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 …

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