Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Open City (Teju Cole)

I've been meaning to post my thoughts on Open City for some time now.  In the interests of getting a review posted, I'm going to keep this short.

The plot is simple: a young psychiatry resident wanders around Manhattan (and, for a while, Belgium), thinking about the people and places he encounters.

At least, we are supposed to believe he is a medical resident.  But, he has too much free time, and his thoughts are too wide ranging.  Julius can speak thoughtfully about the cinema, French literary theory, early twentieth-century photography and revisionist history.  The only thing he can't speak thoughtfully about is science.

In short, he sounds like a typical self-absorbed graduate student, hard at work on his first novel.  (Who needs a plot anyway?  Just put your random musings in the head of an immigrant doctor and call it fiction.)

And yet, that is hardly all there is to this story.  If you have lived in Manhattan as an educated thirty-ish-year-old, you know the peculiar feeling of being surrounded by people who are similar to you, but feeling little connection to any of them.  Though Julius is interested in observing other people, he is unable or unwilling to form relationships with them.

Instead, his thoughts on immigration, conquest, race, nationality and identity slowly accrete.  Where Open City at first feels unfocused and frustrating, by the second half its themes begin to vibrate sympathetically against each other, and the ending is absolutely gorgeous. 

I previously mused that Open City is the type of book that one would expect to see on the short list for National Book Award.  However, on further reflection I suspect that it was simply too similar in many ways to Let the Great World Spin, the 2009 winner. 

In any case: I felt that Open City was worthy of the attention it received in 2011 given how slow the year has been, but hardly is one for the ages.

Related posts:
National Book Awards: The Finalists

1 comment:

  1. let the great world spin was a great book, in my estimation. putting this one in the same class as that will at least log it a spot at the end of my "to read" queue.