Open City, By Teju Cole

Such sophisticated meanderings

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The Independent Culture

At first I took Teju Cole's first novel for a literary travelogue in the style of WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. The narrator, Julius, is a Nigerian psychiatrist who strolls alone, and seemingly at random, around New York. Like Sebald's wanderers, he is discomposed by uncanny sights – a pair of identical blind men standing on a railway platform; passers-by who resemble mannequins in the half light – and laces his narrative with oblique historical and cultural references, most to do with transience and loss.

But we slowly come to realise that there is a slippage between author and protagonist, an irony quite unlike anything in Sebald's writings. Chinks appear in Julius's cultivated veneer, and a deeper callousness, perhaps even a kind of solipsism, becomes apparent.

Returning from an extended holiday in Europe, he learns that one of his patients has committed suicide, and responds with a brief, self-exculpatory comment. When the sister of an estranged friend accuses him of drunkenly assaulting her at a party years before, he considers her claims – "What does it mean when, in someone else's version, I am the villain?" – before dismissing them with a clever-dick allusion to Camus. His erudition, it seems, is an elaborate disguise.

These moments, and others like them, show Open City to be a character study of exquisite subtlety and sophistication. It is a debut of enormous promise.