Book Notes: 'Open City,' by Teju Cole

Rae Francoeur

“Open City,” by Teju Cole. Random House, New York, 2011. 259 pages. $25.

This first novel, “Open City,” by the young Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, is as plotless as it is consuming. How this can be is as mysterious as art itself, which manifests in this unusual and haunting book.

Julius, a psychiatric fellow at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, moved to New York City from Lagos 15 years earlier. In this last year of his fellowship, he has a schedule that gives him nights and some weekends to himself. Julius uses his time to venture out into this “open” city to make associative journeys both in terms of his actual destination-less walkabouts and in his head, where the art, history and cultural information he encounters prompt deeper contemplation and, sometimes, gorgeous reverie. Other times Manhattan delivers hurt and loss.

Julius walks miles, exhausting himself, exits subways at unknown stops, ventures into galleries, makes reservations to hear concerts at the last minute, pays unexpected calls on an ailing professor, picnics in Central Park. He seems like a man capable of great compassion, in part because he makes note of the goodness in others. And yet, it appears, he is just as capable of withholding compassion — in the case of his grieving mother — and acts of violence. After being told of the affect of his violent act, he creates a double-story as Camus once did, and as you might expect one of his schizophrenic patients to do. In what may be related behavior, he lives with a painful injury to his hand and writes, in scenes that follow, of Nietzsche’s contempt for pain, demonstrated by holding lit matchsticks.

There are many ways to view Julius’s associative and deeply contemplative experiences, from the most literal — that he and the city are open to each other in the most productive and perfect exchange this city is capable of providing, to the more metaphorical, where this lone and isolated man is forever up against the fact of his solitary existence. These are the extremes, between which are many other threads to follow and consider. That 259 pages can yield so much to think about and to feel is clearly one of this book’s remarkable attributes. Another is the writing itself, which often arrests when you least expect it.

Somehow, perhaps due in part to these perambulations, Julius has amassed great knowledge of art and culture. His experience viewing portraits painted by a deaf artist is as true and engaging a description of the experience of art as any I have read. So, too, is one of his concluding scenes where he writes of a Mahler concert he attends and the way Mahler, who was suffering from heart disease and who was aware of his impending death, chose to die. During this complex meditation, Cole writes about the final movement, during which an elderly woman exits Carnegie Hall: “The old woman was frail, with a thin crown of white hair that, backlit by the stage, became a halo, and she moved so slowly that she was like a mote suspended inside the slow-moving music.”

Julius’s attention to migrating birds is brought to our attention in the first paragraphs of “Open City.” Julius says, “Not long before this aimless wandering began, I had fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment, and I wonder now if the two are connected.” Julius thinks little of his work in this book though his intimate relationship with the bipolar, the neurotic, the schizophrenic, is always there for the reader to wonder about.

When the book concludes, Julius has taken yet another unexpected journey, this time aboard a party boat that circles the Statue of Liberty late at night. There in the concluding paragraphs he recalls statistics about the deaths of disoriented birds that crash into the monument in bad weather and at night. “On the morning of October 13, for example, 175 wrens had been gathered in, all dead of the impact, although the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark.”

No journey of discovery is without its hazards.

Rae Francoeur can be reached at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair.”

Cape Ann (Mass.) Beacon