Teju Cole has a novelistic style unlike many other fiction writers out there today. I guess whether or not you enjoy his work comes down to how you respond to that style. Because here's the thing: nothing happens in terms of plot. That is true of both of Cole's novels so far: Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief. In Open City, I couldn't abide the meandering style and the sense that none of what was happening was going to lead to anything. EDIFTT works better, but ultimately falls victim to the same trap. There's an actual pretense to this book that was lacking in Open City. This one has a narrator returning to his native Nigeria following a long, self-imposed absence, which automatically provides the reader with a framework for everything to follow (Open City was simply about a Nigerian ex-pat taking long walks and pondering numerous things that don't tie together). The thing is, Cole steadfastly refuses to develop this premise any further. We get some details about the narrator as the pages progress, but he never becomes more than a cypher. The story, such as it is, instead takes the form of little vignettes as the narrator travels his former homeland and observes. The problem is that each vignette is essentially illustrating the same exact point: that Nigeria is riddled with corruption.
The basic progression is this: Nigeria is corrupt; let me illustrate that for you. Nigerians don't make enough money to survive without enforcing corruption; let me illustrate that for you. Children are also bred for corruption at a young age; let me illustrate that for you. Have I mentioned that corruption has infiltrated all levels of Nigerian society? Let me illustrate that for you (again). A small percentage of Nigerians try to live honestly, but their efforts get drowned out by the system. Let me illustrate that for you. And then let me illustrate that again.
For a book that's only 164 pages, it actually starts to feel repetitive alarmingly quickly. Cole is a gifted writer, but his style of storytelling just doesn't do it for me.
on June 22, 2014
Why visit Lagos? Maybe there are a million untold stories, but the writer finds it impossible to hear himself think. The noise. The exhaustion.
The author is a Nigerian medical doctor, training for shrinkdom in New York.
His narrator is seemingly the same man, but there is a trap. We are tricked into believing that this is a travel book. It is, but it is also fiction. Or is it? Hard to say.
Narrator travels to Nigeria for the first time since 15 years. We are not immediately told why he makes the trip. We assume curiosity mixed with nostalgia. In fact, we are never given one specific reason, we are left conjecturing.
The dominating theme in the first chapters is money and lubrication. We see petty corruption: by diplomats in the Nigerian Consulate in New York, by officials in Lagos airport, by cops and toll booth operators on Lagos streets....the border lines between asking for bribes, or for ransom money, or for tips, or 'simply' begging are hazy. And then the Nigerian specialty: advance fee fraud, the profession of the yahoo yahoos, a very special class of yuppis.
Another dominating theme is violence: armed robberies, muggings, lynchings, road rage, accidents, the permanent noise.... The book is surely not a candidate for Lagos tourism promotion awards.
And: lost relationships. Can they be recovered? Should they?
We are told in lean, efficient language, how the hero gradually adjusts his memories and perceptions to the new realities. One always needs time to see what is in front of us, rather than what is in our head. A broadening of the concept of optical illusions.
Reflections on writing are a part of the journey. Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, García Marquez are named as potential role models, but Cole is no imitator.
I feel that I am a little too generous with five stars, but what the heck. That's what stars are for. I should deduct a star for the slightly devious marketing, which offered this as a new book by the author of Open City, a great New York novel. This Thief is actually an older work, re-published with new photos.
