Let's get the negative stuff out of the way first. Teju Cole's Every Day Is For The Thief is not much of a novel. Forget plot or character development: This is a piece of writing that's all about setting. If you take what Cole is offering here and value it on its own terms, you'll probably appreciate the curious magic at work in this slim not-quite-a-novel. In chapters that stand as separate, short vignettes, Every Day Is For The Thief describes a young New York doctor's visit back to his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. It's a Clockwork Orange world where policemen routinely stop traffic to collect bribes, where the electricity sputters out at nightly intervals and where 11-year-old thieves are necklaced with kerosene-soaked tires and burned to death. Amidst all the corruption and misery, Cole also makes readers understand the narrator's longing for a Nigeria he thinks he remembers from childhood.
Every Day Is For The Thief technically predates Cole's celebrated 2011 debut novel, Open City, and bookends it. Open City followed a Nigerian doctor — a psychiatric resident named Julius — as he worked off stress and stoked his alienation by walking all over the island of Manhattan at night. Open City was a fresh meditation on what E.B. White, another walker in the city, called "the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. " The narrator of Every Day Is For The Thief isn't given to contemplation like Julius, and he wouldn't dare walk alone through Lagos at night; but this guy is also very much the outsider, separated from his home city by the many years he's spent living in New York. Maybe that's why the format here of short disconnected chapters doesn't bother me so much: This guy is so overwhelmed by the strangeness of life in his old hometown, he's not capable of piecing together a coherent narrative that makes sense of what he's experiencing. So, instead, we get entries that read like a travel journal. To add to that Lonely Planet Guide effect, Cole includes moody black and white photographs he's actually taken of sites in Lagos: a black goat standing alone in a rubble strewn building lot, a swampy deserted outdoor market, a concrete cityscape as seen from behind the grimy windshield of a car.
The prose snapshots of Lagos are just as off-kilter. The minute our narrator lands at the airport, he's accosted by an official who presses him for a bribe: "What have you brought me for Christmas?" this man asks in Yoruba. During his stay, our narrator visits the National Museum, a mildewed place where the few artifacts "are caked in dust and [displayed] under dirty plastic screens." The museum unintentionally testifies to the colonial and post-colonial pillaging of Nigerian art. And in one of the most finely etched vignettes, the narrator visits an Internet café, which, he assures us, is a sign of the newly vital Nigerian economy. But, the Chamber-of-Commerce-type description quickly takes a downward turn:
"The availability of computers is ... an index of progress. But while India is an emerging software player, and countries like China, Indonesia, and Thailand have successfully staked claims in manufacturing, Nigeria's contribution is much more modest. In fact it is, for now, limited to the repetition of a single creative misuse of the Internet: advance fee fraud."
What follows is our narrator's droll description of the café — one of hundreds in Lagos — filled with young men busy sending out scam e-mails all over the world. You know what I'm talking about: Those e-mails that sometimes pop up in your inbox from "Nigerian princes" promising a share in a multi-million dollar account in exchange for your help in the form of a small advance fee. That internet cafe is a masterful vision of barely-checked Third World enterprise.
Every Day Is For The Thief isn't uniformly bleak — there are fleeting moments of grace, for instance, in a music store — but its unfiltered depiction of life in Lagos is something only an insider/outsider like Teju Cole could write and hope to get away with.