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The Contemporary Novel of Ideas Finds its Footing

US State Department/Wikimedia Commons

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole (Random House)

Though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was released this past spring to general acclaim, certain critics seemed to object to the blurring between novelist and protagonist. Such objections would be meaningless (aren’t all protagonists at least part author?) were it not for the structure of the novel, which mixed “blog posts” from the protagonist with the more traditional, realist narrative. The protagonist, a Nigerian-born immigrant—like Adichie—rises to academic renown and general fame on the merits of these blog posts, which riff on various aspects of contemporary race relations. Was the character just a mouthpiece for the author’s sociological observations? And if so, was the story just a way to illustrate Adichie’s ideas, less a painting than a presentation?

These questions arise for any novel of ideas, whether they weigh down the novel (1984) or don’t (Notes from Underground). Teju Cole, also from Lagos, Nigeria, has, like Adichie, written a novel about returning to Lagos whose ambition is both to show and to explain a significant part of life in Nigeria. But while Adichie’s assessments were interspersed within a relatively conventional love story, Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief is unapologetically a novel of ideas: a diagnosis of the systemic corruption in Cole’s native Lagos and of corruption’s psychological effects. But, remarkably, the book avoids any the chunkiness that usually accompanies such work. Emotional and intellectual life are woven too tightly together. The ideas make the character and vice versa. 

Every Day Is for the Thief is Teju Cole’s first novel, published seven years ago in Nigeria and newly revised and released in the U.S. Like Americanah, it follows the return of an erudite, Nigerian-born expat to Nigeria. His experience is messy, but his ideas could hardly be clearer. They relate to the inner lives of people who live with the danger, lies, poverty, and fear of Lagos. Cole’s own photographs of Lagos and Lagosians are spread through the text—augmenting a portrait of life within institutions so broken that they seem beyond repair.

Those institutions are the corrupt economy, which gives most people reason to steal, and the Church, which sees suffering as a sign of insufficient faith. People are both afraid and afraid of their fear, as well as in denial of it. This leads to the condition that Cole takes to be the heart of life in Lagos, a “disconnection from reality” that makes it possible to survive only if you deny the problems you’re trying to survive. Cole explains the disconnection with essayistic precision:

Nigeria’s disconnection from reality 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 ranked sixth from the bottom out of the 158 countries assessed in the corruption perceptions index. Religion, corruption, happiness.

These are the ideological inconsistencies that frame the felt experience of Cole’s Lagosians: angry, sad, and unable to express it. 

Every Day Is for the Thief begins in New York, where the protagonist, an unnamed psychiatric resident, goes to the Nigerian consulate to get a new Nigerian passport. Cole’s narrative is marked by a persistent, clinical distance. And here, it’s almost disturbingly cold: “Most of the people can be set into one of three categories.” He devotes much of the chapter to the corruption of the consulate officers—they ask for money orders, much of which they pocket—just as the protagonist dwells on the airport officials who ask him for money and the police who extort it on the drive out of the airport. 

Subsequent chapters, all brief, read less like a plot-driven narrative than like sections of a essay on systemic problems in Lagos: children forced to steal, young men in Internet cafes who perpetrate wire fraud (until police catch them and extort them, and they find other cafes). An engagement ceremony becomes an occasion to explain an armed robbery: The house of a Mrs. Adelaja, “an ample woman with a regal presence,” is broken into and her husband murdered seven years before the narrator even sees her. Not always the clinician, Cole frames her story with sensuous particulars juxtaposed against sociological detail. We learn that “The woman’s skin glows with warm ochre tones,” but also that “Home invasions were extremely common in Lagos in the 1990s.” 

As a foreigner in his ostensible homeland, the protagonist often dwells on how little he knows of Nigeria’s culture and the relatives who remained there. The photographs that are interspersed within the text are signs of forgetting as much as remembering—they show faces, or backs, in a crowd. Here he understates the problem in his description of his family at an engagement ceremony: “My family, all of whose lives time has altered inexorably. Each face on which my eye rests brings me up short.” The awkward rhythm of that last, short sentence says it all.

In another scene, he recognizes a cousin he’d never met. “She was born after I left home,” he writes, “and, until this moment, we have only been rumors to each other. But so quickly do we get to know each other that, soon, I cannot even remember a time when I did not know her. She moves so easily all I think of is sunlight.” At less than a page, it’s the loveliest scene in the book. It’s also its emotional center. “Every good thing I secretly wish for this country,” he writes, “I secretly wish on her behalf.” The experience of seeing his cousin turns into a reflection on hidden strength: “The completeness of a child is the most fragile and most powerful thing in the world.”1  This sentence is hard to quote without a sense of banality or sentimental pap, but Cole avoids it by letting the reader feel his ideas as they develop. His cousin is hope for the future, as another child, the titular thief, is the desperate present.

The thief is an eleven-year-old who is told by an unidentified man to steal from the market. He is quickly caught and made a symbol of the country’s latent rage and the self-destruction that follows from it, condemned to burn alive in the market as punishment. The narrator imagines it, like the burnings of his youth. “The splashing liquid is lighter than water, it is fragrant, it drips off him, beads in his woolly hair. He glistens. The begging stops. He stops begging and he is not yet lit. The whites of his eyes are bright as lamps.” The words are pregnant with pain, all the more so because the episode is imagined, not reported, and because the narrator subdues his anger. He lets pain turn to rage only one short, definitive time: “The crowd, chattering and sighing, momentarily sated, melts away.” 

We’re left with the inevitability of the system, as Cole moves seamlessly from scene-setting to an explanation of the forces it encapsulates. “And what if he was only eleven? A thief is a thief; his master will find another boy, another one without a name. The market has seen everything. It must eat.”

Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic. Follow him @adamfplunkett.

  1. It’s like the second-to-last page of The Little Prince in which the boy with golden hair is a golden star in the distance, and in which the author writes, “This is, to me, the loveliest and saddest landscape in the world.”