In plain, often unadorned, but still gracefully eloquent, prose, Teju Cole does for his Nigerian hometown, Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, in his latest novel “Every Day Is for the Thief”, what he did for New York City in his memorable debut novel “Open City”. Using a literary style that could be mistakenly viewed as memoir, and in prose that may remind readers of a compelling, often intoxicating, blend of Ernest Hemingway, Frank McCourt and Paul Theroux, Cole takes us on an illuminating journey through Lagos, via the eyes of a young writer who is returning from the United States to his hometown for the first time in years. A young, carefully observant, writer who misses nothing due to his keen powers of observation and superlative skills as a photographer. (A noteworthy emerging photographer of “street” documentary fine art photography whose work has been exhibited in the United States and in India, Cole’s own photographs of Lagos are included in almost every chapter.) He confronts the “informal economy” of Lagos frequently during his sojourn, dealing with corrupt government officials, tollbooth clerks and police, as though they were necessary, almost indispensable, aspects of the city’s complex governmental landscape. He takes us to bazaars where teens are surfing the web, willingly committing e-mail fraud, as though it was a daily, almost routine, aspect of their lives. He shows us a city, Lagos, and a country, Nigeria, that is far more religiously and ethnically diverse than those of us in North America might be willing to admit. A city where he can hear classic American jazz from superb local musicians and, quite unexpectedly, discover a relatively new Western classical music conservatory where students can study and perform if they possess the financial means to own their own musical instruments. Through his eyes we learn much about his hometown and country’s history, pondering the lingering melancholy aftermath of the African slave trade, and the sharp ethnic and religious divisions which remain evident in Nigeria, decades after the bloody civil war which pitted the Christian Ibos of the south against the rest of the predominantly Muslim Yoruba north. Suffice it to say, “Every Day Is for the Thief”, is an admirable, melancholy, fictional valentine from Cole’s unnamed narrator and protagonist to Lagos itself. What Cole has wrought in “Every Day Is for the Thief” will be regarded by many as among the finest tersely written novels in recent memory, and one of the most notable Anglo-American literary mainstream novels published this year.
on April 12, 2014
Teju Cole's latest work of fiction reads like the memoir of a writer living in New York City, who returns to Nigeria, the country of his birth for a visit. From the moment he arrives at the airport in Lagos, he revels in the sense of homecoming, but pretty soon, that sense of familiarity wars with a growing sense of feeling like a stranger. His family and friends help explain the changes that have taken place in the country since he left for America, not least the common corrupt practices that have become pervasive in everyday life, from the bribes required by government officials and the police, to gang members who need to be paid off at import warehouses so that drivers of vans carrying goods are able to leave without violence. He takes us to the myriad of internet cafes where, despite a legal notice on the walls warning patrons against fraudulent activity, many of the patrons still blatantly commit email fraud, in the hopes that they will be able to convince just one person that they have inherited millions of dollars and just need a 'small' processing fee in order to release the funds to them.
While the writer is pleased to discover a privately funded institution that promotes and develops creative talent in Nigeria, he also despairs that because the students need to provide their own musical instruments which are very expensive, this institution is only really available to the wealthy. In addition, fees are on a different scale if the student is to be taught by a local teacher or one with foreign certifications.
The book makes one ponder the complexity of social change and the depths to which humans are able to adapt in order to survive.
on April 4, 2014
Probably because I know New York City, I preferred his book of wandering and mediating there. In "Every Day is for the Thief" he is returning to his home city of Lagos and describing life there, which is very different from the way he remembered it, before he moved to NYC. It is extremely crowded, and rough and dangerous and full of life. I look forward to his next book. A gifted writer.
on May 2, 2014
I have never been to Africa. I have met many people, white and black, who are from Africa, here in the United States. Human beings are the only fully self aware animals on planet earth. We know we will die, as no other animal does. We know other human beings are self aware as we are, similar, yet different. We are like deer and similar vegetarians, and like crows and wolves, and similar carnivores and omnivores, herd/pack creatures. We long to merge with others to form a greater gestalt, a kind of group identity similar to non sentient creatures such as ants, bees, and mole rats (the only hive style mammals). The Internet is something like the nucleus or prototype of a human hive mind that may be forming if we do not destroy ourselves.
Each of us has a self, an ego, a product of our genes (nature) and our environment (nurture). It is difficult for me to understand and communicate with my four siblings, even though we share quite a bit of nature and nurture. My wife and I have been married for 48 years, but in many ways we are strangers and each day we “renegotiate” our relationship to keep it together.
