely to see out the company of others, more likely to feel myself alert to sights and sounds, to colors, patterns, moving bodies, smells other than the ones in my office or at the apartment. The cold months make me feel dull, and spring feels like a gentle sharpening of the senses.”

Toward the end of his journeys about the streets of Manhattan Julius goes to a symphony at Carnegie Hall. Watching Simon Rattle conduct Mahler’s 9th, he recalls other conductors who have led an orchestra in Mahler’s vast score and he falls into a mood connected to each name, “one of balance, extreme, sentimental, pained, consoling.”

“I found myself thinking of Mahler’s last years as I sat on the uptown-bound N train last night. All the darkness that surrounded him, the various reminders of frailty and morality, were lit brightly from some unknown source, but even that light was shadowed. I thought of how clouds sometimes race across the sunlit canyons formed by the steep sides of skyscrapers, so that the start divisions of dark and light are shot through with the passing light and dark. Mahler’s final works…were all first performed posthumously; all are vast, strongly illuminated, and lively works, surrounded by the tragedy that was unfolding in his life.”

These are but a few of his ruminations in this beautiful, intellectually rich and provocative novel. They led me to think about many old and new issues and in the strange way that sometimes happens in reading certain works of fiction, I often found myself in an extended conversation with Cole. Perhaps you will too if you read Open City and fall under its spell as I did.