03/18/2014 06:52 am ET

The Book We're Talking About: 'Every Day Is For The Thief' By Teju Cole

Random House

Every Day Is for the Thief
by Teju Cole
Random House, $23.00
Publishes March 24, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think

Teju Cole's memoir-like novella, Every Day Is for the Thief, takes its name from a Nigerian proverb, "Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.” This optimism regarding the future of Cole’s war-torn home country pulsates steadily, if quietly, through a story that could have been mired in tragedy.

If Cole’s acclaimed Open City is a meandering reflection on the state of post-9/11 New York City, Every Day Is for the Thief is a brisker trek through Lagos. The protagonist, like Cole, returns to Nigeria after many years away, finding himself estranged and fascinated by his former home.

He observes and describes, breezily and journalistically, Nigeria’s Internet cafes, a staple, he says, of most developing countries. But unlike India’s claim on the software industry, or Indonesia’s on manufacturing, Nigeria’s slice of Internet-boom prosperity comes from advance fee fraud, known as “419” and performed by a clan called “the yahoo boys.” The protagonist laments that these schemes are “mangling what little good name their country still has.”

The narrator flits from scene to scene, cataloging muggings and church sermons led by greedy pastors with equally brusque frustration. In a particularly grim passage, an 11-year-old beggar is set on fire at a market. Cole writes of the indifference of passersby: “The crowd, chattering and sighing, momentarily sated, melts away.” Just as these events are “met with a shrug” by most citizens, the protagonist, too, keeps them at arm’s length. Their tragic nature is subdued by their placement among a stream of quiet observations, such as the narrator’s irritation with the city’s nighttime electricity curfew.

That Cole has assembled these vignettes in the form of a fictional story as opposed to a travelogue is a distinction worth noting. The protagonist bears much similarity to the author—both studied in New York before returning to Lagos for a brief stint, both admire and contemplate the poetry of Michael Ondaatje—yet, the book is decidedly not a memoir.

The trend of categorizing works firmly rooted in reality as fiction is a recent one, and has been questioned by some critics. But in the case of Every Day Is for the Thief, the classification is accurate. The chapters rarely exceed five pages and the language is expository, but these ruminations are more poetic than a journal might be. After spotting, then losing sight of, a woman reading the work of a beloved Sri Lankan author, the narrator contemplates “the wild look common by all those who are crazed by overidentification.”

Cole's photography punctuates each scene of the book, and his visual art complements the structure of the story well. The image accompanying the narrator’s run-in with the mysterious woman was taken from inside a moving car. The vehicle’s window frames the shot, and looks out onto a girl sitting near another window, the pane obscuring her face. The photo, like the chapter, is just shy of journalistic. It's taken at a slow shutter speed, blurring the details of its subjects, capturing a mood rather than gritty details.

Though excellently crafted, the novella is sparse in parts, leaving much to be explored. It’s a good thing, then, that Cole is currently at work on a deeper exploration of Lagos, this time in the form of a nonfiction work.

What other reviewers think
The New Republic: "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."

The New York Observer: "If Mr. Cole can, indeed, be figured out, he might simply be described as a New York writer. There is a touch of Alfred Kazin and Joseph Mitchell—two of the most observant walkers in the city’s history—in his books’ open-eyed flaneurs, who mostly observe life from the periphery. They drift, alienated and not, anonymous in cities that encourage anonymity."

Who wrote it?
Teju Cole is a novelist, photographer and art historian. He was born in Michigan, and returned there after spending 17 years in Lagos. He studied art history at Kalamazoo College and Columbia University, and currently lives in New York City. Every Day is for the Thief is his first book, but has only recently been published in America—his second, Open City, won the PEN/Hemingway.

Who will read it?
Those interested in memoir-like fiction and fiction about Nigeria, particularly Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, which similarly bends the literary fiction genre.

Opening lines:
“I wake up late the morning I'm supposed to go to the consulate. As I gather my documents just before setting out, I call the hospital to remind them I won't be in until the afternoon."

Notable passage:
"The hallways of the house are bigger than they used to be. The floor is broad and covered with curiously soft white tiles. 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 since my absence to reach these dimensions. The doorframe is wide and high enough for a family of acrobats to walk through in formation."

Rating, out of ten: