Friday, August 12, 2011

Walking in Manhattan

I've always liked books that give me a real sense of the geography of a city. I've even been known to pull up Google maps so I can follow the footsteps of a character. There are few books that do this better than Teju Cole's Open City. The diary-style book records the wanderings and musings of Julius, an African living in Morningside Heights as he pursues a psychiatric fellowship at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Julius was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a German mother and a Nigerian father, but has now adopted New York as his home, a home in which he still feels himself to be an outsider.

Sometimes Julius comments on the sights he is seeing or on people he meets during his walks; at other times he thinks back on his childhood in Nigeria, or reflects on books he has read or pieces of music he admires. During a trip to Brussels, where he makes a feeble attempt to find his German grandmother, he meets a Moroccan Muslim at an internet cafe, and ponders the immigrant experience that they share.

As you can tell, there isn't a lot of plot. What moves the book forward are not events and dialogue but rather Julius's thoughts, ideas and questions. But it isn't boring. Julius is an interesting, insightful character, and I felt his loneliness and isolation in the honesty and openness of Cole's prose. And yet, late in the book there are revelations that made me realize that even a person as frank and open as Julius can still be blind to his own failings. The revelation is such a shock that I still wonder whether Cole was more heavy-handed than he needed to be.

Cole's prose, though not showy, can still create some striking images. For a long time I will remember the scene where Julius, accidentally leaving Carnegie Hall by an emergency exit, finds himself on a rain-slick fire escape four stories above the street. As Julius recounts this he seems to embody all that it means to be human. I'm looking forward to taking another walk with Teju Cole.

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