Teju Cole Wants to “Escape” the Novel. How Far Can He Get?

Reading between the lines.
April 6 2014 11:29 PM

Escaping the Novel

Teju Cole’s new book is not exactly what it seems.

Illustration by Rem Broo.

Illustration by Rem Broo

It feels like both an obligation and a frivolity to point out that Teju Cole’s new novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, is neither new nor, by any sort of conventional metric, a novel. The first negation is pretty straightforward: It was originally published in Nigeria in 2007, four years or so before Open City, the book on which Cole’s reputation is largely based. The second is a bit more contentious, in the way that it’s always contentious, and probably finally pointless, to attempt to define what is and is not a novel. Perhaps it’s enough to say—of this book and of Cole’s writing generally—that it leaves in its wake a trail of ambiguities, an artful wreckage of formal expectations.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

Open City, one of the more stylish and commanding literary entrances of the last few years, seemed to present itself as one kind of fiction, before revealing itself in its closing pages as something else entirely, something more darkly opaque than the thing you thought you had been reading. The novel’s narrator, Julius, is a young Nigerian psychiatrist in New York, who assuages the stress of his work and the essential solitude of his life by taking long walks and pursuing circuitous, nomadic meditations on the urban environment, the past, the experience of migration. The book exhibits a certain desolate preoccupation with the elision of historical fact, with atrocities too immense to be countenanced by the cultures in whose names they have been committed. “There are almost no Native Americans in New York City, and very few in all of the Northeast,” says one of Julius’ patients, a writer crippled by depression in the midst of researching a book about 17th-century European settlers and their encounters with the Delaware and Iroquois tribes. “It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today.”

Like history itself, Open City is structured around negative space: What is left out of the account, or abandoned in its margins, is what is finally revealed as most central. Near the end of Julius’ essayistic first-person narrative, there is an irruption of the past itself, a kind of literal return of the Freudian repressed. After a chance encounter with a woman named Moji, a forgotten acquaintance from Nigeria who is the older sister of a childhood friend, Julius develops a muted and strangely conflicted sexual preoccupation with her; she eventually discloses that her entire adult life has been afflicted by the memory of the night, when she was 15 and he 14, that he raped her at a party in her parents’ house in Nigeria. “Things don’t go away,” she tells him, “because you choose to forget them.”

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Unnervingly, the removal of any doubt we may have as to the truthfulness of her accusation is achieved by negative means: Julius mentions nothing more about the matter—about the rape itself, or Moji’s damaged life, or the secondary crime of his elision of both. He retreats into the asylum of his cultured enlightenment, into what is now revealed as his own pathological tendency to aestheticize the world. After a brief flash of illumination, the narrative ends in the shadows from which it emerged. The book’s last word is “dark.”

1404_SBR_THIEF_COVER

Every Day is for the Thief is, in a lot of ways, a quite different sort of book to Open City. To begin with, it has less of the texture of fiction, of artifice and plot; outside of the accompanying publicity material and copyright page disclaimers, you’ll find relatively little here to convince you that you are reading anything other than a work of nonfiction. The book feels like a combination of travel writing, reportage and memoir—although such effects are, of course, readily extractable from the novel’s bag of tricks. The unnamed narrator is, like Cole, a dual citizen of America and Nigeria who has for many years lived in New York. The book opens with a grimly comic, and vaguely Kafkaesque, series of frustrations at the Nigerian consulate as he attempts to get his passport renewed for a lengthy trip to Lagos, the city in which he grew up. The combination of bureaucracy, ineptitude and (above all) blunt venality he experiences in this diplomatic outpost of his homeland sets the tone for his return, which is marked by a fascinated demoralization at the sheer prevalence of corruption and thievery at nearly every level of Nigerian society, where every cog of a dysfunctional machine must be continually greased with bribery. (The title of the book is one half of a Yoruba proverb, “Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner”; specifically, it’s the half of the proverb that isn’t about thieves getting what’s coming to them.)

Everywhere he goes in Lagos, the narrator encounters men of varying levels of power who want money for merely doing their jobs, and often not even for that. Moments after his flight lands, he is faced with the reality of this culture of lubrication, when an official who is just sitting by the exit “and doesn’t really appear to have any actual function” asks him what he’s brought him for Christmas. The narrator quickly realizes that he is much more an outsider here than he expected to be, and that the experience has become something other than a journey home—that he has “returned a stranger.” The book is a travelogue about that most bafflingly foreign of places: the country that happens to be your own.

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