Last Updated on October 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1492
Most of Open City is based on the experiences of Julius, who is finishing the last year of his psychiatry fellowship in New York City. When he's not working, he wanders the city. During his travels, he speaks to many people about their lives and makes observations about the city around him.
As Open City begins, Julius describes the walks he takes through Morningside Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan. He explains that it's only fifteen minutes from Central Park and ten minutes from Sakura Park. The more often he walks, the longer his walks become; they help him remove himself from his long, busy days at the hospital. It gets to the point that Julius is walking so far that he has to take the subway home at the end of his travels. Julius was most recently in a relationship with a girl named Nadege, who now lives in San Francisco. Though they broke up because they drifted apart, the two remain friends.
Julius doesn't live near his family, and they aren't emotionally close. He isn't sure how long it's been since he's seen his oma (or grandmother), who is in a nursing home somewhere in Brussels, nor does he know how to get in touch with her. She is estranged from her daughter, Julius's mother, who always told Julius that his oma was small-minded and difficult. When his oma visited Julius in Nigeria when he was eleven, though, he found her to be patient and kind—even though his parents barely tolerated her during the same visit, and his mother and his oma stopped speaking again afterwards. Julius realizes that he could get her location from his mother, but he has been estranged from his mother since he was seventeen. (His father died of tuberculosis during Julius's third year at boarding school.)
Though Julius mostly enjoys his work, there are times he becomes frustrated with it. He says that many people believe psychiatry is a less brutal training program than other specialties—and he also believes that—but he finds that it can also be discouraging to lack concrete solutions to his cases. At times, Julius is exhausted by the mental preparation and emotional focus necessary to meet with patients.
Julius spends a good deal of his free time taking advantage of what the city has to offer. He enjoys the museums, parks, and concerts, and connects deeply with what he sees even when alone. One night, he decides to go to the American Folk Art Museum on the spur of the moment and spends several pages musing on various aspects of the exhibits. He notes the "simple, open-faced, and awkward art" that stems from devotion to craft even without money or patronage, as well as the peculiar silence of John Brewster's portraits, each of which he feels is
a sealed-away world, visible from without, but impossible to enter. . . . I saw the paintings as records of a silent transaction between artist and subject.
Julius finds out that his friend and former teacher Professor Saito has cancer. At eighty-nine years old, Saito is the oldest person Julius knows, and Saito took him under his wing at Maxwell College even after he was unable to get a good grade in Saito's English literature class. He wanders home again after hearing this news and talks to his neighbor, only to find out that his neighbor's wife had died six months before. Julius is shocked that he didn't know and wonders how he could have passed the man in the hall and gone on his way without realizing the grief his neighbor was feeling.
Another day, Julius goes to see The Last King of Scotland, a film about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who murdered three hundred thousand Ugandans while he was in power and destroyed Uganda's economy. It makes Julius think of a dinner he attended: the host had to leave Uganda because of Amin and was openly opposed to African people in general because of that experience. Julius feels that the bitterness is directed at him because of his Nigerian heritage. While he waits for the subway home, white children ask whether he's a gangster and flick their fingers at him with gangster signs while their parents stand twenty feet away, oblivious. He considers walking home but the train arrives and he boards.
Though Julius knows people of many different backgrounds, he often deliberately avoids having long conversations with people about Africa. One night, for example, he doesn't want to speak to a cab driver who tries to talk to him once he recognizes Julius as African. Another time, he avoids a conversation with a man who asks Julius to tell him about Africa. Julius tends to avoid thinking back on his time there. When he does, he thinks of his parents or his time at boarding school. Even when he runs into Moji, the sister of a friend from Nigeria, he doesn't want to talk to her and merely tolerates the encounter as she tells him how her brother is doing. However, he does speak to a man from Nigeria when he goes with Nadege to visit immigrants who are being kept in detention while they await processing through immigration. He chooses never to visit the man again, though he tells him that he will.
In the winter, Julius decides to go to Brussels for a trip. He meets Dr. Maillotte, an elderly gastrointestinal surgeon, on the plane; she is reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and Julius is struck by the direct manner in which she speaks. She invites Julius to come to dinner at her house during his trip.
While Julius is in Brussels, he keeps up his habit of walking through the city, and he mentions reading Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, a work of philosophy that examines photography, attention, and grief. One day, he meets a woman and they have sex together. Julius tells her his name is Jeff and that he works as an accountant, and he forgets her name immediately. Soon after, he meets Dr. Maillotte for dinner and they discuss jazz music. Walking home, he helps a woman with a child when construction barriers start to fall. He moves in front of them and holds the barriers so that the mother and her child are not hit. He stays away from New York for a month, taking all his vacation days at once, and believes that his colleagues will be cross with him when he returns.
Back in New York, he visits Professor Saito again and notes that his nurse is more heavily pregnant now than she was during his last visit. Julius is very concerned with his own mortality and sees the passing of time in everything. He becomes more anxious than usual; in one instance, he tries for weeks to remember his ATM PIN and is unable to do so, and he becomes worried after Saito tells him of dealing with bedbugs that his own apartment is infested, though he can't find any. When Julius visits Saito again, the man is in severe pain and ready to die—and Julius finds himself disappointed by Saito's weakness, as he relates to a friend after the visit.
Saito passes away in March. In shock, Julius calls Nadege, only to find out that she is engaged to be married and no longer wants to talk to him. Julius feels intense grief over his former professor's death, but as the weather turns warmer and spring arrives, he begins to feel better and is able to see his friends and go out again.
During a picnic with friends, Julius realizes that he's attracted to Moji, the older sister of one of his friends from childhood. One night, he goes to a party at her boyfriend's house, and Moji privately accuses him of raping her when they were teenagers. She says she hated her brother at the time for doing nothing and that she carries bitterness and anger toward Julius in her heart for eighteen years. She says she knows he'll say nothing or deny her story. Julius doesn't respond to her accusations and eventually leaves.
One night, out walking, Julius is jumped by three teenagers. They attack him fiercely, beating and kicking him, and take his wallet and phone before running away. Because of this incident, Julius has to get surgery to repair the damage done to his hand.
Julius finishes his residency, takes a job with a private practice in the Bowery, and moves to the West Village. He still takes long walks around the city and avails himself of the many things to do in Manhattan. In the final scene of the novel, which takes place on a yacht in the New York Harbor, Julius considers the Statue of Liberty's use as a lighthouse in the early 1900s and thinks of all the birds that died when they were drawn to the light of its torch.