My reality is that I came from a dysfunctional family. I feared and hated my father and pitied my mother. My father died very young (43) in a way that was traumatic for me.Two of my siblings are seriously mentally ill. I flunked out of college and later achieved an English degree with honors and then a Masters Degree in Education. One of my sisters was a victim of statutory rape (which engendered a daughter who turned out fine. My sister tells me, “It all turned out for the best.” I have a daughter who turned out splendidly. She is married to another woman (which horrifies many people, but I think the two of them and their 10 year old daughter are a splendid family)
I think what I write is coherent, but next week I will be tested for dementia (which afflicted my mother and my father's oldest sister) and I expect the verdict to be, in some polite way, “Yes, Stephen, your neurons are now blinking off like bad Christmas tree lights.” That is “my” reality. I would like some of it to have been different, but as I approach the end of my days, I think, “That's a perfectly satisfactory life. I don't look forward to dying, which is inevitable, but I am far more fortunate than many, including my splendid aunt Arlene, who was murdered as a 21-year old college student at UCLA in 1956, so I think I will expire without great regrets
That's my reality. Your reality is quite different than mine. I have a friend and neighbor, a splendid man, part Sioux Native American) who startled me once by telling me how much he revered and adored his father (also long since dead). I thought, “Oh, mu, there's no reason someone else can't have a kind and nurturing father, just because I didn't.” He also told me how much he looked forward to meeting his dad and mom in Heaven. (He is a devout Christian.) I thought, “What nonsense.” I am a fanatical atheist. As soon as I die, I will be gone from existence as if I had never lived. My friend is a wonderful man. I love him in the agape sense, even though our reality is very different. When he learned (in a polite way) that I am an atheist, he was horrified. Our relationship was damaged, though we have patched it together.
If you live in Nigeria, your reality is far different. If Teju Coles' book is accurate (and I suspect it is) then most Nigerians' reality is quite different, and quite unpleasant. It's not any individual's “fault.” It's just the way it is. Just what they are born into. My family and childhood was unpleasant but not horrific. My sister's “rape” was sort of consensual. I've known young woman who were forcibly raped and held prisoner. I know a man who was raped by his priest when he was a child. People who were raped and tortured as children typically feel great shame and refuse to reveal their experiences for much or all of their life. My experience was nowhere near as bad, but for a long time I didn't want to have anything to do with most of my relatives or talk much about my life.
Although I have lived all my life of 70 years in the United States (except for some travel through Canada, a similar but not identical culture), I have met many people form other cultures, including from Nigeria and other African cultures. If you come from a damaged family as I did, it's hard to get over it and talk about it. I've known people from damaged cultures who recovered and went on to have successful, happy lives, but they don't want to talk about it, even though none of it was their fault. I have a good friend from Peru, a very successful engineer at Boeing. When I was in close contact with her she was reluctant to talk about her childhood in Peru, during a time of great turmoil (Shining Path Maoist terrorist revolution) and rule by Alberto Fujimori Fujimori a dreadful Japanese born man who became dictator of Peru and committed terrible human rights abuses. I am friends with a couple from Romania who probably grew up during the time that country was ruled by the Ceaușescus a dictator and wife, and two of the most horrible monsters in the horrible Stalin empire. When I've asked them about their childhood, they talk about their family and the beautiful national park. I don't press them to talk about the horrible parts they surely observed and experienced. They've mad a good life in the United Sates with good jobs and a healthy child. And so on.
It's admirable that Teju Cole broke away from a not very good childhood in Nigeria (totally dreadful relationship with his mother if the book is accurately autobiographical) and many risks on a daily basis to establish a successful life in America. It is quite understandable to me that he feels a desire to get back to his roots and his family and his culture yet feels he “can't go home again.” Everyone's experience of a book is different, so I have no argument with someone who finds the book disappointing either in its presentation or its accuracy. I find it persuasive in conveying a very different culture and one person's relationship with that culture.
I will close by mentioning the whole question of genre, mentioned in other reviews. Years ago I read a very different (yet in a way very similar) book about Nigeria. The book is titled RETURN TO LAUGHTER. It was written by an American anthropologist and presented as a novel. Laura Bohannon and her husband, Paul Bohannon, were American anthropologists who studied an animist tribe in South Eastern Nigeria known as the Kiv (in about 1949 to 1953, and wrote several books and academic papers about these people about 1960.. Laura (I presume) felt that her academic work could not convey the full reality of these people's lives and cultures as she came to know them from living among them for several years.
