The Short Version: Julius, a young Nigerian psychiatry resident, walks the streets of Manhattan in the middle years of the 2000s – post-9/11 but pre-Obama. As he walks, he finds himself observing moments as though an outsider, isolated from the world while living in it. He has encounters with various people and all the while philosophises about our world and about human nature.
The Review: SPOILERS may be present. This is a book in which everything and nothing happens. It’s a terrific existentialist novel, to me – something that will, I hope, be held up with Camus’ The Stranger in schools when my children are students. The elements of philosophy that shoot through this book are indistinguishable from the book itself: Julius is the modern existential anti-hero.
Julius, a psychiatry resident, is not necessarily mentally stable. This is not to say that he’s a wackjob or something – no no no. Sure, he presents himself as stable, as a reliable narrator, but in a surprising ‘twist’ (although I think that term does it a disservice), we realize that everyone who narrates their own story is, by necessity, an unreliable narrator. We are ALL unreliable narrators. In a few brilliant paragaphs, Cole shows us that our ‘hero’ is in fact not: he is in fact a villain to at least one person – a person we’d come to think was a potential love interest. And the fact that Cole never directly addresses the accusations other than in this narratorial way leads you to believe that, yes, in fact, Julius was Meji’s rapist. That story was true and for whatever reason it’d been blocked out… but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Plus, Julius is dealing with a breakup and with a general sense of isolation from the world at large. I’d argue that there’s some aspects of depression here too – but it’s more complicated than that. It is, quite simply, an existential malaise. Ennui. He enjoys his life, enjoys the things he gets to experience – but there’s also something that isn’t quite there for him. He feels detached from everything, just slightly. An observer, even when he is participating.
But isn’t that what it’s like sometimes? Especially after a breakup. You feel like you’re somewhat detached from your body – and so Julius begins his walks. The things he sees are quintessential snapshots of New York (and Brussels!) life – but they never feel particularly… I don’t know the term, I don’t know that there is a term, but quite often when someone writes a “I’m living in New York” book, it’s either intense like McInerney or it’s boring and trite and you roll your eyes at it. This is neither. This is so complex that it feels real. It feels like a conversation, a story being told by your quiet smart friend.
The complexity is really where it strikes me the most. Perhaps it’s because I was moving into a new apartment in a new neighborhood as well as starting a new job while reading this book. I’ve found myself walking around these neighborhoods – somewhat to get my bearings but also somewhat to discover the neighborhood. And just to walk. This book kept me at a slight distance and yet it sucked me right in, became a part of who I am at the moment I was reading it. Finishing it on the train home last night, I realized I had five pages to go when I reached my stop. I got off the train, found a corner where I’d be out of the way of foot traffic, and finished the book (which ends in a delightful sequence at Carnegie Hall). I simply couldn’t not finish it in that moment. I had to, simply had to get to the end. And it ends much like it begins – so that you feel you’ve experienced a chunk lifted whole out of a story, with abrupt cliffs at either end.
There’s so much to unpack about this book that I almost feel like I’m doing it a disservice by writing about it. Cole addresses the immigrant experience, psychiatry, death & dying, terrorism, religion, music, violence, sexual relations… but it never feels like he’s taking on too much. Even when he doesn’t say a whole lot, Cole writes Julius in such a specific and precise way that you don’t need him to go on and on about his beliefs. You just understand them. It’s a marvel, to be honest. There’s something hypnotic about it, something intricate and beautiful – like looking at the detail of a leaf or a snowflake or cresting a hill to stop and breathe and take in every little detail of the landscape before you. The book is a breath of the freshest air possible – and I never thought a book about New York City could do that.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I almost can’t quite explain it so I’m going to stop trying. Simply put, you should just read this book. Don’t try too hard, don’t force it. It’s not a novel by any traditional standard and it has an almost Patchett-ian simplicity (the whole “sitting by a stream in a forest” calm) to its lack of ‘plot’ – but it is incredibly rewarding. It’s incredibly intelligent and something you can marvel at as you breathe in the freshness. Read it and then go for a walk through your city and just… let yourself think. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find.
(Ed. Note: Also, if you aren’t following the Tournament of Books over at The Morning News – this little book has made an impressive run through the tourney and is my odds-on favorite to take the Rooster tomorrow. It has an almost magical way of winning people over. Go read the various opinions by the various judges and tune in tomorrow. You’ll see what I mean.)