ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
A new book describes everyday life in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city. It's from the point of view of a visitor, but this is no tourist. Instead, the narrator has left Nigeria for New York. He's back on a short trip to see friends and relatives. The book is called "Every Day is for the Thief." Here's Meg Wolitzer with our review.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: If you've ever gotten one of those emails claiming to be from a Nigerian prince telling you that millions of dollars await you, you'll understand this scene that Teju Cole describes. It's an ordinary day in Lagos, where Internet cafes have popped up everywhere.
Under a sign warning patrons not to engage in fraud, people type up emails that are outrageously fraudulent. There might even be guards in the cafe who threaten the email writer with torture and prison. They might shake him down for money, not millions, but still enough to make a statement. According to the gifted chronicler Teju Cole, in Lagos, you're likely to encounter not only fraud, but also violence, or at least gross incompetence.
At night, the electricity might go out. You'll be left in darkness in the stifling summer air. This book has less of a human heat and emotional tangle of most novels. Instead, it's made up of cool-eyed reporting and the kind of knowing observation you might find in travel writing. Cole doesn't call it a novel. He calls it fiction.
He said recently in an interview that the novel is overrated, and that the writers he is most interested in find ways to escape it. He's certainly done that here.
His first book, which was called "Open City," was also pretty elliptical and low on plot. It followed its main character as he walked around New York and met various people. That character was a psychiatric resident, and he had a name, Julius. And the book did have something of a shape, even though it was mostly interior.
This book is now rated by another psychiatrist in training. It might be the same one. He doesn't get a name here, and the way he describes Nigerian life feels at times almost like a lecture, though an interesting one. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world, he tells us. Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied for third from the bottom.
I'm sure you could read that and think he's being deliberately flat and dispassionate, but I didn't think of him that way. I didn't even really think of him as a narrator, more like a very modest, disembodied sensibility trying to stay out of the way and just show what life is like in a place that most outsiders don't know.
I generally don't understand it when a writer says, the town is a character, in his or her book. But in the case of "Every Day is for the Thief," Lagos has been injected with more character than the narrator who prefers not to call attention to himself. So is the novel worth escaping from? Is it sort of a cushy and familiar prison for writers?
There are times when, perhaps, all novelists, myself included, feel afraid that without knowing if they're making their work more conventional in order to accommodate that old and then she said this to him, and this happened nature of the form. It's probably a good idea to deliberately get outside of that once in a while, which is what Teju Cole in this illusive, slender and suggestive work, has done.
WESTERVELT: Teju Cole's new book is called "Every Day is for the Thief."
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