IF YOU DON’T enjoy the company of Teju Cole’s perpetually adrift narrators, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy Open City (2011) or this year’s book, Every Day Is for the Thief. (The author published another version in Nigeria in 2007.)
The narrator of Open City is Julius, a young West African wandering the streets of New York City and Brussels; in Every Day, he is an unnamed traveler crisscrossing Lagos. The reader who enjoys a carefully constructed plot may also find these episodic structures devoid of purpose. Where is the narrative arc, such a reader may ask; what exactly is it that Julius searches for? What is he doing, besides remembering stuff, as he walks in New York and Brussels? And why does that other fellow spend so much time in Lagos if the city annoys him so much?
But, while his books may lack conventional plots, Cole’s characters are nevertheless driven by a chain of events, and his characters, if aimless, come fully equipped with histories. Julius, the narrator of Open City, is half-Nigerian, half-German while the narrator of Every Day is a Nigerian living in the United States. Both men are in their early thirties, with highbrow intellectual interests and a weakness for solitary excursions. Julius, who studied in the United States with full scholarship in his youth, is a psychiatrist completing a fellowship. The narrator in Every Day also enjoyed a privileged education in the United States and has aspirations to be an author.
These young men have the intellectual means to analyze their exilic, marginal, postcolonial selves as well as they do thanks to the critical toolboxes of their first-world institutions. (They are familiar with the works of Derrida, Said, and Badiou.) They enjoy discussing issues, like migration and identity, on a theoretical level. Open City’s Julius meets Farouq, a Moroccan guy working at an internet cafe in Brussels, who boasts about having wanted “to be the next Edward Said” in his youth. Julius and Farouq discuss, among other things, Benedict Anderson’s views about the Enlightenment, the significance of sharia law in the post-9/11 world, and Paul de Man’s writings on insight and blindness. Farouq’s thesis on Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space was rejected by his department, a decision he believes was anti-Muslim. (The committee members convened nine days after 9/11.)
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