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.

The narrator—whom it would be tempting, but inaccurate, to just go ahead and call “Teju Cole”—is a watchful presence, ceaselessly mobile but largely passive in his recording of the urban environment he observes. The first-person present-tense narrative is reflected in the photographs inserted at various points into the text, often depicting figures in motion, and often framed through the windows of moving vehicles. “The air in the strange, familiar environment of this city,” as the narrator puts it, “is dense with story, and it draws me into thinking of life as stories. The narratives fly at me from all directions.” He witnesses a minor collision at an intersection, and then watches the two drivers as they proceed dutifully to the fisticuffs stage of the social transaction, which quickly draws a crowd, as well as a smallish amount of blood:

Well, this is wonderful, I think. Life hangs out here. The pungent details are all around me. It is a paradise for the lover of gossip. Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road. All the touts in the vicinity join in this one. It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes. End of brawl. Everyone goes back to his normal business. It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts. And sadder yet are those who haven’t even a fraction of Updike’s talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories.

So there’s a sense in which this book can be read as a companion work to Open City. There is not the same cleanness of distinction between author and narrator, or the same equipment of plot brought to bear on the material (an equipment which is, even in Open City, fairly lightweight); but there are certain biographical links between the protagonists which might lead you to read both books as part of a single project of essayistic fiction, a Lagos/New York diptych. Both narrators are psychiatrists, both attended military school in Nigeria, both lost their fathers at a young age, and both are estranged from their mothers. These personal specifics might mark out Every Day’s narrator as a younger version of Julius, or perhaps more accurately an earlier version of the same artifice of character.

Teju Cole.
Teju Cole.

Photo courtesy of Teju Cole.

It’s tempting to say that these biographical particulars are basically unimportant anyway—because this is no more a book about its narrator than the photographs are about the photographer—but it’s not nearly that straightforward. Although its narrative mechanism doesn’t snap back upon itself in the way of Open City’s, the book is still, subtly and movingly, a self-reflexive portrait of estrangement and dislocation. There is an odd absence at its center, a muted sense of loss, which is surely partly to do with the narrator being essentially orphaned, by his father’s death and by his never-fully-explained decision to distance himself from his mother. Although his narrator’s acts of forgetting are less drastic, less nakedly pathological, than those of Julius in Open City, Cole is concerned here with the way in which great tracts of the past can be leveled to make way for the reconstructed edifice of the self. There is a moving passage late in the book, in which the matter of family is fleetingly addressed:

In this journey of return, the greatest surprise is how inessential [Mother’s] memory is to me, how inessential I have made it, even in revisiting sites that we knew together, or in seeing many people who knew us both. People know better than to ask about her. This is what it is to be a stranger: when you leave, there is no void. Mother was a stranger here. She left no void after eighteen years, as if she had never been here. And I, fatherless, am also like a man without a mother, even if it is her face and her pale color that looks back at me from every photograph and reflective surface. I roam all over Lagos, and even once travel along the road that links Unilag with Yaba bus stop, but I cannot bring myself to revisit the site, along that road, of my father’s grave, at Atan Cemetery.

Without ever appearing to deliberately do so, Cole subtly links the narrator’s dislocation from his history with what he sees as Nigeria’s failure to adequately remember, or acknowledge, its own. Lagos was the center of the trauma of slavery, the entry wound of a historical violence that is still being felt on the other side of the world. Walking around the old part of the city, watching the crowds of rapidly moving bodies, he finds himself imagining a “chain of corpses stretching across the Atlantic Ocean to connect Lagos with New Orleans.” And just as New Orleans’ past as a slaving industry capital is “drowned in drink and jazz and Mardi Gras,” Lagos’ history as the first link in this chain is largely forgotten, or ignored. “There is no monument to the great wound. There is no day of remembrance, no commemorative museum. There are one or two houses in Badagry that display chains and leg-irons but, beyond that, nothing. … In Lagos we sleep dreamlessly, the sleep of innocents.”

Cole’s literary terrain is the urban space; in any number of senses, his writing covers ground. But the space by which he often seems most interestingly preoccupied is the negative kind, the spaces of emptiness and darkness and forgetting. Just as Open City ends on the word “dark,” it also starts out from an absence of context, a sense of missing signification, opening as it does with the words “And so when I began to go on evening walks …” His Twitter experiments, too—for which he seems to be about as recognized now as his “proper” writing—have about them a slightly paradoxical sense of absence. His recent vignette “Hafiz” was both heavily reliant for its effect on a relationship to a formal setting (i.e. your timeline), as well as intriguingly detached from any sense of narrative context, seeming to come out of nowhere, mid sentence, before dissipating into thin air. (I should probably disclose here that I had a small role in the experiment, as one of the people he retweeted to make the story, although this in no way made it any less opaque to me.) In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Cole mentioned that he considered the novel overrated, and that “the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.” Increasingly, he is finding his own ways to evade the restrictions of form, following a path through negative space into something intriguing and strange.

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Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole. Random House.

Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction