Open City is a work of bright, clear intelligence. It’s just a smart book. That’s the first and only straight-up adjective I can think of to describe it. Of course, it’s a book that deserves full sentences in description, but sometimes I think it’s fun to think of one word to characterize a book. And Open City’s is smart.
Nevermind that the protagonist is a doctor and a perpetual student, that he loves to learn and ask questions. Julius is the manifestation of the intelligent driving force of the book, the author. Teju Cole’s Julius is striking in his empathy and his simultaneous revulsion of sympathetic people. He constantly walks a line between self-awareness and wonderment, in the way that extremely intelligent people must. The author understands, even if his character doesn’t, that complacency can not spawn intelligence, that striving and confusion and feeling lost are the markings of true intellect. The author guides Julius as he shows the reader that his habit of probing is what’s admirable about him, not his dedication to classical music or his degree.
On the other hand, Cole’s insinuations about Julius’ flaws are just as powerful. Julius recoils at attempts by strangers to make personal connections. He doesn’t remember people from his childhood. He makes little effort to be in touch with his family. He is stoic when his girlfriend breaks up with him. Julius is a loner except for a friendship with an elderly former professor and with a jazz lover. He is indifferent to humanity, wearies of debates, and seems like a quiet man. Are these the traits that build up his person? Do they struggle against his more noble self? The conflict in Open City centers around these questions, around the very question of Julius’ manhood.