Open City, Paperback Book
3.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


This is the bestselling debut novel from a writer heralded as the twenty-first-century W.

G. Sebald. A haunting novel about national identity, race, liberty, loss and surrender, Open City follows a young Nigerian doctor as he wanders aimlessly along the streets of Manhattan.

For Julius the walks are a release from the tight regulations of work, from the emotional fallout of a failed relationship, from lives past and present on either side of the Atlantic.

Isolated amid crowds of bustling strangers, Julius criss-crosses not just physical landscapes but social boundaries too, encountering people whose otherness sheds light on his own remarkable journey from Nigeria to New York - as well as into the most unrecognisable facets of his own soul.


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“Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book – and does.”- Groucho MarxIn Open City, Teju Cole has created a perplexing work of semi-autobiographical fiction which eschews plot, though not incident. It is both beautifully written and yet apparently “pointless”. I use “pointless” carefully, as I happen to believe that the best art is purposeless in the sense of not being grossly utilitarian. Yet… and yet. Cole seems to skirt dangerously close to the sort of navel-gazing of which post-modernist writers are so often accused. There is, however, a story beneath his purported stream-of-consciousness technique. I say “purported” because many reviewers have focused on this aspect of Cole’s technique, but I do not think that it is really stream-of-consciousness as one would find in, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.While the whole book may be one long soliloquy by Cole’s protagonist, Julius, it hardly ever becomes a “difficult” book to read. We get Julius’s thoughts, but they are never really confused or contradictory. Everything is explained sequentially, and the “plot” is very easy to follow: Julius, an immigrant from Nigeria, is a newly-qualified psychiatrist in New York City, who walks the streets of the city on apparently random rambles. There is an interlude in this basic structure when Julius goes to Brussels to look for his grandmother (his parents were a mixed-race couple), but this is ultimately unsuccessful. Julius returns to New York… and not much else happens. Well, there is a bit of a shock near the end of the novel, which I will not reveal, but it does make one reconsider Julius’s whole narration: has he been honest in relating events? is he merely a brilliant psychopath, cold and calculating? or are all writers something like this, in their detached and clinical observations?The book definitely left me with more questions than answers. It is quite inscrutable at times, with Julius commenting on all kinds of interesting things, but never really revealing himself. I enjoyed his meditations on race, 9/11, immigration, and the hidden history of New York. The problem was that these recountings were often in the form of information dumps that seemed somehow gratuitous. Were they always really necessary? Probably not, but that might be to miss the point of the book. I always attempt to be charitable in interpreting a book, so perhaps Cole has some deeper intention that was not quite clear to me. I assume it has something to do with noticing details, and how real life often does not make sense in the way that a strongly-plotted book might. Maybe this is why the book elicits such divergent responses: some readers accept the meandering tone as reflective of modern… ennui? confusion? Well, something to that effect. For others, the book seems pointless in a more than art-for-art’s-sake way. I think I am somewhere on the borderline here. Perhaps I have read too many plot-based novels, or I have a congenital love of story, but I found that the book kept on swerving towards, and then away from, a satisfactory reading experience.Cole is certainly a promising writer, and this book is also far from an aborted effort to capture something about early 21st-century life. What that something is remains debatable. I will not say I have great expectations of Cole, as that might sound condescending, but I certainly hope that he keeps on writing. His novel, all reservations aside, has a great freshness and immediacy, a poignancy of place that few writers capture as effortlessly as Cole has.

Review by

Walking along the streets of Manhattan and Brussels a young doctor in training to become a psychiatrist 'talks' in flow about past, present without reflecting on the future. Although half German half Nigerian (Yoruba) he greets all blacks including Arabs with 'brother' but apart from his broken relationship all but the relations with his old Japanese college professor in early English literature and his friends from Lagos that are also living in Manhattan all his contacts are short in time and limited in purpose.Getting mugged by his 'brothers' near Columbia University and being accused of rape when he was sixteen by what he considers a friend, the story ends rather abruptly with him opening a private practise on the Bowery; taking the wrong (emergency) exit after listening to Mahler at Carnegie; an unplanned boattrip to the statue of Liberty that as a beacon at night is also a deathtrap for thousands of birds (symbolic for the hardship of immigration?). In these stories within the story, for instance about the triumph of the bed-bug in NY's sleeping rooms, Cole is at his best. Also the story gives an insight that 'the other' is hardly ever the one we consider him to be at first glance. This also is the case with the author / young psychiatrist, multi-racial walker, birdwatcher, lover of classical music and rapist (?) .Like some reviews already stated there is a relationship with the technique of reflecting simultaneously on the theatre and encounters of the city and the innerself which bears resemblance to W.G. Sebald way of writing.

Review by

Knew it was a slow read, but in the end it feels like unfinished business - the relationships with his parents, especially mother, and the girlfriend who took off. Nothing seems to replace it, though, certainly not the city. And Belgium? WTF? Although I liked the Belgium section best. Professor Saito and Mme. in Belgium.

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