As (again I infer) it was not considered acceptable in academic circles at the time to write fiction or in a “non-academic” style and there was also considerable prejudice against women scholars at the time, she “went underground”) publishing a novel under the assumed name Elanore Smith Bowen, titled RETURN TO LAUGHTER. I don't know about today's world, but for a long time it was assigned reading in many “Introduction to Anthropology” classes in American colleges. The book was presented as a novel. When I read the book (on my own, not as an anthropology student), I found it was well written and so convincing I at first thought, “This is really a memoir, not a novel.” As I was an English major in college, the more I thought about the book and analyzed it, the more I thought, “This is brilliantly and cunningly constructed fiction, incorporating real experiences but so well presented that it is “truer” than any straightforward literal “non-fiction” narrative would be. I suspect the same may be trur of Teju Coles' writing. I doubt he will answer, but I will try contact him and ask him if he as read Bohannan's novel about a very different Nigeria than the one he describes.
on April 15, 2015
The book feels like fragments. It is certainly interesting to learn more about Nigeria from someone who has family ties there, but I believe an author should have to work harder in order to create a publishable book. This was careless and insufficient. Why was he allowed to publish this without putting more meat on its bones?
on April 3, 2014
Teju Cole is a magnificent writer. In the same fashion as his first book, Open City, this new work of fiction is gorgeously written and full of brilliant, alarming observations and profound ideas. But what draws me to Cole’s work, above all else, is the compassion and humanness that he captures. Anecdotal in its construction, Every Day Is for the Thief concerns a young man’s return to Nigeria after fifteen years away. In any number of unforgettable scenes, the man (who remains an unnamed narrator) meditates and reflects on the condition of society in his native country. The smaller storylines within the overall travelogue structure of the book are intricately connected by themes of widespread corruption and different types of thievery. What the narrator encounters is oftentimes deplorable and sad, such as facing, for example, constant incidents of bribery among law enforcement and of government officials on the take. At other times, however, he relays his keen sense of optimism and hope in what he sees, whether it is a girl reading a Michael Ondaatje book on a crowded, noisy bus or students developing their talents at the Musical Society of Nigeria. Every detail is precise and fascinating in its examination of the everyday struggles and the challenges of advancement in his home country. This gem of a book mesmerizes with its piercing insights into the state of humanity in all its shortcomings and successes.
on December 22, 2014
I only just finished "Every Day is For the Thief" & as was the case w/his novel "Open City" I had to read it in one sitting because it is so gripping. Cole's economy w/regards to words makes for wonderful reading. This 163 page novella provided dozen's of insights in to Nigeria, a place I know little about. I gleaned that while Nigeria air travel constitutes only 4% of today's worldwide air travel - Nigeria has 25% of the world's plane crashes per year..
Reading Cole's narrator's descriptions of government posters & billboards asking people to STOP NIGERIAN CORRUPTION w/o including web or phone information for complaints is so telling.
A good deal of heartbreaking material relaying the horrors of the Lagos - New Orleans slave market in the early 19th century is stunningly condensed into a few paragraphs w/an enormous impact.
Cole writes lovingly about his unnamed main character's aunty & uncle & school friends. Can't begin to do this book justice, but a sweet upside is his celebration of author Michael Ondaytee & a sideways reference to Tony Judd, both of who seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Cole himself. Wonderful. I loved this book.
It's satisfying to read that this author is still fairly young. Hopefully he'll write a lot more.
Teju Cole's Every Day is For the Thief is the kind of book that reminds the reader of the comforts provided by awareness of genre. It is much easier to discuss a book if one knows what kind of book it is--a novel, a memoir, an autobiography, a travel narrative, a collection of essays. All those are possibilities in this case, and in some ways one might consider that the indeterminacy of the work's generic identity might qualify as an interesting challenge, even an advantage--some might claim that it is an adventurous effort to blur generic conventions, to reject the cliches of narratives about young men returning home after some years away in a very different cultural environment. That--the return home--is on one level exactly the kind of narrative we find, when we find narrative, in this book.
We also find in -- or on -- this book, the assertion that it is "a work of fiction," with the usual assertion that any resemblance to real persons or places is purely coincidental. We are also assured, in promotional information included by the publisher, that the author's earlier book, Open City, received high praise, nominations, and prizes as an excellent "novel." But at no point do we see this book referred to as a novel--though we are assured that it is a fictional narrative.
