Open City

Teju Cole

First Sentence:     And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.

I’ve been reading Open City for a while now. In fact, I stopped reading it some time ago and only came back to it recently as it seemed a shame not to finish it. It’s not that it’s a bad book, it is very well written and has some wonderful moments but for me, half the time it just reads like an overlong essay and not a novel. It is lacking narrative, and is more concerned with philosophical musings, like identity and time, than character or plot. Fine if you want that type of thing but really a novel’s primary function is to tell a story and in this book, a story is severely lacking! Don’t get me wrong, I tend to really enjoy novels that other people would call ‘literary’ or ‘stuffy’ or ‘highbrow’ but if there is no plot running underneath it to keep me reading, I tend to wonder what’s the point? Just write an essay, or a memoir, or anything else, and leave novels for those who have stories to tell.
But anyway, this book is about Julius, a young Nigerian doctor roaming the streets of New York, thinking. He also travels to Brussels and walks around the city, thinking. Thinking about his youth when he used to walk around Nigeria, thinking. Julius is incredibly intelligent and learned, and likes to think, at length, about architecture and art and national identity and race and time. And that’s it. Right at the end of the book a story does begin to appear as secrets are revealed, but by the time that happens the damage has already been done. As I said, this book is very well written and Teju Cole is clearly a very gifted writer and some of his ideas are incredibly lucid and interesting:

It is impossible, and it is arrogant, to think that the present reality of Western countries is the culminating point of human history

And

Each person must, on 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 that is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories

But for me, all this is wasted when it is not bolstered by some sort of story. This is fiction’s primary purpose and it doesn’t matter how accomplished it is, how masterly, if a book lacks a story, it fails as a novel.

* *

Last Sentence:     On the morning of October 13, for example, 175 wrens had been gathered in, all dead of the impact, although the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark.

Last Sentence explained:     The last sentence itself is talking about the number of birds that used to die by flying into the statue of liberty. By the end of the book, Julius’ friend Professor Saito dies, and he learns that his ex-girlfriend is engaged. Then, in the final pages of the book, we learn from Moji, a character only introduced to us relatively recently, that Julius raped her several years previously at a party. This changes our opinion of Julius, but in reality I had no real opinion of him anyway and cared very little what would actually happen to him. So there, I did not enjoy this book. Lots of people did though, so decide for yourself….

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