Its always interesting to see something common through the eyes of somebody who finds it strange. Yet things become less strange, the more we interact with them, the more we learn about the foreign the more it slips neatly into folders in our mind prepared for just such situations as we encounter on our own road of life’s journey.
“Open City” by Teju Cole is about this, its about a Nigerian man, studying psychiatry in New York City. But it is a New York which has grown common to him, for he has lived there for many years and the bizarre or powerful or compelling have since merely faded into the background of the life of a migrant. This novel is about nothing. There is no plot, nor is there any great conflict, nor is the character involved in any struggle which brings in the reader and allows us to make common cause with him. He wakes up, walks through the park thinking about the park. He has some vacation time so travels to Brussels, the old country, and there meets a Muslim from Morocco who is a Salafist but not in the violent way; the post-terrorist age is already well advanced in this novel. It is almost a stream-of-consciousness relating of events and the author’s thoughts about those events.
I realize at this point I have not sold the novel well, as if that were my job. Truth is the novel is well written, which is its only salvation. The use of language is good, some phrases are even quite poetic. And the reader easily flows through the pages understanding what the protagonist is thinking and even at times affording the character sympathy.
Down to style; a good novel is defined by beats, by emotive dialogue, by a story that draws the reader in, and above all by conflict. A good novel must pull the reader into an inescapable conflict and engage with him/her as they seek with the protagonist to find a solution to that conflict. Finally, a good novel must have an ending that is a “homerun”; that leaves the reader’s ears ringing and their heart singing. Alas, this novel does none of the above. In fact, you will have forgotten you read this novel the second you put it down.
This is it. The expectations of the critic and the reader for self do not always meet. Neither do one’s expectations of certain books. Yet others delightfully surprise.