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02.07.11

The Best Debut of 2011

Teju Cole's meditative novel about a Nigerian immigrant in New York is the best, and darkest, first novel of this early year, writes critic Taylor Antrim. Read it.

Want to write a breakout first novel?  The conventional wisdom says ingratiate yourself ( Everything Is Illuminated), grab the reader by the lapels ( The Lovely Bones), or put on an antic show ( Special Topics in Calamity Physics). Teju Cole's disquietingly powerful debut Open City does none of the above. It's light on plot. It's exquisitely written, but quiet; the sentences don't call attention to themselves. The narrator, a Nigerian psychiatry student, is emotionally distant, ruminative, and intellectual. His account of a year spent walking around New York, encountering immigrants of all kinds, listening to their stories and recalling his own African boyhood, achieves its resonance obliquely, through inference—meaning you have to pay attention. But Open City is worth the effort.

In its patient, cumulative way, the novel paints a startlingly dim picture of our present moment, our age of permeable borders and teeming heterogeneous cities. Julius looks like the bright side of globalism—born in Africa to a German mother and Nigerian father, educated in New York, now one year from his medical degree—but he feels off-step, adrift. The closer he looks at the world around him, the more callousness and anomie he finds—qualities the reader can't help but see, as the novel proceeds, in Julius himself.

At the start of the book, the fall of 2006, Julius has begun taking long walks through Manhattan as a kind of therapy, a way to shake off the stress of his days at the hospital. He walks from Morningside Park, through Columbus Circle, down to Wall Street and up the West Side Highway, itineraries that feel both aimless and bracingly observed. He'll enter the park at 72nd Street, emerge at Fifth and Central Park South, and visit the American Folk Art Museum, taking in an exhibition of paintings by John Brewster. He'll ride the No. 2 train, transfer to the 1, and notice a man reading Octavia Butler's Kindred, and another reading The Wall Street Journal. He'll describe a bank of stationary cyclists in the window of a New York Sports Club, then the same again in an Equinox.  He'll patiently circle Trinity Church near Wall Street looking for a way in, reading inscriptions on gravestones and monuments.

Julius' wanderings magnify New York and make it feel like a city encountered for the first time—though he has lived there for years. Meanwhile, the character's inner life is equally peripatetic, moving from migrations of birds (a recurring theme) to St. Augustine, to the symphonies of Mahler, to the city's bedbug epidemic, to the work of Melville and Nabokov. These early pages bring to mind W.G. Sebald's erudite walking-tour novels and deliver a sense, as with Sebold's characters, that Julius has some absence to fill, a personal history to recover.

It’s the most thoughtful and provocative debut I’ve read in a long time.

book---open-city
Open City. By Teju Cole. 272 pages. Random House. $25. ()

Is this the cost of emigration? An amorphous unease, a sense of never being at rest or at home? That seems to be the case with Julius. He and his girlfriend Nadege have broken up, a separation that he says, “surprised neither of us.” His lack of emotion about this—to the point of having forgotten her appearance after a span of a few weeks—parallels his encounters with strangers on the street. An African cab driver offers him a fraternal greeting. A Barbudan man joins him for a drink at a bar. A Haitian bootblack shines his shoes. Julius listens to these and others chatter away, telling their life stories—he is a psychiatrist and practiced at listening—but shares nothing of himself in return. Instead, he turns increasingly inward, taking a trip to Brussels to try to find his grandmother. We learn that he is estranged from his mother, that his father died at an early age. His boyhood hardly seems happy, but the pieces of it we get are fragmentary. He remembers being mistaken for a thief by a teacher, taking a forbidden Coke out of his parents refrigerator—minor offenses, hardly worth dwelling on. Unless of course they are stand-ins for larger crime…

All of this is comes at the reader in a slow burn. The novel is never boring, but it moves deliberately, and Julius' emotional life remains just out of reach. He flashes with anger—especially when his reveries are interrupted—dwells on death, and experiences curious lapses of memory. It would ruin the novel to reveal what transpires in the final third, but three acts of violence (two of them recollected) shake the novel's placid surface and transforms New York from a benevolent open city into something far more forbidding. Similarly, Julius' forgetfulness and drifty wanderings come to seem like willed acts of erasure; he has reason to blot out his past.

Immigration and exile are not new literary subjects (Salman Rushdie, Chang Rae-Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri), but Cole's treatment of them has a quiet clarity and surprising force. Will Open City find a breakout audience? I wonder, given its slow pace and darkness of its theme. Still, I hope so; it's the most thoughtful and provocative debut I've read in a long time.

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Taylor Antrim is fiction critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.