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Dragooned into Solidarity

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Teju Cole
Lagos, 2013; photograph by Teju Cole

In a recent interview with The New York Times Book Review, the young Nigerian writer Teju Cole said that “‘the novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.” Cole himself may be, like the writers he most admires, not “really a novelist,” though his first book, Open City (2011), was widely and rightly celebrated as an excellent first novel. His new book, Every Day Is for the Thief, though labeled a novella, is a collection of revised blog posts; this mode manages to find more interesting ways to escape “the novel”—at least the sort of novel Cole finds so uninteresting—than Open City did.

Cole was born to Nigerian parents in Michigan, and then raised in Lagos. In 1992 he returned to Michigan for college, and has mostly lived in New York since. Long before he became known as a writer in print, he maintained a series of popular blogs, and he continues to use such online media as Twitter to experiment with varieties of literary experience across new media. Perhaps his most popular foray online has been “Small Fates,” the Twitter feed he kept up from 2011 to 2013. Looking back to the French tradition of faits divers, or “various things,” he tweeted news briefs drawn from Lagos papers. Some of them were intentionally funny—“Pastor Ogbeke, preaching fervently during a storm in Obrura, received fire from heaven, in the form of lightning, and died”—and some were more serious—“Cholera, a bus crash, and terrorists, have killed 30, 21, and 10, in Adamawa, Ondo, and Borno, respectively.” But all partook of the absurd, and his hope was that he might offer these self-contained stories as postcards from the delirium of Lagosian life.

Every Day Is for the Thief is the anecdotal record of a young man, long in self-imposed exile in New York, on his first visit home to Lagos in many years. The chapters are revised versions of short essays Cole posted to a site he called Modal Minority. In 2007, the site was deleted with no explanation, but shortly thereafter a small publisher, Cassava Republic, in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, issued a collection of the posts, along with some of Cole’s photographs, in book form. That book has now been reissued as the “cult” forerunner of Open City, a kind of prequel. The books, however, feel like two very different experiments with the same character, run in parallel rather than in a series.

In each book, a young “half-caste” drifts through a large city, recording his encounters in a series of vignettes that seem drowsily, almost resentfully observant. He writes as if he’s been roused from the comfortable slumber of routine to chronicle a world that everybody else is too busy or self-involved to notice. He pays particular attention to what happens on the margins and in places dimly lit. The cities are different—Open City takes place in New York, with an extended detour to Brussels, while Every Day Is for the Thief happens almost entirely in Lagos, with a detour to Abuja—but the set pieces are almost identical. Both string together scenes at an Internet café, a museum, and places where historical tragedy has been inadequately memorialized—all knitted together with mixed experiences on foot and with public transportation.

The narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief is never named, but his biographical details overlap neatly with those of Open City’s Julius. Cole’s novels hover in cloudy zones, but there are in both cases just enough clues to fix an outline of the narrator’s life. Both were born in 1975 to a Nigerian father and a white mother. Both narrators grew up comfortably in Lagos before being sent north to a military boarding school. At fourteen, they lost their fathers. Their relationships with their mothers frayed, and, in 1992, they escaped to American universities through the goodwill of generous uncles. The narrator of Thief is in his first year of a psychiatric internship in a New York hospital, though he rather freely concedes his literary ambition. Julius is in his final year of what’s plausibly the same program, at Columbia Presbyterian. The major superficial difference seems to be that Julius doesn’t like jazz and the narrator of Thief is pleased to find a Lagos shop that sells jazz CDs, a place “that caters to the tastes of the minority.”

Neither narrator is in actual exile, but neither is a fully enthusiastic emigrant, either. They are never quite sure what their homesickness means, or whether they deserve to feel homesick at all; they know they don’t belong, and they take pride in that, along with feeling frustration. Julius contrasts his own displacement with that of the birds he watches overhead. He envies their necessary, instinctive roving, the “miracle of natural immigration.” (This migratory imagery is cleverly juxtaposed with the other thing Julius sees when he looks up: men and women behind plate glass strenuously immobile on exercise bikes.) The narrator of Thief returns from New York to Lagos with the hope that his homesickness might there abate; his visit, he implies, might be a trial run for an actual homecoming. He describes his return, in the clinical, faux-antiquarian language common to both narrators, as “an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.”

