Saturday, May 14, 2011

Modern Master

For the first fifty or so pages of Teju Cole’s first novel, I wasn’t sure I’d have the patience to get all the way through. I knew I was in the hands of a masterful writer, but the lack of discernible plot wore on me. It wasn’t the book itself; I was feeling impatient with the protagonist’s rambling walks through Manhattan. I wasn’t feeling particularly meditative, and this book is a meditation before it is anything else.

Then all of a sudden I was hooked. The main character went to Brussels for an extended winter holiday, and I realized that I was reading not only a masterful writer, but a masterful storyteller. I relaxed along with the character. Cole knows what he’s doing, every sentence has a purpose. He writes in a way that not many people write these days; his matter-of-fact first-person style reminds me of canonical writers but he comes from a different angle. He writes about humanity and immigration and race; about the pressure of expectations arising from our tenuous connections to each other and about the consequences of rejecting these connections.

Open City is set in the inner landscape of one man’s mind, with access to all those thoughts that generally stay beneath the surface. It is gritty without being showy, honest without being braggadocio. Pull out your patient reader and get to work.

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