A young doctor takes breaks from his busy psychiatric residency and, later, private practice by walking the streets of New York and traveling briefly to Brussels. Julius's rich, diary-like account of his interactions with the cities' people and structures, salted with his incomplete self-knowledge and unresolved past, amounts to Open City, an engrossing meditation and celebration of language.
I'd rather share my experience with Open City than review it. After reading the novel, I began (a bit like Julius, who settles into a flâneur's perspective during his walks) running into lengthy, insightful, and deservedly positive reviews of it in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New Statesman. Not much I can add to what they say.
Observation and language worked like plot to carry me along, mind and spirit, though Julius's wanderings. Julius often feels reflective and associative, much like anyone reading, and subject to crosscurrents of art, music, literature, his own fine-tuned senses and city life. Consider the synchronicity in this paragraph after Julius describes a performance of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall:
"In the glow of the final movement, but well before the music ended, an elderly woman in the front row stood, and began to walk up the aisle. She walked slowly, and all eyes were on her, though all ears remained on the music. It was a though she had been summoned, and was leaving into death, drawn by a force invisible to us. The old woman was frail, with a think crown of white hair that, backlit by the stage, became a halo, and she moved so slowly that she was like a mote suspended inside the slow-moving music. One of her arms was slightly raised, as though she were being led forward by a helper - as though I was down there with my [grandmother], and the sweep of the music was pushing us gently forward as I escorted her out into the darkness. As she drifted to the entrance and out of sight, in her gracefulness she resembled nothing so much as a boat departing on a country lake early in the morning, which to those still standing on the shore, appears not to sail but to dissolve into the substance of the fog."
Blends and juxtapositions like these, and the love of seeing a good mind observe like a good lens and absorb like good film, caused Miguel Syjuco in his NY Times review to call the novel "a symphonic experience". Experiencing this kind of joy and honesty book-wide has been the literary (and maybe the musical!) high point of my year. What critic George Steiner said about Lawrence Durrell fifty years ago applies at least as well to Teju Cole: "He stands in the tradition of the fullness of prose. He is attempting to make language once again commensurate with the manifold truths of the experienced world."