Originally published in the August 2014 issue of First Things.
Every Day Is for the Thief
Random House, 2014
176 pp., $23
Republishing the early work of a novelist who has hit it big is usually a bad idea, but there are exceptions to the rule. It is interesting, for example, to learn that among Patricia Highsmith’s earliest novels was a sympathetically drawn lesbian love story with a happy ending, since the psychological thrillers she otherwise wrote (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) feature neither love stories nor happy endings nor any sympathetic female characters.
Another such exception is Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, which was published by a small press in Nigeria in 2007 and has just been re-released by Random House. The novella is nothing to crow about as a piece of fiction, but as a data point in its author’s development, it is valuable confirmation of something many readers have suspected for a while: Teju Cole is not the real deal.
I do not mean that he has no talent. His breakout novel, Open City, is full of fluent prose, and unlike most novels that dispense with plot, its scenes frequently hold the reader’s interest. But Cole has not been swamped with glowing reviews, given rubber-stamp treatment by the editors of the New Yorker, and chosen as the first novelist ever to give the Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics at Duke University because he is a competent stylist with an eye for the urban life-scape.
His appeal, for the literary set, lies in his authenticity. A Nigerian-American, Lagos-raised novelist who rails against “The White Savior Industrial Complex” (the title of an essay he wrote for The Atlantic) and who once used his celebrated Twitter account to publish a series of antiwar twists on classic first lines (“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone”), Cole sounds to them like just the artistic conscience we need in our globalized age.
But every time Cole reels off a line like “I am every day subject to the many microaggressions of American racism” or “With regards to male privilege, I know I’m always getting it wrong. But that’s no excuse not to keep trying,” some of us wonder whether his bracing indictments of the power structure are really fresh from the Global South or whether they might not be the progressive commonplaces of your average New York Times reader, recycled back through a credibility-conferring filtration system. Buzzwords like “microaggression” and “male privilege” are the sort of trendy cant you would expect to hear from a grad student in art history at Columbia. Which, when he’s not writing novels, is precisely what Cole is.
Open City raises its own suspicions. It’s not so much that everyone the narrator meets has been vividly oppressed by some political injustice, it’s that they can talk of nothing else. Even the bit players can scarcely go a page without saying things like “I don’t want to talk about poetry tonight. I want to talk about persecution” or “It is always a difficult thing, isn’t it? I mean resisting the orientalizing impulse.” This is the modern progressive equivalent of old-style socialist realism (“As you know, Ivan, the hands of the working class built this tractor and that makes it ours by right”). In the real world, people who have experienced hardship don’t go around reciting their stories like the living exhibits at Colonial Williamsburg. They have other interests.
* * * * *
But Cole grew up in Nigeria and we didn’t, so he could have preserved his rightful claim to the benefit of the doubt if only Every Day Is for the Thief had not been republished. Alas for Cole, that book—even allowing for daylight between the author’s views and those of the first-person narrator who shares his life story—reveals him to be snobbish, hard-hearted, and not a little self-involved. What else can we make of this internal monologue, inspired by the narrator’s glimpse of a woman reading Ondaatje on a public bus?
Now to find a reader of Ondaatje in these circumstances. It is incongruous. I could hardly be more surprised had she been singing a tune from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Of course, Nigerians read. There are the readers of newspapers, such as the gentleman next to me. Magazines of various kinds are popular, as are religious books. But an adult reading a challenging work of literary fiction on Lagos public transportation: that’s a sight rare as hen’s teeth. The Nigerian literacy rate is low, estimated at fifty-seven percent. But worse, actual literary habits are inculcated in very few of the so-called literate. I meet only a small number of readers, and those few read tabloids, romance novels by Mills & Boon, or tracts that promise “victorious living” according to certain spiritual principles. It is a hostile environment for the life of the mind.
Snobbery is a venial sin, of course, and not an unknown one among great novelists (Evelyn Waugh: case closed). More damning is our narrator’s visit to an old flame of his, now married with a young daughter. A road stop en route that costs him 2,500 naira in bribes puts our narrator in a bad mood (“My face floods with fury”), and he complains to his hosts about his brush with corruption. It is no surprise to hear him complain, since he has been carping about bribes since chapter 1 when he gets his passport from the Nigerian consulate and will go on carping until chapter 23 when he brings up Nigeria’s Transparency International ranking.
What makes his complaining seem heartless in this case is the fact that his old flame is now missing two fingers from her right hand, lost in “a kitchen accident.” Faced with her good humor in spite of adversity, not to mention the tangible love between this woman and her shy daughter, our narrator does not give the smallest indication that he realizes a bribe amounting to less than twenty U.S. dollars might not be worth ruining your day over, in the grand scheme of things.
* * * * *
They say you can tell a person’s character by how they treat the waitstaff. There aren’t any waiters in Every Day Is for the Thief, but there are a few walk-ons from the downstairs classes, and Cole does not treat them terribly well. The narrator mentions that the aunt and uncle with whom he is staying employ servants but they are not, I think, named. The neighborhood toughs who extort a payoff from his aunt as she tries to unload a shipment of Western goods are identifiable as human only by their sub–B-movie dialogue. (“That’s right. We’ll rip open these boxes and take our share. We will become rich today. We might even take the car.”) Otherwise, they simply swarm and disperse like any pack of predators. “They are primed to maim or kill,” is our narrator’s basic appraisal. James Wood said in his famous New Yorker review of Open City that the narrator “is not, really, a natural sympathizer.” James Wood didn’t know the half of it.
Contrast Cole’s depiction of gang kids with that found in “The Touts on the Bridge” by Ayo Sogunro, another young Nigerian writer whose short story collection The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and Other Sorry Tales was published in Lagos last year. Sogunro’s narrator is a young professional whose car breaks down, which gives him bigger things to worry about than corrupt traffic cops. When he is approached by a group of oafs, his first thought is: “From their clothes the men looked like they deal with vehicles habitually, maybe he was lucky and they were genuine mechanics.” It would be going too far to say that the narrator invests these men with their full dignity as fellow children of God—he ends up running one of them over—but at least he sees them as men and not just particles of menace.
Sogunro’s collection is available on Amazon and worth every penny. His stories are well-paced, often funny, and never whiny, and they cover the full spectrum of life in Lagos from politics to soccer to Boko Haram (in “The Bombing of the Third Mainland Bridge,” a story worthy of being described as a Bridge on the River Kwai in reverse).
Speaking of which. It would be unfair to judge Cole’s treatment of Islamic radicalism in Every Day by the standards of recent events, but even six years ago this paragraph on Nigeria’s religious landscape would have struck any sensible reader as transparently unfair. Pay close attention to the phrase “partly in response to”:
Church has become one of the biggest businesses in Nigeria, with branches and “ministries” springing up like mushrooms on every street and corner. These Christians are militant, preaching a potent combination of a fear of hellfire and a love of financial prosperity. Many of the most ardent believers are students in the secondary schools and colleges. This is the worldview in which prayer is a sufficient solution for plane crashes. Everyone expects a miracle, and those who do not receive theirs are blamed for having insufficient faith. Partly in response to this, and partly from their internal urgings, Islam has also become extreme, particularly in the north.
Regardless of how ridiculous Cole may find urban Pentecostalism or the prosperity gospel, comparing them to Boko Haram is equivalent to Al Gore’s calling Bush’s Evangelicalism “the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, in religions around the world.” Presumably Cole learned this feint in the social and social-media bubbles of the New York literary world. Nothing wrong with that, at least nothing more wrong in Cole’s case than in anyone else’s. But his fans should remember what any bartender knows: You can charge more for a domestic product by passing it off as imported, but that won’t change its quality.