There’s a new sense of homelessness in the world, reflected in the stories of bright but peripatetic characters, displaced from their native lands. Apart from Skype, email, and a few colleagues, many of them abide in solitude. For them, home is an interior state rather than a country. The character of John in Loren Edizel’s fine first novel, Adrift comes to mind. Now a second acclaimed debut explores another globalized loner to devastating effect. Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American, is the author of Open City, a novel set for the most part in New York City and told from the point of view of Julius, a resident in psychiatry at Columbia’s New York-Presbyterian Hospital, in Harlem.
One of the pleasures of this novel is the serene, contemplative voice that relates Julius’ detailed and accurate discoveries of the city and its people. His reflections unfold as he walks the length of Manhattan, ruminating on the passing scene through insights gained from works of philosophy, history and art either unknown or forgotten by most of us. What in lesser hands might feel pretentious ends up as an engaging, if methodical, read. The pages turn slowly, but they never stop turning. As with Edizel’s novel, much is withheld; the reader feels pulled in by the relentless procession of Julius’ thoughts and brief interactions as we try to discover the beating heart of this accomplished but solitary man.
We learn that he’s of mixed race, an immigrant of cosmopolitan tastes and relative privilege who’s recently broken up with his girlfriend. There is no dialogue, yet Julius has much to say about his fellow-citizens, providing us with inadvertent glimpses of himself. He’s horrified to find that the wife of the man in the neighbouring apartment has died “on the other side of the wall” without his knowing or acknowledging it. He’s compassionate toward a former mentor, an ailing Japanese-American professor; resentful toward a cabdriver who tries to relate to him as an African, an attitude he regards as presumptuous and intrusive. He travels to Brussels and has a chance conversation with intellectuals from the Middle East (with whom he feels American in his opinions and beliefs). Back in New York, his serenity is jarred by a mugging, followed by his detailed reflection on the discovery of the African-American burial ground in Lower Manhattan. This juxtaposition of the violent and the cerebral leaves the reader disoriented, as Julius must have been.
It is possible, we think, that the psychiatric resident does not know his own mind. This seems to worry Julius, as well. “Each person must, at some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity…that we are not the villians of our own stories.” As it turns out, this reflection has been prompted by a devastating confrontation from a fellow Nigerian, a figure from his past. When asked to address the problem, Julius does not.
Instead he returns to ruminations on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, to an impromptu night cruise into New York Bay and a recitation of the number and kind of birds killed in chance collisions with the Statue of Liberty. One wonders if this avian image is a wry comment on migration and loss, with the great Austrian composer providing the soundtrack. Whatever the meaning, this meditative and beautifully written novel leaves us to ponder the coupling of intellectual insight and spiritual blindness. Likewise, it asks us to accept our incomplete knowledge of the human soul as the only kind of knowledge that is possible.
Open City by Teju Cole, is published in paperback by Random House (New York: 2012). 259pp.