Open City (2011) has been getting a lot of praise in literary circles (i.e., it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the PEN/Hemingway Award), so it seemed a worthy note to begin with. Cole’s novel is probably not a great read while you’re trying to get your sun tan on, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up on college syllabi. If nothing else, it raises interesting questions about just what the hell novelists are up to these days (when they’re not just slapping vampires into every story line imaginable).

Teju Cole - Open City

The novel follows lonely Julius, a psychiatry student, as he wanders through New York (the “open city” of the title) and Brussels. Julius meets a few people, mostly immigrants, and becomes increasingly isolated. The novel begins to feel more and more like a diary (another move toward isolation) and Julius becomes exactly the sort of pathetic ennui-infected protagonist we hoped he never would. “The days went by slowly,” he says at one point, “and my sense of being entirely alone in the city intensified.”

This isn’t a plot novel. There’s no murder mystery or coming-of-age or triumphant love-conquers-all scenario. Instead, this is a novel that concerns itself with a sort of mapping of cities and stories. Toward the end of the novel, we’re used to descriptions like the following:

To my right was Bennet Park, still and silent, animated only by the occasional fluttering of the American flag and the black POW flag hoisted below it. Pinehurst ended at 187th, and that brought me around to Cabrini, which ran alongside the river.

At times the book has an odd “Google Streetview” vibe to it. Or maybe just a “Google” vibe. The novel opens with Marílson Gomes dos Santos winning the 2008 New York Marathon (in historically accurate yellow Nike tank top and black arm coverings as well). There is a specific rhythm to the novel (like intersections and blocks denote a rhythm for travel through a city):  Julius meets someone, elicits a personal history, and then moves on. The question is never “What’s going to happen next?,” but “How are we to read a novel like this?”

And that’s my point exactly. This novel is for people who like to ask “How are we to read a novel like this?” There are lots of people like that. They have PhDs from Brown, they will get the joke I’m going to make in the last line of this review, and when they’re not sitting in that one room in their house that has bookshelves for walls, they’re handing out the PEN/Hemingway award. What I mean to say is that Open City wasn’t really my style.

I give it three Zadie Smiths.

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