Friday, March 31, 2017

Review: "Open City" by Teju Cole

Open City, the debut novel from the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole is the perfect kind of debut novel, something that can share ample shelf space with Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, Tea Obreht and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. It mixes a fiercely original voice with classic literary techniques to make something new, fresh and instantly memorable, which is great, because this novel, and its wandering narrator, seem to be obsessed with memory. Sadly, I also see this book as a sort of one and done, and would not be surprised if Cole can never reach the pinnacle that this book so gracefully and effortlessly reached, very similar to how I feel about Powers’ novel (also a book that won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction), with both finding avenues outside the medium they are more at home with, with Powers’ being a poet and a Cole being a skilled essayist and photographer. It is sad, but we will always have a book like this that turns one’s man shiftless odyssey from one side of New York City to the other into a pastiche of random facts, close encounters and buried grief. I was reminded of quite w few other writers while reading through this book, mostly from Latin America, with echoes of Bolano, Vasquez and Guillermo Rosales at points, and its’ structure has the same hypnotic grace and confidence of something like Javier Marias’ All Souls. A very loose novel, with no driving plot, it is made up of a series of vignettes, all experienced from the perspective of Julius, a Nigerian born doctor slowly making his way through a medical residency. He has a girlfriend who lives in San Francisco and a disparate number of friends, one of which is never named. The walks he takes and the items of trivia he rattles off with a scholar’s knowledge and a nihilistic indifference characterize his isolation and displacement among what seems to be the entirety the NYC population. Speaking of nihilism, the back cover compares this book to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I don’t see that connection, since this book is much more interesting than that book, and a lot less grim and full of more life. The real treats here are in his interactions, all of which Julius seems to be disconnected from. From the relationship with the elderly Japanese English professor who was interned in a camp during World War II, to a fellow doctor whose journey into the underbelly of history leads to tragic results, and the most shocking revelation of the novel. This book requires a lot of focus, but you will be rewarded for it in the many odd coincidences you will find throughout Julius travels, from the recurrence of bedbugs among three different characters, and two visits to church, one in Belgium where Julius is vacationing and one back in New York following the book’s most violent scene, and the many concerts and art galleries he goes to, with the last one bringing with it what I feel is the book’s most indelible image. It’s easy to see that he is running from something, and the many historical details he indulges us with are his way of looking back to avoid the present. This is an intensely engaging and brilliantly structured novel from a talent I want to see more from, even if it is not in the form of fiction.

Rating: 5/5

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