Authors sometimes enjoy using literal actions to symbolize deeper meaning; a Shakespearean actor might physically walk away from a difficult situation to represent his emotional distance from the other characters. Similarly, the physical action of wandering takes center stage in Teju Cole’s debut novel “Open City.” The book opens with an image of the aimless wanderings of its protagonist, Julius. There could be no more appropriate beginning for this meandering plot, exploring not only Julius’ soul, but isolation and loneliness in a world where one is constantly surrounded by people. Cole explores the realities of being an immigrant and an outsider, and concludes that loneliness is the only universal commonality.
The plot is simple: it follows several months in the life of Julius, an apparently normal psychiatric resident from Nigeria, but Cole soon reveals the character’s dark secrets. Julius’ mother is German, his father Nigerian, and in no place does he feel at home. He went to college and medical school in the United States, but thinks of himself as a ‘brother,’ in denial about the extent to which he remains unassimilated. As Julius reflects on his experiences, his profound loneliness becomes clear. He notices a man who has just finished the New York City Marathon and “thinking of Phidippides’ collapse, saw the situation more clearly. It was I [Julius], no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.” In moments of epiphany like this, Cole draws out the hidden meaning from quotidian situations that normally pass without comment.
“Open City” seems to slide past, almost as a stream of consciousness, lacking quotation marks or any clear punctuation. Cole fails to mark the difference between a character’s thought and his speech, and his smooth style draws not only from Julius but the people around him. The book does not need clarification, though, because Julius’ narration draws from and is influenced by the people around him. Thought is interchangeable with dialogue, and the smallest details from the present are enough to bring any character’s past memories to the forefront. Cole offers the experience not of reading a traditional story, but of reading a man’s mind.
The “Open City” of the title seems at first to be New York, a city of immigrants, a hub of the diversity and activity that Julius seems to crave. But Julius leaves New York, and travels to Brussels to make a halfhearted attempt at finding his maternal grandmother. There, Julius discovers that the immigrant’s feeling of isolation is not unique to America, and that the ‘brothers‘ of Europe feel as marginalized as the ‘brothers’ of America. After Julius is mugged, he begins to wonder how much he shares with his fellow immigrants.
His experiences in Brussels make him questions his status as an immigrant as well. A dinner in Brussels with two recent Morrocan immigrants makes Julius begin “pretending to an outrage greater than [he] actually felt,” as he argues with them about the meaning of the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda. As his dinner companions, Farouq and Khalil, embark on an extremist rant about Zionists and dictators in the Middle East, Julius realizes he feels nothing—not an attachment to their causes, and not an attachment to that which they’re fighting against.
Julius’ soul-searching is not restricted to the present; his past is also incorporated into the novel in a way that allows it to be not only context, but part of the present story. As Julius himself reflects, “we experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.” The novel is structured so that the past becomes part of the continuous narrative, and it only gradually becomes clear that Julius’ musings on the past are more than just his thoughts—they affect his present. Julius claims that “Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.” In those moments that Julius remembers Nigeria, we discover that his childhood, although mostly forgotten, forged him into the adult he becomes.
As Julius’ tawdry past is revealed, the reliability of his narration comes into question. As in any first-person narration, one must wonder whether the narrator is himself changing his story to make himself a hero. As a psychiatrist, Julius himself doubts the truth of his patients’ stories. He feels that all men want to be heroes, if only in their own eyes, and he will change his story to become one.
Soon, the plot of “Open City” becomes irrelevant, and Julius’ narration continues as a series of memories and musings, twisting together with tangents about bedbugs and history. Cole wraps it up with a surprise that feels unsurprising, and an satisfyingly unresolved ending for Julius. When he is finally forced to confront his past, a shocking revelation feels anticlimactic—but for a character as isolated as Julius, such an ending is wholly appropriate. The book is a melancholy reflection that “to be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”