It feels like both an obligation and a frivolity to point out that Teju Cole’s new novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, is neither new nor, by any sort of conventional metric, a novel. The first negation is pretty straightforward: It was originally published in Nigeria in 2007, four years or so before Open City, the book on which Cole’s reputation is largely based. The second is a bit more contentious, in the way that it’s always contentious, and probably finally pointless, to attempt to define what is and is not a novel. Perhaps it’s enough to say—of this book and of Cole’s writing generally—that it leaves in its wake a trail of ambiguities, an artful wreckage of formal expectations.
Open City, one of the more stylish and commanding literary entrances of the last few years, seemed to present itself as one kind of fiction, before revealing itself in its closing pages as something else entirely, something more darkly opaque than the thing you thought you had been reading. The novel’s narrator, Julius, is a young Nigerian psychiatrist in New York, who assuages the stress of his work and the essential solitude of his life by taking long walks and pursuing circuitous, nomadic meditations on the urban environment, the past, the experience of migration. The book exhibits a certain desolate preoccupation with the elision of historical fact, with atrocities too immense to be countenanced by the cultures in whose names they have been committed. “There are almost no Native Americans in New York City, and very few in all of the Northeast,” says one of Julius’ patients, a writer crippled by depression in the midst of researching a book about 17th-century European settlers and their encounters with the Delaware and Iroquois tribes. “It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today.”