“Of course I’d be willing to move to New York. How hard could it be?” That’s what I told the publisher when I interviewed for a position at Commonweal almost a year ago. I was partly bluffing—I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, and the biggest city I’d ever lived in as an adult was New Haven, Connecticut. Since taking the job I’ve moved three times, facing all the classic urban nightmares: noisy radiators, cagey roommates, insect infestations. For all the hassle, though, it’s been an experience of grace. Wandering across the city, I’ve made a point of exploring different neighborhoods, New York’s vastness making me acutely aware of my own smallness. And in spite of all the ambition and selfishness that New York supposedly represents, I’ve found that the city’s density has encouraged me to forget myself, teaching me to pay greater attention to the people and places surrounding me.
So it was a joy to discover Teju Cole’s Open City (Penguin Random House, $13.57, 272 pp.), the 2011 novel set in contemporary New York, which I read in order to better grasp the cultural vicissitudes of my new home. On its face, it’s about a young Nigerian-born therapist named Julius, a psychiatry resident at a hospital in Washington Heights who wanders the streets of Manhattan reflecting on his past. But it reads more like a meditative diary, cast in uncannily evocative and engrossing prose that touches on everything from the flight patterns of birds above the Hudson River, to the changing colors of the leaves in Central Park, to the peaceful stillness of paintings by artists like John Brewster and Johannes Vermeer hanging in the city’s art museums.
Externally, not much happens. Julius could be any middle-class professional in New York: he meets with patients, takes a holiday trip to Brussels, and attends dinners given by colleagues. But as in Augustine’s Confessions, all the action in Open City happens beneath the surface. Despite his aimless drifting, Cole’s protagonist (an alter-ego of the author himself) isn’t really just a flâneur. His roving serves as an unconscious tool for probing the recesses of his restless heart. The well-being that is supposed to come from professional success and relational satisfaction, Julius realizes, is really a form of self-deception, just another fiction we tell about ourselves: “We are not the villains of our own stories…. We play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.”
What keeps Open City from closing off into pessimism or narcissism is Julius’s symbiotic relationship with New York itself. He lives far uptown (in fact, just a few blocks away from Commonweal’s offices in Morningside Heights), but frequently takes the subway downtown, where he finds painful traces of the city’s distant past (a just-excavated slave cemetery from the 1700s) and its recent history (the hole left in the skyline after 9/11). In Julius’s contemplative gaze, which evolves from surface curiosity into a kind of deep, knowing compassion, the city’s wounds become his wounds, the world’s violence his violence. Cole’s attentiveness to the links between Julius’s inner and outer worlds yields a liberating spiritual insight: our private grief may have a public or indeed historical dimension, but that doesn’t mean we can’t escape it. We can and we must. We have a responsibility to look beyond ourselves, hard as that often is, and it’s in this outward orientation that we find inner freedom.