Teju Cole’s narrators take their time getting places. They stick to sidewalks connected to the pathways of the cities they call, or used to call, home. In his first novel, “Open City,” Cole sets a young Nigerian man, his alter-ego, to wander New York’s grid. His novella, “Every Day Is For The Thief”, relocates to another continent, but the space is still urban, and the method of discovery the same: journeys inward, in his fictional worlds, are best done on foot.
Cole is following in a long tradition of writerly walkers who, in the tradition of Baudelaire, make their way through urban spaces on foot and take their time doing so. Like Alfred Kazin, Joseph Mitchell, J.M. Coetzee, and W.G. Sebald (with whom he is often compared), Cole adds to the literature in his own zeitgeisty fashion. His wanderer, however, is not man of leisure, soaking up the richness of Paris or New York.The unnamed walker of “Every Day” moves with urgency, and does so in a cityscape that threatens to slide, avalanche-like, into violence.
Cole has a celebrated Twitter presence, with 135,000 followers. “A genius can make manic writing work. The rest of us keep the prose clean and cold because fireworks are better seen at night,” he tweeted earlier this month. And that captures the aesthetic of “Every Day” in which the protagonist walks — and far more importantly thinks — his way around Lagos.
Written before “Open City” and published in Nigeria in 2007, “Every Day”’s style feels more stripped down-- “cleaner” if quite a bit less “cold.” The author calls it “an experiment in literary form, a challenge to the expectation that the textures of fiction and non-fiction be radically different from each other.”
Very little is revealed about the main character, beyond a few facts. He is estranged from his mother. His father is dead. He is from Lagos, but lately has lived in New York. Not much is made of these details, however; instead, the novel offers readers a meditation on the place of an insider/outsider as he traverses a complicated place, a sort of hyper-attuned viewmaster with captivating attitude. Through a series of essays and vignettes a city comes to life. Drop in nineteen photographs by the author and the picture feels atmospherically complete.
The central tension in the book lies between moral outrage felt at the ethical compromises involved in just about every encounter — with a corrupt traffic cop; in a record shop selling pirated CDs; with a pack of area boys who attempt to shake down the narrator — and the accompanying wonder at the vibrancy of the city. It makes for a hypnotic reading experience.
Throughout the book, the narrative is punctuated by violence. In the market near the Tejuosho bus stop, the narrator recalls the story of an eleven year old boy. “Cries of thief, thief. Then the chase that arises organically and with frightening swiftness out of the placid texture of the market, a furious wave of men that organizes itself into a single living thing.” Moments later, the boy is burned to death. A family friend is murdered in a car trunk. Another falls off a car and dies. “The barely concealed sense of panic that taints so many interactions here,” it strikes the narrator, “is due precisely to the fact that nobody is in control, no one is ultimately responsible for anything at all.”
The pages of “Every Day Is For The Thief” vibrate with the urgency and dark beauty of the best of V.S. Naipaul’s travelogues. He is a traveler in his own city: “the degree to which my family members wish me to be separate from the life of the city is matched only by my desire to know that life.” In a final rhapsodic scene he comes across a district of the city where caskets are made. At first he mistakes them for boats. As with all of Cole’s writing, it is somehow both the simplicity and complexity of the rendering that captures the contradiction of this place and its inhabitants.