Saturday, September 24, 2011

Open City by Teju Cole

At some point in Open City a reference is made to Julius, the narrator, being a flaneur— a wanderer, an ambler. He is an American psychiatrist training in Manhattan. He's biracial— German and Nigerian and acutely aware of how people of color are perceived.

The book is often a prolonged interior monologue of Julius's peregrinations throughout the city. We read a series of snapshots rather than a linear narrative. He does meet up with a number of people and is the recipient of their stories, but then moves on to the next encounter or social or cultural commentary.

Julius appears to lack a sense of joy as he meanders through the landscape. Yet by the choices he makes and his narration a picture of Julius emerges out of these glimpses. Each experience is a layer and when peeled back reveals some of what is beneath.

Despite the lack of movement, save in his rambles, I found myself caught up in his daily walks, possible because I grew up in New York City and enjoyed the familiarity of some sights. I appreciated the tension between the concrete experiences and the subjective interpretations.

In the midst of these fragmentary episodes there is one alarming narrative by someone he once knew—Moji. As a reader it is apparent that we're dealing with an unreliable narrator so the veracity of the story isn't definitive. But if it is true, Julius resembles a person who has disconnected from himself and his actions. He then is only a repository of what he sees and hears—a compartmentalized individual with no moral compass.

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