Open City by Teju Cole

Open City was The Stacks Book Club pick this week on the podcast. We discussed the book with actor Behzad Dabu (How to Get Away with Murder, The Chi). If you want to hear that full episode, click here, but be warned there are spoilers (though I don’t think there is much to spoil in this book).

For more on Open City read here: 

A haunting novel about identity, dislocation, and history, Teju Cole’s Open City is a profound work by an important new author who has much to say about our country and our world.

Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor named Julius wanders, reflecting on his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past. He encounters people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.

In Open City we are paired with a protagonist, Julius, that is our guide, though we never get to know him well enough to care for him. He feels a little unreliable, but mostly, just aloof. He is constantly musing about the world around him, his place in it, what all of that means. He examines art and trauma and humanity and more, through out the course of this book, and because of his thinking, we too are asked to go reflect along with Julius. There is no real plot in the book. It starts, things happen to Julius, he goes on a trip, he meets new people, but mostly life happens and Julius moves forward, and then the book ends.  

What I appreciated most about this book was the variety of issues that Cole asks his readers to engage with. We reflect on the Holocaust, and classical music, on 9/11 and shoe shining. There is a variety of consciousness that Cole presents and that is refreshing. He doesn’t do any deep dives into any one thing, instead, like many people, he scratches the surface of what is in the zeitgeist. In presenting this variety of topics for reflection, Cole brings up some of the most controversial and provocative issues, but right as the thinking gets good and complex he changes the subject. It can feel frustrating, but it also allows the reader to do some reflecting on their own. I also think, Cole is grappling with many of these ideas himself. 

There were times the book felt disjointed. The chapter breaks made no sense. The dialogue was presented without punctuation or paragraph breaks. As soon as a character would start discussing a topic, like Israel and its relationship to Palestine, the subject would abruptly change. The book left me wanting more. It also left me with a lot to think about.

Open City felt like Cole’s musings on life and the futility of life. Things happen and we try to engage and then at some point we carry on. It is simple really, but leads to a sort of frustrating book with beautiful prose. Something that is lovely and also boring and then ugly and then interesting, and then its all over. Perhaps a metaphor for life?

I enjoyed reading this book overall. There were moments I was bored. There were also moments that filled me with energy as I allowed myself to consider things that I had previously taken for granted, for example the role of political parties in The United States. If you’re someone who likes philosophical conversations about hot button issues, this might be a nice pick for you. But be warned, very little happens.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Behzad Dabu discussing Open City

  • Paperback: 259 pages
  • PublisherRandom House Trade Paperbacks; 1 edition (January 17, 2012)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onOpen City Amazon

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