The main character of this remarkable novel, Julius, is a psychiatrist of Nigerian-German origin doing his residency training in New York. In his spare time he walks—and Open City (Random House 2011) tells about what he sees, whom he encounters and what he reflects upon.
Those walks, Julius tells us in the first chapter, met a need:
“they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment at work, and once I discovered them as therapy, they became the normal thing … Every decision—where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side looking across to Queens—was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom.”
His own life story emerges in fragmented manner as associations to encounters with real people or, more often, the numerous discussions he has with himself about what he observes. Yet the biography is never concluded but remains, like the cities he marches through, open and exposed. Thus, we never get to know details about his estrangement from his mother; the role of his grandmother, the search for whom he gives up; the fallout with a girlfriend from Nigeria who years later will wrongly reproach him for sexual abuse; or the impact on his mental state of the suicide of a patient.
By contrast, the conversations with those he meets are more coherent, better thought through almost, like the stories of fictional characters, or better kept, like patient records. There is his mentor, Professor Saito, who is old and frail yet lucid and engaging; his girlfriend Nadège, from whom he has drifted apart despite never coming close to; Madame Maillote, a woman surgeon he meets on the plane, who is at home both in Belgium and the United States; and Farouq, a student of political science who runs an internet café in Brussels and has associations with Islamists.
Julius is a cosmopolitan type of person, therefore open and liberal, but he is feeling lost and divided, experiencing his life more as an observer than as a participant. The first-person narrative employed by the novel forces the reader to identify with Julius and his solitude; at the same time, his incompleteness as a fictional character works against closure and intimacy.
Towards the end of the novel, Julius mails Farouq a copy of the book Cosmopolitanism by political theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah. He hopes the book will show Farouq that fundamentalism is not the only way out of the frustration associated with migration, discrimination and alienation. Around the same time he decides to abandon psychiatric research and residency and start his own private practice. His walks continue.