A Family of Acrobats

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
    Faber, 162 pp, £12.99, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 30792 0

It’s not entirely clear which of Teju Cole’s books, Open City or Every Day Is for the Thief, has seniority. Open City made a strong impression when it appeared in 2011, and now Every Day Is for the Thief has arrived in consolidation, though it first appeared in Nigeria in 2007. Neither book offers much of the structure or imaginative texture of fiction, with Open City resembling a beautifully composed and extended blog, while Every Day Is for the Thief starts off journalistically, as if its subject (as the title suggests) is going to be Nigerian corruption, as experienced by an American resident visiting his native country after a long absence.

The narrator finds venality flourishing even before he leaves America, in the Nigerian consulate, where an ‘expediting’ surcharge, which generates no receipt, is required to make sure that documents are prepared in the timeframe stipulated as standard on the consulate website. The fee is to be paid by money order, in a way that looks official and above board but is nothing of the kind. All this happens in premises where anti-corruption slogans are prominently displayed, with injunctions to report any abuse of process. The narrator fumes but pays up, generalising on a slightly false rhetorical note: ‘Isn’t it this casual complicity that has sunk our country so deep into its woes?’

As the book goes on, the theme of corruption doesn’t disappear, but it dwindles beyond the point where it might provide unity of tone or subject matter, and a slightly contorted subjectivity puts in an appearance instead. The day after he arrives in Nigeria, the narrator considers his aunt’s house. He has the opposite experience from most of those who return to familiar surroundings after a long absence: ‘It is as though I have shrunk in the years since I was last here, or the house itself has gently expanded in the heat, increasing by small amounts in each month of my absence to reach these dimensions.’ He imagines that ‘the doorframe is wide and high enough for a family of acrobats to walk through in formation. And there they suddenly are, in my presence, standing on each other’s shoulders, their limbs in astral shape.’

On the next page this odd trope is explained, or made more mystifying. ‘Part of this story has been told before: the broad doorway, the acrobats. These are incidents from a book I love. Incidents, to be exact, from a dream in that book. But is it any less real to me now for having once happened to someone else elsewhere? … It is my story now, not his.’ This may not be an odd way to feel, though it probably is, but it’s definitely an odd way to introduce a personal narrative. By this point there hasn’t been enough of a story for it to be claimed by anyone in particular. The reunion between narrator and aunt, for instance, is treated as less important than the corrupt byplay in the airport:

I roll my bags out to where Aunty Folake and her driver wait for me. When we unlock from our embrace, there are tears in her eyes. A scene out of the prodigal son. She hugs me again and laughs heartily.

– You haven’t changed at all! How is that possible?

And that’s it. After 15 years away, a period that seems longer still because he left ‘under a cloud’, he surely has baggage distinct from what he wheels towards the car, but nothing is unpacked. There’s a moment of sentiment and a moment of distancing humour, neither of them from the narrator’s point of view. The image of the acrobats is from Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, and isn’t, on its first mention in that book, a dream: ‘The doors are twenty feet high, as if awaiting the day when a family of acrobats will walk from room to room, sideways, without dismantling from each other’s shoulders.’ The image isn’t really to do with the memory of domestic interiors either. ‘That night,’ Ondaatje writes,

I will have not so much a dream as an image that repeats itself. I see my own straining body which stands shaped like a star and realise gradually that I am part of a human pyramid. Below me are other bodies that I am standing on and above me are several more, though I am quite near the top. With cumbersome slowness we are walking from one end of the huge living room to the other. We are all chattering away like crows or cranes so that it is often difficult to hear. I do catch one piece of dialogue. A Mr Hobday has asked my father if he has any Dutch antiques in the house. And he replies: ‘Well … there is my mother.’ My grandmother lower down gives a roar of anger.

So it’s an image about family rather than about the perception of space, perhaps influenced by the passage on the last page of Proust describing old people as balanced precariously on stilts of time. Family, though, is a subject that is submerged or evaded in Every Day Is for the Thief.