On the plane to Brussels, Julius tells his seatmate that, two years earlier, he’d visited Nigeria for the first time in fifteen years. It is this visit that Every Day Is for the Thief seems to document, but the Nigerian experiences of the unnamed narrator, along with the blog-post form in which they were originally composed, lead him in an altogether different direction.

Thief opens with a scene that occurs in New York but is of Nigeria: the narrator is affronted by the bribe he must pay at the consulate to expedite the renewal of his passport. He makes the same sort of first impression that Julius does: prickly, and committed to his self-image as a truth-teller of unimpeachable integrity. After his arrival in Lagos he sees one minor racket at work after another, and he comments that he has “returned a stranger” to “a patronage society.” When a community cannot find a way to pay police officers the wage they deserve, they find their only recourse in the abuse of their power. This system makes all human endeavor into a procession of prisoner’s dilemmas, where “precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut.”

But the narrator comes to recognize, in relatively short order, that the locals share a more tolerant attitude toward this than is his intuitive custom. They understand these dynamics to be a natural part of the daily hustle:

For each transaction, there is a suitable amount that helps things on their way. No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger hovers over the trigger of an AK-47 is less a tip than a ransom. I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford. For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms—the categories are fluid—is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.

The narrator not only relaxes his judgment of those doing their best to survive in a corrupt system, he even comes to admire the crooked poetry of their efforts. He visits an Internet café full of e-mail scammers, called “419” offenders after the local criminal statute against fraud, spending the day pecking out their elaborate schemes. The narrator notes their long, committed hours, and doesn’t hesitate to call what they do “work.” He allows himself to be taken with the arabesques of their fictions. He looks over to his right at a letter being written from the “Chairman of the National Office for Petroleum Resources.” “The writer,” the narrator observes with some amusement,

is a rough-looking man who is clearly chairman of nothing. There are other letters, from the heirs of fictional magnates, from the widows of oil barons, from the legal representatives of incarcerated generals, and they are such enterprising samples of narrative fiction that I realize Lagos is a city of Scheherazades. The stories un- fold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded.

The narrator claims he has visited Lagos to inquire after home, but from the beginning there’s a tension between the easy identification that might make him feel at home in Lagos and the distance that would permit him to write about it. His insights at the Internet café, however, put him in the mood to be circumspect about his own narrative priorities and prerogatives. His own storytelling, he realizes, is perhaps somewhat closer to the instrumental fiction of the 419 scammers than he might initially have thought.

One morning he witnesses a car accident. The two drivers jump from their cars and begin to beat each other up. “They fight fiercely but without malice, as if this is an ancient ritual they both have to undergo, less for the right-of-way than to prove their manliness.” A passerby breaks up the fight, and the narrator catches himself taking unashamed pleasure in the spectacle. “Well, this is wonderful, I think. Life hangs out here. The pungent details are all around me.”

When he sees a second brawl in the same place a week later, he concedes his literary—rather than just his spectatorial—interest:

It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all of 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.

The narrator does not want to write that clichéd dishwashing novel, which is presumably the sort of domestic artifice Cole thinks is “overrated.” But neither does he want to feel as though he’s taking advantage of Lagos’s circuslike eventfulness to write a colorful Africa novel for Western consumption. He believes the stories of Lagos ought to be told, but recognizes that Lagos’s energy comes at the cost of the sort of bourgeois stability that makes John Updike possible. He misses the quiet of New York. The din and frenzy of Lagos so overwhelm him that while there he neither reads nor writes anything—except, we know, blog posts; his only successful creative effort has been the photographs that punctuate the book. “I am not going to move back to Lagos. No way. I don’t care if there are a million untold stories. I don’t care if that, too, is a contribution to the atmosphere of surrender.”

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