open city n. an undefended city; spec. a city declared to be unfortified and undefended and so, by international law, exempt from enemy attack.Julius, a Nigerian psychiatrist living in Manhattan, is Teju Cole’s humane, aesthetic, and highly observant narrator in Open City, a debut novel that has earned Cole comparisons to such heavyweights as Proust and Sebald. While Cole’s project is similar in how he explores how our surroundings shape and inform our experiences, our subjective realities, and our relationships with others, the voice here is all his own even though some of the structural arrangements follow Proust—e.g., apart from the descriptions of Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” Julius’s description in Open City of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is perhaps the most wonderful writing on music ever written—and Julius’s various meanderings about Manhattan (and also Brussels) echo sections of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with which I’m as yet only tangentially familiar.The concept of the open city, which is emphasized in the novel during Julius’s visit to Brussels, is critical to Cole’s examination of how many city-dwellers thrive on feelings of safety: “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world.” This is especially prevalent in Julius’s post-9/11 Manhattan, and also in the many conversations he recounts—with relatives, with strangers, with patients, with Al-Qaeda sympathizers, with colleagues, with neighbors—that blend the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII, the Nazi occupation, the Vietnam War, and other domestic and global conflicts in order to consider how these relate to collective and individual cultural identities, especially at the level of dislocation and fracture, poised between living and dying: “To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”Cole’s salient prose takes in the breadth of human experience while living in a city whose ever-changing architecture, public spaces, crowds, and landscapes go unexamined by so many who live there. By contrast, because he is an outsider, Julius takes in everything, and on his walks through the city he is as able to observe a car accident, relate being mugged, offer the history of beached whales and birds dazed and dead by the Statue of Liberty’s torch as intrinsic (but often forgotten) parts of New York City’s narrative, and also reflect on the emotional experiences of a life lived straddling two very different worlds—that of Nigeria and that of Manhattan, that of childhood and that of adulthood, that of becoming and that of still becoming, only more consciously so. Just as the city has depths and hidden stories (“What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten”), so, too, do individuals, and Julius’s narrative is as much about coming to terms with his adopted city as it is with himself: “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories” as it is “unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.”Open City is a profound meditation on how one should live one’s life with eyes wide open, taking in the inconsequential and relishing it for how it will later attach itself to our own subjective narrative, both in terms of how we view our lives looking back in time and also how we morph and change along with the cities we call our homes.