In a By the Book chat with the New York Times in 2014, writer Teju Cole was asked to describe a favorite or underrated writer. Citing Lydia Davis and Anne Carson as brilliant and ignored, he then called the conventional form of the representational novel “overrated” and added, “the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.” His own breakthrough fiction, Open City, published three years before, surveys the cross-Atlantic or bicontinental psychology of its Nigerian American alienated protagonist, Julius, who wanders New York City in a W. S. Sebald–like mapping of self and surroundings. Much praised, Cole’s book didn’t escape the conventions of the real-life-centric novel and, for the next decade, he put fiction aside. In the interim was a reissue of his 2007 debut novel, Everyday Is for the Thief, set in Lagos, along with two essay collections and two books companioning photography and text.
With Tremor (2023, Random House), his long-awaited third novel, Cole has taken the nonfiction forms he steeped himself in to create a new authorial presence—one who mixes and is mixed up by autofiction, postcolonial rumination, and political discourse. In the sense of its original meaning, something truly novel. Here, as in Open City, Cole’s trademark meditative, descriptive ramblings remain, but in place of the sauntering spirit of Julius we are introduced instead to the heavier soul of Tunde. Mirroring Cole’s artistic interests and sharing some of his biography, Tunde, a noted photographer, teaches the art at Harvard. His seventeen-year marriage with Sadako pitches from secure to frosty; they are, at present, weary from fresh turbulence. “[No] one had given her as much joy in her life as he had and no one had caused her so much pain.”
The novel opens with the pair on the mend and in Maine, hunting antiques. They buy a ci wara, an “elegant antelope headdress with a soaring pair of horns.” It’s carved from wood by a Bambara (or Bamana) artist and honors a mythical half-animal, half-human being that safeguards the West African community’s agricultural bounty. At checkout, Tunde espies a photocopied note, under glass, stating that the wife and children of a local settler were massacred by the Abenaki people of the region in the 1680s. After this “terrible tragedy,” the homesteader returned later with a new family to reclaim the land towing along “[his] negro man Jeff.”
Of African heritage himself, Tunde has learned that in America, historically a “‘terrible tragedy’ meant the victims were white” and the indigenous were often described as barbaric and left unnamed. He is haunted by the note, describing it as “a fever dream against people like “us.” When a friend’s partner recommends a book on the history of American captivity narratives, he decides to read further on the matter.
Depicting colonial heroism against “dark-skinned invaders” is the first of many topics Tunde will delve into as he detours from scenes of his marriage to explanatory assertions among a smart set of pitch-perfect Harvardians. These scholar-artists hold court on classic and contemporary topics, emphasizing their political assignations. They halo certain recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, the history of photography, a friend’s struggle with cancer and chemotherapy, the “sound” of John Coltrane’s enslaved great grandparents in his tenor sax, music from Mali.
Soon, he and Sadako stray physically and emotionally and, under the pretext of attending a photography biennial, Tunde leaves for Africa, first to Bamako, the capital of Mali, and then on to Lagos. Between them, in the open waters of the book’s structure, Tunde interrupts the narrative to give a recorded lecture on classical paintings that depict slave ships and burning cities that he uses as a looking glass into the abuses of slavery, European conquest in Benin, and how such works ended up in the hands of Nazi collectors. “Of late I have begun to experience the museum itself as a zone of sustained shocks,” he says. “These are shocks that issue out of a feeling of moral whiplash: The meticulousness of curatorial practices on the one hand, and the pools of human blood on the other.”
Suddenly, gradually, the essayistic novel births a novelistic essay. (Has that been his intent all along? Hard to say.) A slideshow of sharp vignettes features Lagosians testifying to their quotidian survival adumbrate contemporary life in postcolonial Nigeria. (“I decided to become a woman at the age of twenty-one.”; “We cannot sleep with both eyes closed.”; “I work under the bridges.”) They reflect the urban chaos that Tunde left behind for college in London and teaching in Cambridge, cities of effective class control. With Tunde planted between these two realities, Tremor’s way forward pumps away on two cylinders: regularly hopping from a place and its mindset (the “I,” the “she,” and the “you” of some sections read singular or plural, skittishly so) to a core drama of dualling othernesses.
All this teetering—between street life in Lagos and university insulation in the United States, between his self-hood and his marriage—accumulates in Tunde where “[s]omething is moving” in his veins “that does not need me for its movement and that is taking me where I cannot imagine.” In its conscious bafflement with history and memory, the book is playfully deviant while finally hewing to a theme: how what was must remain what is, Tunde’s need to animate the post-traumatic landscape of Nigeria that can never be a photo from the past. “In thirty years,” Tunde observes of its mass emigration, “Nigeria will be empty.”
The full circle swing around of the slave/captivity narrative is especially wily. Early on, Tunde learns that one third of white women taken in by Indigenous people in colonial times had refused to be return to their white, Christian communities, preferring instead their lives with their new Indigenous families. A twist on this fact is exemplified by Tunde, who has essentially done the reverse: left his country to be educated in England, struck a goldmine of opportunities, among them photography as a revelatory art, been beguiled and embarrassed by the largesse, and is now cautioning his kinsmen from doing the same. But when Tunde is questioned about his complicity in being rewarded by the new world, he returns the volley at his maker:
“How is one to live without owning others? Who is this world for? White people taught us that the world could be dominated by means of religion and warfare, collected for the sake of pleasure and scholarship, possessed through travel, and owned by anyone willing to claim and defend that ownership. How is one to live in a way that does not cannibalize the lives of others, that does not reduce them to mascots, objects of fascination, mere terms in the logic of a dominant culture? The more expansive his interests in the world the more urgent these questions become.”
The novelistic strength of Tremor lies more in rhetoric like this than its drama. Tunde’s marriage troubles with Sadako more haunt the book than direct it. Rather it’s nature, an indirect and amoral force, that’s the showrunner, in the sense that Cole avoids telling his characters or his plot how to behave, because he wouldn’t know how. In place of community and its values are the psychic and physical diaspora of Nigerians like Tunde who leave Lagos never to fully return. Like a character in Beckett, he falls as much into his freedom as he does his loss, and both conditions become indistinguishable. In this, Cole has taken the tragedy of a transcontinental survivalist to spin a narrative that transcends the conventional perimeters of a novel.