In terms of literary family it may be that Cole is claiming Ondaatje as his kin, but the two books could hardly be less alike, Running in the Family (though classified as a memoir) being a work of thorough imaginative transformation while Every Day Is for the Thief consistently abuts on reportage (‘The proliferation of new eateries designed on the American fast-food model surprises me’), despite an unusually categorical disclaimer that includes not just ‘actual persons, living or dead’ but the ‘events’ and ‘locales’ of the book. The author’s photographs substantiate its claims to authenticity, and undermine any claim to fictional status. The mannerisms of journalism can be a double-bluff, of course (‘I’m on my way to visit an old friend. I’ll call her Amina’), but that hardly seems to be a possibility here. It’s not easy to imagine what the point of chapters on the National Museum in Onikan and the Musical Society of Nigeria might be if these locales don’t correspond to reality. The author’s note in the original Nigerian edition of the book negotiated its status differently: ‘The unnamed narrator of the story is similar to me in certain ways, and different in some other ways. But he and I are not the same person.’ Though that’s necessarily true, of course, since only one of them is a person, the other being a body of words organised, effectively or otherwise, for literary purposes.

The narrator is the son of a Nigerian father, now dead, and a white mother from whom he is estranged: she lives in California while he sticks to the East Coast, so they aren’t likely to meet accidentally. The mother plays very little part in the narrative (‘In this journey of return, the greatest surprise is how inessential her memory is to me, how inessential I have made it’), but the culture she represents is his yardstick. There’s a moment of well-nigh Naipaulian lordliness where he describes Nigeria as ‘a hostile environment for the life of the mind’. In this context the sighting of a young woman on a bus reading a literary hardback would set his pulses racing even if the book didn’t happen to be by Michael Ondaatje.

Cultural frameworks aren’t neutral. There’s an uncomfortable incident late in the book when a friend’s mother, a lawyer, sends a clerk from her office to pick up some books the narrator has brought from New York. The young clerk, whose pale skin marks him out as Ibo, is awkwardly ingratiating, never having met someone who has moved to America, wanting to establish some sort of connection, even bold enough to ask for contact details. From his angle of vision the distance between them can be closed, but the narrator knows differently:

He reminds me of Leonard Bast in Howards End. The acute awareness of a social gap and the hope, yet, that the gap can be bridged by enthusiasm and application. He reminds me, painfully, of myself, of times when I was the one in socially asymmetrical situations, in my early years in the United States, the times when I had been someone else’s Leonard Bast.

The comparison is both acute and self-refuting – a Nigerian who has read Howards End will never be in the same shoes as the one who reminds him of Leonard Bast. Forster’s struggle not to condescend to his character is reproduced almost too faithfully in the way Cole deploys the allusion. The clerk is in his late twenties and has a rotting tooth. He wears his underprivilege in his mouth. He seems impressed to be served with a can of Pepsi rather than a bottle (bottles being cheaper in Nigeria, not that it will help his dentition either way). The narrator withholds contact details in the way of the weasel, making out that it will be easier to pass them on later, during a visit to the office.

The theme of corruption reaches a climax with an ugly scene in an out of the way field where ‘area boys’, unemployed youths organised into gangs, extort money from a group trying to unload a container of imported goods discreetly and unmolested. ‘You have become wealthy,’ one of the boys says in Yoruba, ‘and we must become wealthy too.’ They’re given five hundred naira but want fifteen thousand. What to do? If you call the police they will demand twice as much.

The contents of the container, including books and a three-year-old Honda Civic, have been acquired in Chicago. They are to make their way to a school Aunty Folake built in the outskirts of Lagos in the late 1980s, and on which she spends all her money in the effort to maintain its standing. She’s there in the field, but barely present in the scene. ‘My aunt has no intention of paying, as she has already spent too much on clearing the goods.’ It would be oppressive to accuse such a person of ‘casual complicity’, the category that seemed adequate in the consulate back in America, but she has not managed to find a way of acting in the world without compromise. Whether Every Day Is for the Thief aspires to be fiction or reportage, Aunty Folake embodies the tensions of modern Nigeria, and it’s odd to have her exempted from scrutiny, given a lot less attention than a goat, lovingly described as it crops the inadequate grass of the field, lowered head and elevated rump giving it the look of a plane in the process of landing. What could have been a strong climax for the book has been left undramatised, even de-dramatised. When the narrator heads out into the city to ‘escape family’ the phrase seems a strange one, since family has hardly been introduced in the first place.

