Pa­rade of de­tails

Nov­el­ist and pho­tog­ra­pher Teju Cole at the Len­sic, a Lan­nan Foun­da­tion event

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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.

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