Teju Cole: not all who wander are lost

Pivoting around a series of meandering walks through contemporary Manhattan taken by its solitary narrator, Open City explores in vivid prose themes of isolation, longing and home.

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As much as its use of evening constitutional as central plot device, the combination of gentle, meditative prose style and allusive imagination has earned Teju Cole's Open City justified comparisons to WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn. But while Sebald's masterwork is openly autobiographical, Cole's narrator is named Julius, a young psychiatry intern in Manhattan. Cole shares his creation's Nigerian nationality, but Open City is unambiguously a novel. Much of the narrative may be drawn directly from experience, it just as easily may not and it isn't for readers to concern themselves with this.

Julius has taken to appending his days by wandering Manhattan listening to classical radio stations. Open City is effectively a record of his journeys, mental and physical, a portrait of a 21st-century New York - art galleries, Ground Zero, "Times Square's neon inferno", homeless squats, Carnegie Hall, plagues of bedbugs ("They did not discriminate on the basis of social class and for that reason, were embarrassing.") Unlike Rings of Saturn, the novel ranges from its central location: Julius spends as much time on a long sabbatical in Belgium and recalling the Nigeria of his childhood as he does on his initial perambulations.

The primary commonality between the two books is the theme of transience. Sebald arguably restricts his focus to the highbrow whereas Cole's narrator can free-associate from Mahler's late symphonies, their "drunkenness, longing, bombast, youth (and its fading)", to the closing-down of a local Blockbuster. He thinks of other film and music stores concluding "Whatever role they played passed on to other hands that would briefly feel invincible and would, in their turn, be defeated by unforeseen changes."

In the first chapter Julius visits a former tutor and friend on what transpires to be his deathbed. They talk of academic jealousy and reputation: Dr Saito's "reverie took him out of the everyday, away from the blankets and the bag of urine. It was the late Thirties again, and he was back in Cambridge, breathing the damp air of the fens, enjoying the tranquillity of his youthful scholarship." Aside from Saito, Julius makes reference to one friend - to whom he speaks twice; they're both busy.

Such is his solitude - and his means of exploring this by walking the city - that Julius might be seen as an updated Baudelairean flâneur. Cole is aware of this danger and circumvents it by giving Julius a job treating the downtrodden and mentally ill. In other ways, too, he is very much involved in mankind. Meeting a neighbour, Julius asks if he and his wife still travel on the weekends. "Oh yes, every weekend, but it's just me now, Julius. Carla died in June, he said. She had a heart attack." Julius feels ashamed for failing to notice. "But even that feeling subsided; much too quickly now that I think of it."

In 1903 the German sociologist George Simmel argued that "the deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life", likening this struggle to our ancestors' battle with nature to satisfy their basic needs. Julius is not isolated in his pursuit of this autonomy: he talks to almost everyone and seems as committed to their individuality as his own. There's an occasionally awkward idea of "brotherhood", a solidarity among his fellow Africans, turned to aggressive ends as when a taxi driver berates him for not being instantly friendly, and even comical when a post office clerk recites to Julius his abysmal poetry until "moved by his own words he fell into silence". He gives Julius a business card marked "writer/performer/activist".

Cole writes of casual racism - at one point some children on the underground ask Julius if he's a gangster - and of a more ingrained, experiential xenophobia. He remembers a professor, Dr Gupta, exiled from Uganda under Idi Amin's regime. Over champagne he suggests the American dream is not dead: "I am successful now, he said, America has made a life possible for me… My daughter is doing graduate studies in engineering at MIT, and our youngest is at Yale." What he has lost still hurts: "I know that we are not supposed to say such things in America - when I think about Africans, I want to spit." Either Gupta is ignoring Julius's own Nigerian background, or is directing the comments at him. Julius is discomfited but not angry. The legacy of the Second World War also looms large - Julius himself is half German, although estranged from his mother's side of the family.

Cole reserves his sharpest social observations for Belgium - which Julius visits with a half-conceived idea that he might find his grandmother (he doesn't). On the plane journey Julius talks to the elderly woman in the seat next to him, a surgeon named Dr Maillotte. She asks him where he's from. "Oh, Nigeria, she said, Nigeria, Nigeria. Well, I know a great many Nigerians and I really should tell you this, many of them are arrogant." Julius is not offended - although it is partly her seniority which allows her to speak so directly. "Well, I suppose it's true, I said… we like to get ahead, make our presence felt. We think of ourselves as the Japanese of Africa, without the technological brilliance."

Belgium is a supposedly liberal country, but following a mugging and murder in the Gare Central, attributed to Arab youths, "one journalist wrote on his blog that Belgian society was fed up with 'murdering, thieving, raping Vikings from North Africa.' This was quoted approvingly in certain mainstream sources." It turns out the murderers were Polish citizens, but the fall out has already provoked a number of racially motivated hate crimes.

One of the most fascinating secondary characters appears at this point: Farouq, an economic migrant to Belgium, an internet cafe manager and student of political and critical theory who has been expelled from his MPhil on a supposedly trumped up plagiarism charge. They drink Chimay beer in a café and Farouq introduces his manager, Khalil. The bar conversation has a rare openness, and honesty - the nature of the Left and the Right, racial representation, the Israel lobby. The dialogue is at times impassioned, but essentially respectful, its inconclusivity a virtue: "What I would impose on him would not be an argument, it would be a request that he adopt my reflexes, or the pieties of a society different from the one in which he grew up."

Farouq is bitter about the sabotage of his academic career, and Julius is left to reflect how many have been driven to extremism by lesser slights. Before leaving he has lunch with Maillotte: "Look, I know this type, she said, these young men who go around as if the world is an offence to them. It is dangerous. For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous." Here the formatting - eschewing direct dialogue and speech marks - seem to justify themselves; not one character's statement is placed in scare quotes or parentheses and on the level of text, authority is as equal as in a genuine conversation.

Such understated realism is key to the Open City's success as a novel of subtle yet important inquiry. As Julius's friend and former tutor Professor Saito says, "I adore imaginary monsters, but I am terrified of real ones." Why write fantasy when a careful examination of the world as it is yields such beauty and terror?

The passages concerning Julius's childhood are a particular pleasure - his coming of age at home and his time at a Nigerian military school; a harsh experience that has done little to diminish his humanity. That said, the writing is beautiful throughout. Woven into the prose, Cole's analogies are always stunningly good: The Cathedral in Place de la Chapelle, Brussels, "was like the streaked hull of a sunken ship, and the few people around it were tiny and drab like midges." For all its clear-sighted honesty and fearlessly open discussion, Open City is intensely detailed, elegiac and measured in tone. It circles its themes, takes its time, spends pages on a train of thought set in motion by a misinterpreted sight. A whole chapter is about Julius forgetting his pin number. At times it's hard not to drift off on your own associative journey - in fact this is part of the joy of the piece. It's a mimetic, realist aesthetic, not the kind of work that has a beginning, middle and end.

And so it's a shock when the novel reaches an emotional and narrative climax: Julius's past - or someone else's version of it - catches up with him. This follows (and trumps) an equally traumatic scene in which Julius is mugged and savagely beaten. We are necessarily the heroes of our own stories "because we are able to articulate ourselves to ourselves" (and, through literature, to one another), "And so, what does it mean when, in someone else's version, I am the villain?" So close are we to the narrator by this point that we share the trauma to an uncanny degree.

Meditating on the "palimpsest" of Manhattan, "written, erased, rewritten", Julius reflects "There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail… Generations rushed through the eye of the needle and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories." In this extraordinarily assured debut, Cole presents us with a hero for our time.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.