30 May 2012

Open City

Last night at a John Adams Institute event, I admired the Amsterdam view from the fifth floor at Booking.com. I had the privilege of listening to Teju Cole's elegant account of his new novel, Open City. His camera sat next to him - just in case. The evening came to an end as the sun was setting, and the audience rushed forward to meet the author. Teju guessed the correct spelling of my name, signed my book, and cheered my likeminded desertion of an academic career.

When I was young, before I had a clear understanding of fiction, I always read first person narratives as if the author was speaking directly to me. There was no separation between writer and narrator; the thoughts of the narrator were identical to the author's deepest wishes and fears. Creativity was only manifest in craft. Reading Open City brought back this habit. As I turned the pages I could almost see Teju roaming the streets of New York and then Brussels, soaking it all in with his keen eye and then writing out his observations, long hand. As a fiction writer myself, I know that characters can take over a project, almost pulling the writer along to follow a certain personality or fate. But my enjoyment of this book was greatly enhanced by this long forgotten habit.

The book is wonderful in its steadiness. It's not a novel in the traditional sense. There is no pull towards the end, no rapid page turning, no crisp plot. Instead, there exists a quiet wish to know the fate of the narrator, Julius. By the time I was embedded in the unhurried, deeply descriptive style, I was able to accept that I would only learn bits and pieces about Julius, and I knew I would be satisfied with whatever he gave me, even though all revelations were not welcome.

Reading Open City is a leisurely journey, a tribute to observations and encounters with other people. Teju's writing is intelligent and detailed oriented. He is calm, measured, but with a matter of fact tone also reveals Julius' anger and irritation, and even denial, making him strikingly human. He makes us see the world in sharper contrast.

If you don't have time to read the book, at least follow Teju on Twitter. His tweets, as his novel, are like nothing you've ever seen.


  1. Open City sounds really good. Maybe after I take (and pass!!) my test, I can actually read for pleasure again! Hope you are feeling better...

  2. I am happy to loan it to you anytime. :)