From the beginning the odds seem weighted against what Nigeria has to offer, but even if this is a hostile environment for the life of the mind, it’s a very favourable one, apparently, for the germination of stories. ‘The narratives fly at me from all directions. Everyone who walks into the house, every stranger I engage in conversation, has a fascinating story to deliver. The details I find so alluring in Gabriel García Márquez are here, awaiting their recording angel.’ Then, with a perverse leap of logic:

I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolised by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts.

The absolute distinction made here between a writer and the society that moulded him is so crude there must be something else in play. Perhaps it’s not too much to detect a distorted inversion of Saul Bellow’s celebrated remark, ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.’ With a rhetorical flourish America is relegated to the outskirts of any vital literary culture.

Cole’s narrator soon retreats from this rather caricatural position, saying that it wouldn’t be practical for him to move to Nigeria permanently. There’s the question of money, of professional development, of his other work. He comes to realise that it isn’t possible to establish proper working habits in a place so unrestful, with a wayward electricity supply and the generators in the house noisy when it fails. Literary material becomes one more commodity that can be extracted locally but must be processed overseas.

*

Open City is a much more confident performance, denser in texture and achieving real beauty in its descriptive passages. It was shortlisted for a prize given to writing evoking the spirit of place, which would be an appropriate honour even if the award wasn’t endowed by an Ondaatje. The narrator has a name this time (Julius) though it is withheld for many pages. In fact the narrator seems to be essentially the same as in the earlier book even if there are discrepancies, with the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief being a fan of jazz, for instance, while for Julius it is a blind spot. Julius has an aunt in Lagos, but she’s called Tinu. In any case, there’s no sense of a cumulative portrait being built up: information is cautiously titrated, not lavishly dispensed. As a reader it’s possible to feel some kinship with the Ibo clerk in Every Day Is for the Thief, wanting to establish a bond and being fobbed off. After twenty pages there’s a reference to ‘my girlfriend, Nadège’, and it seems as if intimate information is looming, but it turns out that the couple is in the process of breaking up. No one takes Nadège’s place, though Julius feels an ambiguous connection with Moji, the sister of a childhood friend, who recognises him in a grocery store in Union Square. He hardly remembers the two or three times they met as teenagers in Lagos.

On the first page of Every Day Is for the Thief the narrator mentions a hospital in a way that suggests that he works there, and there’s a later reference to his current status as a trainee psychiatrist. In Open City, Julius is further on in that career, with his own patients and a research project underway investigating affective disorders in the elderly. This is much closer to the modelling of a fictional character than anything in Every Day Is for the Thief, though a different set of mannerisms keeps readers perched on the cusp of fiction and non-fiction (where readers least want to be), with a recurring personage referred to only as ‘my friend’, though carefully particularised in terms of tastes and career – professor in an earth sciences department, four years into the quest for tenure, favourite philosophers Badiou and Serres. ‘My friend’ is a phrase that announces its awkwardness every time it appears. ‘I’ll call him Jerry’ would be preferable, getting the awkwardness over with.

Julius refers to himself in passing as being mixed race, and some of his encounters with the world are filtered through perceptions of his status. He spends a lot of time exploring New York on foot, which means he is often among strangers. Being mugged acquires an extra sting if you’ve felt safe because the two men approaching you with a certain intentness had acknowledged you a little earlier as if you were equal participants in the culture of the street: ‘Only the most tenuous of connections between us, looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male, based, in other words, on our being “brothers”.’ Not so brotherly now.

Julius finds only distorted reflections of himself in his passport, since the first name on it reminds him of his German mother, who started off as Julianna Müller before becoming Julianne Miller. He has a Yoruba middle name, Olatubosun, which he has never used, since it feels ‘like something that belonged to someone else but had long been held in my keeping’. Living in a city of churning diversity certainly lowers the prestige of uniformity. Anyone of mixed race will have had painful experiences growing up, but the point in Open City seems to be the building of an identity not composed of wounds.