I make these points because I have had to struggle with my impatience and disdain, my outright annoyance, with the way this book proceeds. I know that Teju Cole has published essays, including travel essays, because I have encountered some of them in periodical publications. If I were to say, therefore, that this book consists of a number of essays more or less pasted or stitched together, each of them expressing the author's responses to the changes in his native country--especially the city of Lagos, Nigeria, on his return to that place after fifteen years (or whatever period actually may have passed), and that those essays are written in a bland, cliched, and surprisingly voiceless prose, with details repeated for no apparent reason, I think the description would not be totally unfair, though it would be admittedly somewhat reductive.
Consider this chapter opening: "One sign of the newly vital Nigerian economy and one of the most apparent, is the proliferation of Internet cafes. There had been none when I left home. Now there are several in every neighborhood and there must be hundreds in Lagos alone. The Internet cafe is symbolic of a connection to goings-on in the larger world, an end to Nigeria's isolation."
Or this: "The proliferation of new eateries designed on the American fast-food model surprises me. When I left in the early nineties there was just one, Mr. Bigg's. Now there are several, many of them operating on the franchise system, in every neighborhood of the city." And so on.
Yes, in the chapters following these openings, we are give interesting descriptions. In the first, we learn that the famous e-mails from Nigeria, offering us the opportunity to receive a fortune from a deposed general if we will send his widow a sum of money (or many variations on that), are actually being produced by young men working frantically in the internet cafes the narrator mentions. In the second, we learn that the system of franchised fast-food restaurants has grown, but not according to the expectations we might have of McDonald's or Burger King--in fact, the narrator goes out to one to have his favorite meal of "peppered snails and stewed spinach with peppercorns"--a meal I would be interested to try myself. The problem here, however, is that these chapters, and those describing the narrator's visits to the National Museum, to a privately funded music conservatory, and even to the homes of old friends, are all told in a style consistent with travel essays we might expect to encounter in the Sunday NY Times Magazine or some glossy magazine devoted to interesting new places to visit.
Even the descriptions of the perils of not knowing the local assumptions about giving bribes to almost anyone who stops one and indicates the expectation of "payment" for nothing but permission to continue where one is going, or the accounts of the epidemic of home invasions and burglaries, or the horrific descriptions of the effects of belief in various kinds of witchcraft or spirit possession, all tend to read like the observations of a nonfiction writer, intent on picking up the "vibrant" local details and behaviors for the sake of the reader who might want to be "in the know" about what to avoid on the streets or in the markets of Lagos. In other words, by far the majority of pages of this "fiction" read like the work of a modestly talented travel reporter.
The narrator of this "fiction" is a young man who had left his home in Lagos after a number of conflicts with his family and the failure of his expectations about his future in Nigeria. He has lived in the U.S. for a number of years. He wonders what he will find; he thinks about the ways his expected encounters with old familiar places are disappointed; he marvels at the increase in corruption--the incessant demands for money from every petty official, policeman, even casual passerby, the assumption that all business will be conducted with only the immediate profit of the seller or contractor in mind, with no expectation that the customer will receive or be satisfied with what he or she has paid for, and no recourse, since complaints to police or other officials will be met with further demands for money under the table or behind the back. He is both impressed and appalled by the changes he encounters.
This nameless narrator also gives us some glimpses into family life through encounters with his aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, with some old friends. These narratives have more of the feel of a novel, and one might want in fairness to conclude that they do provide enough fictive context to frame the obviously nonfiction writing as part of the narrator's responses. But really, nothing helps. This is not a novel, not a collection of short stories, not a memoir; it is a collection of fairly interesting essays about the situation in Nigeria in the early 21st century. Cole could have (perhaps did) publish them separately in any number of periodicals, "spicing" them with his fairly frequent, but not very useful, allusions to writers he admires--Michael Ondaatje, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, others. But he has not done the work of a fiction writer, he has not produced a novel nor, I would argue, even a hybrid form that would qualify as experimental. I find this book to lack literary value, though it has some interesting anecdotes and some entertainment value. But the voice of the narrator--listless and confused--is all too appropriate to this poorly conceived work. I do not recommend it.