AiW Guest Kristen Roupenian
The back matter of Teju Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief refers to an ‘unnamed narrator’, but if this is not meant to be the same character as Julius, our guide through 2011’s Open City, then Cole is playing a sly metafictional game. Both narrators are Manhattan-based psychiatrists-in-training, recently graduated from NYU. Both have white mothers, from whom they are estranged, and fathers who died of tuberculosis when they were fourteen. And both are in possession of similar, if not quite identical, narrative voices—voices that are slippery, deceptive, and strange.
Open City is one of the greatest novels of the new century, as well as one of the most easily misunderstood. Critics, perhaps misled by his surface similarities to Teju Cole, who is young, smart, appealing, and very witty on Twitter, have described Julius as ‘charming’, ‘sympathetic’ and ‘honest’, but he is none of those things. My students, who almost uniformly hate the novel, are nonetheless astute when it comes to delineating Julius’s flaws. One of the wittier ones once described the experience of reading Open City as akin to scrolling through a very highbrow Pinterest board: a collage of references to Shchedrin, St. Augustine, Piers Plowman, Mahler, Badiou. The comparison gets at the flatness of the novel’s tone, its endlessly unfolding allusiveness, and the near-total severance of the connective tissue between its dozens of component parts. It took several readings of the novel before I began to see the face of a character emerging, ghostlike, from the novel’s dazzling array of observations and witticisms and lyrical asides, and the figure who hides in the margins of Open City is a haunting one: Julius is selfish, cold, angry, and absolutely shattered by grief.
In Open City, Lagos is a notable absence. Julius walks all over Manhattan and Brussels, and while he is doing so, he thinks about home—but perhaps not quite as much as we might expect him to. About Lagos, he says, ‘My last visit happened two years ago, and that was after a gap of fifteen years, and it was a brief visit’. It is an offhand reference, but the timing lines up: a discussion of the Sosoliso airline crash suggests that Every Day is for the Thief takes place in December of 2005, while references to current events situate the latter half of Open City in 2007. Every Day Is for the Thief also has a somewhat unusual publication history: it was first published by Cassava House in Nigeria in 2007, before being revised and reissued by Random House this year. Therefore, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to read Every Day Is for the Thief as both a prequel to Open City and, perhaps, that book’s catalyst and missing piece. Open City, after all, begins in the middle of a sentence: ‘And so when I began to go on evening walks that fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city’.
And so, this short visit. In Every Day Is for the Thief, our narrator wanders all around Lagos, although—limited by anxious relatives, as well as by the city’s unique dangers and geographies—he does relatively little walking. He gets a ride from the airport to his aunt’s house and watches policemen extort bribes from drivers; he takes the bus and observes a woman reading Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family; he visits a market where an eleven year old boy was burned alive after an accusation of theft. He is dismayed by the omnipresent evidence of corruption; he is hungry for any evidence of high culture (a music school, a bookshop, a record store) and he is living in the wake of a half-glimpsed, uninterrogated tragedy.
In this, the novel might have us believe, he is like Nigeria as a whole, which the narrator excoriates for its lack of interest in its own history—and, more concretely, for its underfunded National History museum, which cannot compete with the repositories of culture he so loves abroad. ‘Why is history uncontested here?’ he asks. ‘There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society. Where are the contradictory voices?’ The trickiness of the novel is evident in this passage, for the analysis of the history museum is both sharply on point and inextricably tied up with the narrator’s obsession with comparing Nigeria to the rest of the world. One of his implicit goals for the trip is to figure out how he—a self-described ‘humanist’, whose belief system is rooted in the meaningfulness of great art—could possibly have been shaped by a place where ‘writing is difficult, reading impossible’, where people believe that prayer is enough to prevent plane crashes, and where, although lives are ‘dense with story’, even the well-educated are literal-minded enough to think that simply saying out loud that one might have malaria is enough to make it so. Over the course of the visit, the narrator reveals himself as priggish, judgmental and profoundly out of place. And yet, ‘The past continues to gather around like floodwater. A too easy formulation, but what past do I have in mind? The nation’s, I think. But perhaps I am also thinking of mine, perhaps the two are connected, the way a small segment of a coastline is formed with the same logic that makes the shape of the continental shelf’.
If—as I can’t help but imagine—Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief were once a part of a single novelistic embryo, one that only later split into two disparate parts, then Every Day is for the Thief is unquestionably the weaker twin. The book is less even, less assured than Open City; it teeters occasionally towards the maudlin, and it has a tendency to over-explain. Meanwhile, Open City is a better book for leaving Lagos unvisited except in memory. Yet to read the two books side-by-side is an extraordinary experience, unparalleled by anything in recent literature. The connections between the books glimmer and spark—in Open City, Julius remembers that his mother was unable to perform ‘the rites and the practical matters’, that ought to have accompanied his father’s death, leaving that work to his aunt; it is here that the origins of their unhealed rift lie. Every Day Is for the Thief concludes with a dream-like memory, ‘out of time’, of an idyllic neighborhood where ‘there are, perhaps, women in the back rooms of their humble houses who help prepare the bodies for their last journey, washing down what remains of a father or mother or child, fitting the heavy limbs into new clothes, putting talcum powder on the face, working coconut oil into the hair and scalp’. On its own, Every Day Is for the Thief is an imperfect piece of literary ephemera, but taken together with Open City, it tells a profound and devastating story.
Kristen Roupenian teaches in the History and Literature program at Harvard University.