Teju Cole’s Open City is the most important book I have read to date. I understand this statement has very little bearing, on you, the reader. My credentials are slim, and my knowledge of the gamut of literary history, although unquenchable, does not quite match those of say, a reviewer for the New York Times or the praise from an established author. And while many books have impacted me so immediately, they’ve mostly been from at least a generation removed. So within these 750-1000 words, I will try to convey why this book is so important, particularly while so fresh from publication, not only to those with an intellectual curiosity or a political mind, but for those simply looking for a good read.
Open City follows a Nigerian born psychiatrist named Julius through his walks and thoughts around New York City. While the setting may have been the inspiration for Julius’ thoughts, its not necessary for the reader to be familiar firsthand with the landscape. First and foremost, Cole is a precise descriptor. He doesn’t drown the reader with unnecessary detail, yet provides enough to paint a setting thoroughly and poetically. Likewise, Cole uses countless philosophers, artists, and musicians to fully shape his view of the world. And while it may be helpful to know a bit about Nietzsche or Mahler, Cole doesn’t pander to the reader and offer unnecessary timelines. Cole himself, like the narrator, although born in the US, was raised in Nigeria, which further helps to emphasize his worldly view.
While writing this review, I realized I was becoming rather scatterbrained and incoherent, dropping off points and not following through all the way on the big ones I wanted to make. For a shorter novel (259 pages), there sure is a lot going on here. So for my attempt at trying to keep your attention while trying to cover all the grounds, I present to you (reluctantly), bulletpoints:
- Difference. And how our differences make us similar. Black and white, men and women, Christian and Jewish and Muslim. All (allegedly) have unalienable rights, but the theory is never quite perfected in practice. Likewise, should those who are outside of a culture assimilate, or do they embrace the difference and exist outside of mainstream, as a proponent of multiculturalism?
- The most banal elements of the novel have a way of weaving together to build upon a larger point. What does imperialism, bed bugs, and the tree of heaven have in common? Why are there so few Native Americans in the northeast of America and what does their disappearance signal to dominant races today? Likewise, consider the ever changing urban landscape, gentrification, turf wars, “brothers.” Julius traces his roots back to Nigeria, reminiscing on the difficulties of fulfilling private sexual urges and how Coke = rebellion. What initially seems like trivial tales actually help argue against the condescending concept of ‘first world issues.’
- To extrapolate, suffering, and how differences influence it, is one of the larger issues of the novel. The presentation of it (as in a dissection of the Last King of Scotland), a discourse on the “six million,” and of its seemingly immanence in human fates are all up for discussion.
- Fashionable Politics. Especially interesting to consider in the wake of the #Kony2012 hype: what does activism mean to the millennial generation? How informed are we? Julius has a sobering moment while in a bar in Brussels after he found out that the majority of the patrons around him, the young, drunk, laughing and flirtatious Africans around him weren’t from Congo as he suspected, but from Rwanda. What grand suffering they all must have endured, what tortured memories they imprison, he wonders. Yet they still feel the very basic need to dance, to socialize, and have not been entirely dehumanized.
- Existentialism. It’s hard not to be reminded of French maestros of the midcentury movement, but Cole avoids copping them entirely. “To be alive…was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”
- The Mind. Julius’ background as a psychiatrist offers unique insight as well, with deep contemplation regarding the relationship between external appearances with internal reality. The book lacks quotation marks during dialogue, which almost implies that all of the conversations are actually monologues Julius has with himself. At the same time, Julius considers himself “a listener,” a key trait for a psychiatrist of course. And while highly sensitive to his own feelings and emotions, Julius isn’t without his own self-deceptions.
Open City (Cole’s debut novel) has received near unanimous praise. Almost as important, he stays current with his Twitter account, offering the “small fates” of Nigeria (and most recently, the small fates of New Yorkers 100 years ago), a much needed perspective amidst the barrage of indie music, local celebrities, comedians and Western news outlets my feed often focuses on.
Reading Open City today makes me feel like I’m reading The Stranger or Native Son at the time of their publications. It’s daring, it’s intriguing, and overall, it’s honest. It provides a unique voice while simultaneously understanding it’s place in history (as the many references to philosophers, musicians and artists makes clear), achieving both reflection and originality.
Andrew Hertzberg is a Chicago music blogger for Windy City Rock, a deep dish pizza slinger, and a night-time bike riding enthusiast. He recently reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.