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.

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