Julius takes a holiday in Brussels, nominally in order to trace his grandmother, last heard of living there, but does only the most basic research and seems quite happy just exploring another city. His observations necessarily lack the authority he brings to bear on the life of New York, dependent on monitoring the media rather than on personal experience. Julius reports that ‘the country was in the grip of uncertainties – the sense of anomie was apparent even to a visitor,’ but how could a visitor without contacts in a strange city, speaking bad French and no Flemish, detect anything but anomie? He spends time with Farouq, a charming and erudite Moroccan working in an internet café but versed in the thought of Edward Said and Paul de Man, who makes the case for al-Qaida, or at least contests the case against it. In some sense he wants to recruit Julius to an Islamic worldview, if not an Islamic world order, but Julius sees through his persuasiveness to the rage beneath – rather too easily perhaps, not really engaging with his arguments. When he gets back to New York, Julius sends Farouq a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, which seeks to construct an ethics not based on inherited allegiances or tribalisms, however seductive.

Symmetrically placed in the book, near its beginning and its end, are loving descriptions of the music of Mahler. First, a recording of Das Lied von der Erde is played in a big branch of Tower Records on the corner of 66th Street, a song of cosmic leavetaking heard in a shop that was itself going out of business:

I recognised the recording as the famous one conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964 … I sat on one of the hard benches near the listening stations, and sank into reverie, and followed Mahler through drunkenness, longing, bombast, youth (with its fading), and beauty (with its fading). Then came the final movement, der Abschied, the Farewell, and Mahler, where he would ordinarily indicate the tempo, had marked it schwer, difficult.

The intensity of this song is incompatible with the environment of the shop. Julius leaves but takes the remembered music with him – ‘My memory was overwhelmed. The song followed me home’ – and finds that it imposes a mood on the whole of the next day, an afterglow or aesthetic hangover. Though sung in his mother’s mother tongue, Mahler’s ‘Viennese chinoiserie’ doesn’t seem to trigger unwelcome associations. The appeal of Mahler in this context may not be so different from the quality that kept his status in doubt for so long, an instability of tone, intensity on the edge of dissolving, apotheosis indifferent to purity.

Near the end of the book Julius attends a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Simon Rattle. He notices details in the music for the first time, relishing for instance a third movement that is ‘loud, rude and as burlesque as it could conceivably be’. After the concert he inadvertently uses an emergency exit, one that leads directly to a fire escape stopping short high above the street. The door clicks behind him. In a more highly strung, less meditative piece of fiction, this would be an almost allegorical moment. Before the music started the concert hall had sent him its usual message:

I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906.

Now the structure of Carnegie Hall seems to be giving him notice that he doesn’t belong, both expelling and immobilising him. He manages to get back into the building without help, and his earlier sense of the music’s inclusiveness doesn’t seem impaired by the latent excluding will of the architecture: ‘Mahler’s music is not white, or black, nor old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.’ This universalist argument is a conservative one when made defensively, from within the establishment, but takes on a different coloration here.

*

Though Every Day Is for the Thief acknowledges the example of Running in the Family, it can hardly be said to follow in Ondaatje’s footsteps. But it’s hard to imagine Open City without a precedent that isn’t mentioned, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It’s not just the theme of walking, with New York in place of East Anglia, but the way that in the absence of conventional novelistic elements such as plot, character and situation, secondary and even tertiary elements stand in for them. Sebald’s book gives only the most rudimentary indication of an emotional context, on its first page: ‘In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.’ The first page also mentions that a year to the day after he set out on his walking tour he was taken into hospital ‘in a state of almost total immobility’, so it’s clear that the curative powers of walking, as extolled by Kierkegaard and so many others, did not do their work in his case. Readers of The Rings of Saturn soon understand that some minimalist variety of expressionism is in play, with the narrator dwelling on elements in the history and geography of the county that confirm and perhaps even amplify his bleak state of mind.

