All posts tagged “Teju Cole


Teju Cole, Every Day Is for the Thief (2007)

81HtWazT5IL._SL1500_Cole was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, moved to Nigeria as a young child, then moved back to the U.S. for college at 17. Some time later, I’m guessing in his late 20’s, he returned to Nigeria to visit relatives, and this book seems to be a product of notes taken on that trip. It’s billed as fiction but has few of the usual trappings of fiction. It very much reads like a lightly revised set of journal entries.

Like many, I found Cole’s Open City (2012) pretty intriguing; I compared it to Sebald, which is mighty high praise. In that book too, which was also billed as fiction, a narrator who bears a very strong resemblance to the book’s author mostly walks around thinking about things and transcribing his encounters with friends, strangers, and places both familiar and un. The quality of the reflections in Open City were far more complex, nuanced, and historically conscious, though, than are those in Every Day Is for the Thief.

I’m going to try to be nice about this, but a not very nice analogy keeps coming to mind. The narrator of this earlier work (published well before Open City by a Nigerian press; republished, one imagines in some haste, by American and British houses after Open City‘s success in order to capitalize on the author’s moment in the sun) spends a lot of time complaining about corruption in his semi-native land, and is particularly disgusted by the fact that everyone in Lagos — policemen, gas station attendants, deliverymen, museum guards — seems to expect substantial baksheesh for performing little or no real service. Well, I paid $17.95 for this book and got 162 pages of pretty jejune and petty prose. In a large font.

I don’t blame anyone for being young. I’m sure that when Cole took this homecoming trip and wrote in his notebook, “At times, the absurdity makes one laugh. Other times, the only possible response is a stunned silence,” he believed he had achieved a genuine insight. But the book is filled with similarly immature and sometimes even inane specimens of weak wisdom, written in a stilted high style so as to attempt to make “one” sound more authoritative than “one” actually is. “One” is particularly put off by the narrator’s persistent contempt for average people, and the unexamined pleasure he derives from discovering cultural institutions — a fancy bookshop, a fancy music conservatory — which suggest to him that perhaps the country isn’t completely benighted after all. It never occurs to him, or at least he never lets on if it does, that such institutions (like similar ones in every country) can only be sustained because of the existence of a hyper-wealthy class which in turn depend upon economic inequality.

I liked Open City but did have a nagging sense that there might be less there there than I was projecting onto it. As often happens when I encounter flâneur narrators, I wondered whether the text’s apparent aimlessness was a thoughtful and meaningful construct or simply the result of compositional half-assery. In the end I gave the novel the benefit of the doubt, but reading this earlier work casts something of a pall on the later. I’ll be very interested to see what comes next from Cole.


The Phoenix

phoenix“They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follows. The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible, that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry, then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first. So he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.”

Herodotus, people.

I haven’t kept up with the blog in about a year. I’ve been in mourning for a failed writing project and obsessed with photography. Like a beaten dog slinking back into the yard, I am slowly returning to the written word, and I resolve to keep up with my reading, viewing, and listening here in 2013.

Some scraps from the unpublished posts of 2012.

Open City, Teju Cole (2011) I’ve wondered what an American Sebald would sound like. Cole provides a useful and provocative redirection for the question. The ways Cole thinks through history, space, literature, memory, and tone are consistently provocative, but as in Sebald, the overall impression remains one of stillness. A deceptively simple novel. I want to read it again in a year.

I wanted to like HHhH more than I did; it seemed unnervingly slight, too playful. I enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was amateurish but affecting. I had to switch off a number of movies for intolerable violence, including Savages and Lawless. This is unusual for me; either the violence is getting worse or I’m getting less tolerant or both. In Moonrise Kingdom I saw Wes Anderson beginning to imitate himself and it made me sad. Cronenberg’s Freud movie was stupid; I don’t think Cronenberg has one single thing left to say and as such his attachment to Delillo’s Cosmopolis makes a great deal of sense. Almovodar’s The Skin I Live In was awesome and irresistible. That one I could go on about. The superficial level of the film being “about” identity politics — you could certainly lead a rousing discussion about the performance of gender in the film with a room full of students — but what really fascinates me is its crazy structure and pacing, like a 19th century generational novel crossed with TMZ.

Plus a bunch of other stuff I’m sure, but like I said, in 2012 I mostly spent my spare time watching photography how-to videos on YouTube and wondering if I’d ever write another word. I’m going to try to keep up this year. I’ll also post some photos from time to time, I think.