The air in Lagos, Nigeria, “is dense with story,” writes the narrator of Teju Cole’s remarkable new novel. A luminous rumination on storytelling and place, exile and return, Every Day Is for the Thief traces the unhurried wanderings of a New York psychiatrist who returns to Lagos, the city of his childhood, to find “what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.”
Written in a circuitous style reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants or Nicole Krauss’ Great House, the book, which features photos by the author, knits a skein of seemingly unrelated memories, stories, reflections and chance encounters into an ineffable sense of character and place.
Pondering corruption and traffic, the history of Lagos and its flashes of grace, the narrator makes his way through the megacity. There isn’t much of a plot, but by the end the accumulation of experiences has left the narrator and the reader changed.
Much of the novel’s power is derived from its prose. From its first sentence — “I wake up late the morning I’m meant to go to the consulate” — to the final image of “women in the back rooms of their humble houses” preparing corpses for their journey to the other world, the novel moves with the steady, self-assured gait of a 19th century flaneur, pausing every so often to recall a story or observe a small detail of the surrounding architecture.
Musing on the email scammer sitting next to him at an Internet cafe, the narrator compares him (and the other so-called “yahoo boys”) to the protagonist of The Arabian Nights. Lagos, then, is a “city of Scheherazades. The stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded.”
There are flashes of plot, upswellings of story and memory, but more often than not the reader’s narrative expectations are confounded. Toward the beginning of the novel, the narrator decides to take the public bus, against the wishes of his family, who say Lagos public transportation is “a haven for practitioners of black magic, and is full of thieves.” Soon after he boards, the narrator chances to see a young woman reading a book by Michael Ondaatje.
The sight of the book causes his heart to “leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket.” He imagines getting off the bus with her and asking what she makes of “Ondaatje’s labyrinthine sentences, his sensuous prose.”
But the possibility of a love story vanishes as soon as it presents itself. Or perhaps there is a love story, of a different sort. The object of the narrator’s affection may not be the young woman, but the book itself, Ondaatje, and the erudite, cosmopolitan sensibility he represents.
The style and content of Every Day Is for the Thief will be familiar to readers of Cole’s highly lauded, multiple-award-winning American debut, Open City. Both novels involve a Nigerian psychiatrist wandering through an unfamiliar city (Brussels in “Open City”). The narrators are sensitive, slightly detached young men, seekers who seem to be hiding something, from themselves as well as the reader.
But this is an extraordinary novel, a radiant meditation on the nature of happiness and faith, corruption, misfortune and belonging.
Michael David Lukas reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.