‘Every Day Is for the Thief’: Teju Cole’s Photographic Writing

Teju Cole’s writing bears a resemblance to photography and art, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Cole is actually a photographer, as well as an art historian. That background plays heavily into his work. Cole’s craft as a writer comes from being an acute observer and having an understanding of art — attributes that are rarely discussed these days, when it seems like all anybody talks about is whether you should live in New York or chase an MFA.

Now, with the release of Every Day Is for the Thief, which pre-dates his Hemingway/Pen Award winner, 2011’s Open City, Cole’s collected output consists of two books, an introduction to Ivan Vladislavic’s Double Negative, an exquisite corpse short story told by RTing other Twitter accounts like a maestro conducting a symphony, New Yorker pieces, and other essays scattered about that might look idiosyncratic at first, but, with just a little effort, make perfect sense together. Everything he does is worth reading, but a Teju Cole novel is a reading experience matched by few contemporary writers.

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Cole wrote, in a piece for The New Inquiry, “Fictional characters that have an inconstant inner life are more like us and, therefore, better than those that don’t.” Reading his books, I’m struck by how consistent the characters in his fiction feel, but also how they don’t just feel like characters; when reading something like the short chapter about Pastor Olakunle in Every Day Is for The Thief, with his silk suits and expensive automobiles, I think that Cole hardly has to make things up. Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief aren’t fast-paced books with crazy plot twists; Cole’s stories develop before your eyes like a Polaroid photograph, the image slowly getting clearer the longer you look at it. In Every Day, as opposed to Open City, you’re presented with more images of just one place (Lagos), instead of the journeys that Open City’s narrator Julius takes around New York City, and eventually to Nigeria and also Brussels.

Every Day is settled, but short, and works whether you have already read Open City or you only plan to; the chronology of how you read Cole’s two books doesn’t matter. What the novella’s snapshots do provide the reader with is a much broader and unforgettable picture of what life is like in Lagos, even more than the novel that gained Cole his acclaim, laying bare the corruption of its uniformed officials to the indifference of its people. He skillfully picks up on the smallest of moments that we couldn’t be bothered to stop and observe: “The field I am standing in is mostly dust, but it has sere grass in scattered patches. Six men sit in the shade of a large Indian almond tree. One of them, a man in a sky-blue cap, is blind in one eye.” You get taken into a store that shows off jazz albums that would cost an arm and a leg to buy, but the owners would gladly burn copies for you for a smaller fee; go into the internet cafes where young men type scam emails to people in other countries so they can “live large and impress their mates on campus.” Cole’s narrator recalls the brutality of the place, seeing a young boy burned alive in front of a crowd after being caught stealing. There are also vibrant moments of beauty and power that few writers can pull off.

The book is balanced from start to finish. It’s Teju Cole proving, yet again that he is doing something different, working outside the boundaries of the conversations the literary community keeps having with itself, and it works out right every time.