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In 'Every Day Is For The Thief,' Cole Chronicles A City's Reality

If you've ever received one of those emails claiming to be from someone in Nigeria, and telling you that millions of dollars await you, it may have been sent from an Internet cafe, the kind that proliferate in Lagos, Nigeria. There, under a sign warning patrons not to engage in fraud, people might sit typing emails that make outrageously fraudulent claims. Guards might be stationed in the cafe, and when they notice suspicious activity, they swoop down upon the offending patron, perhaps threatening him with torture and prison, and shaking him down for money. Not millions, but maybe 50,000 naira, or the equivalent of about $300.

This ordinary day in Lagos is described to us by the gifted chronicler Teju Cole, and according to him you're likely to encounter not only fraud, but also petty violence, or at the very least gross incompetence. And, at night, the electricity might well break down, leaving you in darkness and stifling heat. I call Cole a "chronicler," as opposed to a "novelist," or even just the broader term, "fiction writer," because, although he classifies his book as "fiction," it contains less of the human heat and emotional tangles of most novels, and more of the cool-eyed reporting and knowing observation that you might find in the most cerebral travel writing.

Cole's first book, Open City, (which he called a novel) was also pretty elliptical and low on plot but effective. It followed its protagonist, a psychiatric resident named Julius, as he walked through New York City. Along the way he met various people, and these encounters helped shape the narrative, which otherwise skewed very interior.

Recently, in an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Teju Cole said that the novel is "overrated." And that the writers he is most interested in "find ways to escape it." Cole has escaped the novel in Every Day is for the Thief; and it doesn't even seem as if he had to work too hard to do that. The book, which was published in Nigeria in 2007 and has been somewhat revamped for publication in the U.S., is narrated by another Nigerian psychiatric resident. (Or is it the same one? He doesn't get a name this time.) The narrator describes Nigerian life in prose that's formal and sometimes lecture-like. "Nigeria's disconnection from reality," he writes, "is neatly exemplified in three claims to fame the country has recently received in the world media. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world, Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people, and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied for third from the bottom out of the 159 countries assessed in the corruption perceptions index."

I'm sure that some people would read these lines (and many others in the book) and think the narrator is deliberately being dispassionate, and that that is part of the point. And maybe it is. But I don't think he is particularly stiff or even cold. (For stiffness that feels very novelistic, read Ishiguro's butler narrative, The Remains of the Day.) I don't even think he's really much of a narrator, exactly, but is instead a very modest, disembodied sensibility trying to stay out of the way and just show what life is like in a place that most outsiders know little about.

And maybe, really, this isn't a novel at all. Maybe it is a collection of fiction. I generally don't understand it when a writer says "the town is a character" in his or her book. But in the case of Every Day is For the Thief, Lagos has been injected with more character than the narrator, who prefers not to call attention to himself, but instead to slip along, practically unnoticed, and take poignant snapshots of the strange and singular city around him. The separate sections of this book don't read like chapters, exactly, and they don't gather force, though they are consistently engaging and interesting.

So is the novel worth escaping from? Is it sort of a cushy and familiar prison for writers? There are times when perhaps all novelists, myself included, feel afraid that without knowing it they are making their work more conventional in order to accommodate that old "and then she said this to him, and then this happened" nature of the form. It's probably a good idea to deliberately get outside of that once in a while.

Maybe, for Teju Cole, an eloquent writer who seems to be perfecting an on-the-move and not entirely categorizable subtype of fiction, the idea of writing a traditional novel feels about as exciting as spending a night trapped in darkness and unremitting heat.

Meg Wolitzer is the author of The Interestings.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

A new book describes everyday life in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city. It's from the point of view of a visitor, but this is no tourist. Instead, the narrator has left Nigeria for New York. He's back on a short trip to see friends and relatives. The book is called "Every Day is for the Thief." Here's Meg Wolitzer with our review.

MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: If you've ever gotten one of those emails claiming to be from a Nigerian prince telling you that millions of dollars await you, you'll understand this scene that Teju Cole describes. It's an ordinary day in Lagos, where Internet cafes have popped up everywhere.

Under a sign warning patrons not to engage in fraud, people type up emails that are outrageously fraudulent. There might even be guards in the cafe who threaten the email writer with torture and prison. They might shake him down for money, not millions, but still enough to make a statement. According to the gifted chronicler Teju Cole, in Lagos, you're likely to encounter not only fraud, but also violence, or at least gross incompetence.

At night, the electricity might go out. You'll be left in darkness in the stifling summer air. This book has less of a human heat and emotional tangle of most novels. Instead, it's made up of cool-eyed reporting and the kind of knowing observation you might find in travel writing. Cole doesn't call it a novel. He calls it fiction.

He said recently in an interview that the novel is overrated, and that the writers he is most interested in find ways to escape it. He's certainly done that here.

His first book, which was called "Open City," was also pretty elliptical and low on plot. It followed its main character as he walked around New York and met various people. That character was a psychiatric resident, and he had a name, Julius. And the book did have something of a shape, even though it was mostly interior.

This book is now rated by another psychiatrist in training. It might be the same one. He doesn't get a name here, and the way he describes Nigerian life feels at times almost like a lecture, though an interesting one. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world, he tells us. Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied for third from the bottom.

I'm sure you could read that and think he's being deliberately flat and dispassionate, but I didn't think of him that way. I didn't even really think of him as a narrator, more like a very modest, disembodied sensibility trying to stay out of the way and just show what life is like in a place that most outsiders don't know.

I generally don't understand it when a writer says, the town is a character, in his or her book. But in the case of "Every Day is for the Thief," Lagos has been injected with more character than the narrator who prefers not to call attention to himself. So is the novel worth escaping from? Is it sort of a cushy and familiar prison for writers?

There are times when, perhaps, all novelists, myself included, feel afraid that without knowing if they're making their work more conventional in order to accommodate that old and then she said this to him, and this happened nature of the form. It's probably a good idea to deliberately get outside of that once in a while, which is what Teju Cole in this illusive, slender and suggestive work, has done.

WESTERVELT: Teju Cole's new book is called "Every Day is for the Thief."

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