The Loneliness of the Melancholy Intellectual: Every Day Is for the Thief

04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

Every Day Is for the Thief
Teju Cole
(Random House)

Toward the end of his stay in Lagos, the narrator of this novella stumbles upon a book-and-music shop called Jazzhole. It’s a bright, welcome contrast to the jazz shop he’d walked into earlier, where none of the merchandise was for sale but all the records, for a fee, could be infinitely copied. Jazzhole is “that moving spot of sun” the narrator has sought, a Nigerian outpost of the international culture industry, where the city’s endless din of generators dies down. The novella, published now in the US following the success of Cole’s 2011 debut Open City, has been out in Nigeria since 2007, courtesy of a local press of this sun-spot kind. But though the narrator swoons over a woman on a bus carrying a crisp copy of an Ondaatje novel, this book will not fold seamlessly into the awe-struck, apolitical embrace of Global Lit; for starters, Cole’s wandering alter ego is too sharply critical of the endless graft he sees. Every Day includes a smattering of “photos by the author”—Cole is also a photographer—but they fulfill a different function. This flâneur is not a camera.

And anyway, the “creative, malevolent, ambiguous” city, which he finds to be “a hostile environment for a life of the mind” doesn’t make for carefree wandering, particularly not for this iteration of Open City’s Julius. He also is a psychiatry resident from Lagos who has long been living in the States, and must relearn how to “present an outward attitude of alertness, while keeping a calm and observant mood… there also has to be the will to be violent.” On this extended visit he’s staying with family, spending his days at bus stops, markets, and at whatever cultural institutions he can find, observing “the city’s many moods: the lethargy of the early mornings, the raucous early evenings, the silent, lightless nights.”

In short and airy chapters, the narrator flirts constantly with the thought of permanent return: to mine material, unwilling to “[hoe Updike’s] same arid patch” for stories of divorce and dishwashing. Miming one attempt, a chapter narrates the immolation of an 11-year-old: punishment for stealing. A recording of the event floats around, but he “cannot find the will to hunt the tape down.” (He wasn’t actually present at the burning.) A struggling humanist hyperaware of history, he finds at the neglected National Museum “no great reason for thinking that a single thing has been improved in the last twenty years.” Cole gives a new, intelligent voice here to that well-known melancholy figure: the intellectual who would speak for many but is thwarted by the machinery of the everyday, kept by his own awareness at a seemingly unbridgeable distance.