The dovetailing of first-hand impressions and cultural meditation that Sebald manages so smoothly is harder to bring off in an urban setting, without the plausibly sustaining medium of solitude. A typical passage in Open City starts firmly anchored in time and place: ‘From the intersection of 172nd Street, the George Washington Bridge came into view for the first time, its lights soft yellow points in the grey distance. I walked past small shops selling knickknacks, the sprawling window displays of El Mundo Department Store, and the perpetually popular restaurant El Malecon, to which I occasionally came for dinner.’ Then there comes a digression about the history of the grand building across the street from El Malecon, built in 1930 as the Loews 175th Street Theater (‘Al Jolson had played there, as had Lucille Ball’). These overlapping literary devices don’t interlock smoothly. They give the impression not of experience as it happens but as written up after the event.

In recent years a non-literary device has been in existence capable of bringing the first-hand and the mediated together: a smartphone. Anyone with a modest degree of connectivity can research the building across from El Malecon without breaking stride. It’s unlikely that Sebald would have found the idea congenial, but Cole by generation would be more sympathetic – except that the urban walk, despite everything, remains a sort of pastoral, app-resistant. Never mind that a substantial number of the people on every street are interacting with the invisible. A flâneur leaves the iPhone at home.

Open City hardly seems to have an agenda as a novel, other than to evoke with unhurried rapture the physical and cultural spaces of New York, until near the end. Julius has gone to a party given by Moji and her partner, John, a hedge fund trader 15 years older than she is. Julius doesn’t take to John, perhaps predictably, finding his gregariousness forced, his salt-and-pepper goatee unappealing, while Moji gains in beauty and desirability from the evidence of her being unavailable. Despite the elegance of the party it turns into a sleepover for ten or so guests, Julius among them. The next morning, as he sips tea on a glassed-in terrace overlooking the Hudson, Moji tells him that 18 years before, when she was 15 and he 14, he forced her sexually at a party. She speaks to him ‘for what was probably six or seven minutes’, saying that for weeks afterwards she had wanted to die:

You’ll say nothing, she said. I know you’ll say nothing. I’m just another woman whose story of sexual abuse will not be believed. I know that. Look, bitterness has been eating away at me all this time, because this was so long ago, and it’s my word against yours, and you’ll say it was consensual, or that it never happened at all. I have anticipated all your possible answers. This is why I’ve told no one, not even my boyfriend. But he sees through you anyway, you, the psychiatrist, the know-it-all.

Julius does indeed say nothing, he hardly even seems to think anything about this revelation. It’s a bombshell that explodes in absolute silence. His reaction, to call it that, has been given just before he passes on the accusation that prompted it: ‘From my point of view, thinking about the story of my life, even without claiming any specially heightened sense of ethics, I am satisfied that I have hewed close to the good.’ In the paragraph where he might be expected to reflect on what Moji has said, he reverts to the discursive, reflecting on a story Camus tells in his journals.

Are we to take Julius’s decentred attentiveness as inherently disordered, a blind spot that ignores everything significant? That would leave little of the book. This harsh sidelight doesn’t alter anything about its earlier passages, when reread – what was lovely is still lovely, what was sententious still sententious. And it’s not possible to read the later sections, such as the evocation of Mahler’s Ninth, any differently with the knowledge that the difference between the rapist and therapist is just a matter of spacing on the page (a joke of Nabokov’s, and not his best). How far is Julius’s character retrospectively corroded? Does his attachment to Appiah’s idea of cosmopolitanism now seem suspect, a self-serving avoidance of rooted truths? The effect of such a revelation, disavowed, can’t be controlled within first-person narrative.

Moji’s accusation bursts out of the book as abruptly as the creature exiting John Hurt’s chest in Alien, but at least viewers of that film knew the character had gone down to a hostile planet and had an unpleasant encounter there. It isn’t technically possible to have a plot twist without having a plot in the first place, so no wonder the effect in Open City is of a dislocation rather than any sort of clinching. (The spoiler element of this review must be excused not only by the fact that the book is not new, but by the fact that it isn’t possible to make vague hints about something that doesn’t connect up in any way with the rest of the book, despite being offered somehow as the key to it.) It’s as if the narrator of The Rings of Saturn had looked down at his hands on the last page and seen that they were caked with dried blood, with Sebald choosing to disrupt the conventions of his fiction on the home stretch, instead of setting them up on the first page and letting them do their work.