Parade of details
Novelist and photographer Teju Cole at the Lensic, a Lannan Foundation event
Teju Cole’s two novels are dense with meticulously noted quotidian incidents. What stays with the reader is not so much the novels’ substance, or the analogies the narrators like to make, but the author’s constant attention to detail. Both books have a first-person narrator whose observations are unrelenting. Cole is a writer and a photographer, two art forms that are less at odds than one might suppose. The novels dazzle at first, stocked as they are with intelligent observations on music and art. They take on big themes — corruption and terrorism — in an almost perfunctory way. Just when we feel like we’re going to get some real insights, however, the narrators’ myriad observations form a rocky barrier, and we do not get to go any deeper. Cole, who is also a photography critic, reads from his work at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Foundation’s Literary Series. Writer and journalist Amitava Kumar will introduce Cole and interview him after the reading.
Cole’s first book, Every Day Is for the Thief (Random House), is quietly devastating. A man from New York City returns to his native Nigeria for a short trip after a 15-year absence. In Lagos, he rides the currents of change and weighs in on matters of corruption and disorder. He even ponders moving back to Nigeria, but somehow we suspect he is only noodling with the idea. Initially, the narrative (what there is of it) seems almost simpleminded, more a travelogue than a novella. But the observations of the unnamed narrator
gather force, sometimes because of his level headedness, or when some wrenching imagery in a sentence magically pushes meaning up to the surface.
Cole can reel you in with a descriptive line of poetry: “Little streets wind in upon each other like a basketful of eels; no two run parallel.” He also employs poetry in more complex ways. When the narrator and others are unloading imported supplies for a school, which his aunt supports, “area boys” confront the volunteers; the thugs demand money, or else they threaten to loot and maybe even kill. After the situation is resolved, in one of the last lines of the chapter, the narrator observes: “The fight lies sleeping like a snake in my veins.”
From the beginning of his trip, even before he leaves America, the narrator encounters corruption. At the Nigerian Consulate in New York City, the “fee” to expedite the processing of his passport is really a bribe — he is given no receipt for it. After he lands in Lagos, at the airport, at the tollbooth, and at the gas station, he encounters the same brazen demand (sometimes a plea) for cash. This is the country’s “underground economy,” and Nigeria is not the only country crippled with t his problem. In other developing economies, such as India, it is a well-known fact that many public officials supplement their meager incomes with bribes. When this sort of corruption pervades everyday life, at some level, the public at large has accepted it or at least given in to it.
Cole alludes to the mob mentality in Lagos. The narrator recalls a harrowing incident, which echoes the book’s title, in which a boy, ostensibly a thief, is set fire to by a mob. The narrator wants to know where his country’s contrary voices are. After an underwhelming visit to a neglected museum and an understocked bookstore, he asks: Where is the conversation about Nigeria and its past? Not finding much dialogue or dissent, at least in written form, his t houghts become t he sketch of such a conversation.
Throughout the book are scattered atmospheric photographs by the author, and they strengthen the whole. The photos in which the lens is pulled back enough to render them abstract are particularly evocative. One image is seen through a grid (which feels apt, as the narrator is an outsider now, in Nigeria), and a goat and a car are juxtaposed in the compound where the school supplies will be unloaded. In Lagos, it is almost an act of bravery to take public transportation, but the narrator chooses to do so, ignoring the protests of his extended family. During one bus ride, he memorably sees a woman reading a book by Michael Ondaatje. This is an unexpected image in a city where a prominent bookstore is stocked with Bibles, but has a meager selection of international literature. While Every Day Is for the Thief has standout images,
Open City (Random House) is visually more subdued. In Open City, Julius, a cultured man in his thirties, delineates the rhythms of New York City; through his walks, he accrues a feel for different neighborhoods — Wall Street vs. Harlem — and the invisible lines within a neighborhood that divide, say, white professionals working in a hospital and Dominican residents returning home with groceries. He is supposedly completing a psychiatry fellowship, but mostly we see him taking in the city. Estranged from his German mother, Julius recalls with honesty his reaction to the death of his Nigerian father, but his clarity vanishes when an old acquaintance abruptly accuses him of molesting her when they were teenagers.
Cole’s writing relies on resonance rather than on any narrative schematic. At first, the reader may marvel at his ability to use language to make interesting so many disparate details, only some of which dovetail into philosophical discussion. Toward the last quarter of the novel, however, this strategy wears thin. The parade of details produces as much dissonance as it does resonance. It has been suggested that Cole is a flâneur, but the style and narrative in Open
City don’t come together as do, say, the novels of that über-flâneur Patrick Modiano. As Open City meanders on, we find ourselves in yet another new location, for instance, Chinatown, seeing yet another new face. A few pages later, someone randomly vomits on the street. The texture gets so busy, it pixilates; in some ways, this is best read as an impressionistic novel. While Every Day Is For
the Thief retains focus, Open City becomes blurred and the attempt to insert meaningful echoes at the end — at a concert in Carnegie Hall, Julius sees an old lady walk across the first row and he thinks of his maternal grandmother — feel forced.
One of t he more memorable sequences in Open City occurs during a trip to Brussels, where Julius has gone ostensibly to locate his grandmother, but that remains a theoretical quest. Here, he becomes acquainted with Farouq, who mans an internet café, and he is invited to an evening out with Farouq and his friendly boss. The three youngish men discuss, among other things, whether or not t hey condone terrorism, and where their sympathies lie on the matter of 9/11: “The man on the street — do you understand that expression? — the ordinary American probably does not imagine that Muslims in Europe sit in cafés drinking beer, smoking Marlboros, and discussing political philosophy.” The scene feels i mportant, as t hough we were getting a window into what the world wants to know: How Muslim men are thinking might suggest ways in which we can come together and what kind of dialogue is possible. This remains, however, one of Cole’s stranger- on- a-plane sequences — he doesn’t return seriously to these questions. Cole presumably has in him more books, in the course of which perhaps he will delve deeper into the themes he so intriguingly raises.