The narcissism began to seep: through Teju Cole’s narrator, into my paperback-clutching hands, on an airplane from Chicago to New York. It was my first time back in New York since I’d left, six months ago, after living there for a little more than three years. The city demands approximation: about a half a year ago; more than three years; an airplane, suspended over someplace in between two other places. And also that seeping—the empathy with the narrator I couldn’t quite achieve but didn’t mind not achieving because that seemed, in a way, the point of the book, the proof that no matter how open a place or person is, sharing emotion after emotion, there’s still much left beneath the storytelling or, sometimes, literally buried beneath the city.
Open City (Random House, 2012) is the story of narrator Julius’ wandering through New York, and, briefly, Brussels. It is his contemplation of immigration and nationality in the U.S., his fleetingly depicted but often strong friendships, the way we manufacture brotherhood as a way to both unite and distance ourselves from humanity. It is, too, about a city in flux and the way certain cities, like New York, are built of layers and rise vertically, covering the topography below but never quite flattening it into oblivion. So when I boarded a subway for the first time in months, after buying a weekly Metrocard and missing the train because I kept swiping my credit card too quickly or too slowly, I felt nothing had accumulated in my time away. I could pretend it was the same city accepting the same character it had when I first moved there, nearly four years earlier.
Then, on the subway, I returned to the book. One cannot fall in love with this narrator. He is too distant and too honest at once, and towards the end, I found myself believing another character more than the narrator—because she seemed nicer? Because she might have made a nicer real-life person? Or because she was not the narrator, not the voice I had been instructed to trust and therefore reflexively questioned from the get-go? Or because what she accused him of made me immediately believe her and not him, because in these kinds of accusations, that’s usually the way things go, just as in New York, eventually something will happen that feels like the worst and that feels like it could only happen and could only feel like the worst in such a vertically closed and superficially open city. But that’s all hyperbole, because the worst never does happen; there is always the possibility (the optimism to achieve!) something even more unbearable. The trick, Cole’s Julius shows, is that in New York, the city is never the one to not bear it.
I did not walk so much in New York because the novel I was reading when I arrived was, in part, about walking. I walked because that’s what you do there to kill time, because there are always destinations to be invented and a sense of accomplishment regardless of whether you reach them or buy anything when you’re there. I walked because the soles of my shoes have begun to wear more slowly and I have yet needed to make a trip to the cobbler in Iowa City. I walked, too, because it is what I did when I lived in New York and was not, as I was most recently, just visiting. Julius is only just visiting when he’s in Brussels, but he feels impermanent in New York, like he is awestruck by it for the first time despite being world-weary restless. He is a perpetual tourist, stopping in his steps to gawk, never in a hurry but always moving somewhere—if not forward or backward, still somewhere.
Rachel Z. Arndt is an MFA student in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, and an editorial assistant at The Iowa Review.