Exaggerated rumors about the death of the novel have been spreading for at least a century, but I’m not concerned about its imminent demise. As a form for capturing the meaning and matter of our lives, novels still feel wholly up to the task. And anyone who doubts how effectively this elderly literary genre might survive and evolve to reflect an impossibly complicated world would do well to read Teju Cole’s involute new book, “Tremor.”

A dozen years have passed since Cole published his first novel, “Open City,” and so powerful was the impact of that evocative story of New York that “Tremor” lands this month in a nest of eager anticipation. It does not disappoint. Cole continues to demonstrate just how elastic a novel can be and how trenchant he is. His book crosses national boundaries just as confidently as it crosses literary ones. The eclectic structure may be challenging, but, given the continuity of Cole’s vision, it’s never baffling.

The story opens in the fall. Tunde, like Cole, is a professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “in the center of white learning,” where he thrives – “not without some doubt, not without some shame.” We meet him as he contemplates the deaths of past and current colleagues.

That macabre introduction gives way to an antiquing trip in Maine. At a shop run by two jovial octogenarians, Tunde notices a card behind the counter signed by Laura Bush, matron of a family descended from the Mayflower pilgrims. Near it is posted a flier about the site’s historical background. “This homestead was settled in 1657 by Dr. Thomas Wells,” the flier declares before breezily describing how Indians axed their way into the original house, massacred the doctor’s wife and children and burned down the building. “After this terrible tragedy Mr. Wells left for Ipswich, Massachusetts, returning sometime after 1718 with a new family to reclaim the homestead.”

That’s a neatly encapsulated historical moment, with its happy Job-like restoration, but Tunde knows better. The flier, he thinks, “was a fever dream of mindless Indian violence against people like ‘us.’ ” Since arriving from Nigeria at 17, he has learned to be skeptical of such dreams. “After nearly three decades in the United States his sympathies have been tutored in certain directions,” Cole writes. “He learned early that a ‘terrible tragedy’ meant the victims were white. Later and by bitter experience he came to understand that there is always more to tragedies than is narrated, that the narration is never neutral.”

Such a sharp cultural assessment, “this lack of sympathy for the Wells family,” sounds so harsh that it even surprises Tunde. What, he wonders, is provoking this “brutal tone in him”? But his consternation is ultimately the novel’s salvation. It’s the persistence of introspection that animates “Tremor,” that makes it a story about a man in constant negotiation with America and its mythologizing impulse.


We see that even more profoundly as Tunde looks around the antiques store and finds a ci wara, an antelope-inspired headdress carved by the Bambara people of Mali. He knows that with the proper provenance, such a ci wara might sell for $400,000, but this orphaned castoff is priced at just $250. Immediately, the tone shifts, and the climate of “Tremor” grows piercingly incisive:

“In the West a love of the ‘authentic’ means that art collectors prefer their African objects to be alienated so that only what has been extracted from its context becomes real,” Cole writes. “Better that the artist not be named, better that the artist be long dead. The dispossession of the object’s makers mystically confers monetary value to the object and the importance of the object is boosted by the story that can be told about its role in the history of modern European art.”

Tunde wants to “rescue” the ci wara and take it home, if only so that “it can be seen by kinder eyes, by eyes that place authenticity elsewhere.”

From this early point, it’s easy to imagine another novelist spinning out the story of that African headdress, tracing its passage through shadowy purchases and sly thefts all the way back to the young man who wore it during harvesting festivals, back even to the Mali artist who carved it from a tree. But “Tremor” is not at all committed to the illusion of that kind of narrative continuity. Instead, Cole wants to consider how objects – and people – become “extracted” from their context in the service of white values. And so, this is the story of (and by) an unabashedly intellectual man interrogating the tales we tell to privilege certain lives while rendering others either inhuman or invisible.

“Tremor” has little traditional plot but never lacks for interest or incident. Tunde and his wife gently confront a shifting of their affections. Interactions with friends and strangers proceed with perfect fidelity to the uncertain rhythms of real conversation or are remembered in moments of contemplation. For motion, though, the story relies primarily on the agility of Cole’s critical analysis, the ever-widening scope of his vision, his tireless effort “to take in what is useful from the world not in order to plunder it but in order to live.”

To read some of these chapters is to see the essay form in its most elegiac, elastic and epiphanic mode. Tunde worries that “he can never seem to find the words of the right accuracy or sufficient intensity,” which may be the only untrue line in this book. The comparison feels bizarre given their entirely different themes, but more than once I had the sensation of being in the presence of an Emerson for the 21st century.


Tunde expounds on music old and new, the “vampirism” of photography, the imagery of crime, and more without ever seeming to lecture at us. Which is all the more remarkable considering that one chapter – dead center in the novel – is presented as the transcript of a lecture. It’s a brilliant discourse on J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On).” Tunde deconstructs the word “slave,” investigates the legal and moral implications of insurance on human cargo, and traces details of the painting’s provenance that racism and capitalism have expediently expunged.

“I have begun,” he says near the end of his remarks, “to experience the museum itself as a zone of sustained shocks. These are shocks that issue out of a feeling of moral whiplash: the meticulousness of curatorial practice on the one hand and those dark pools of human blood on the other.” It’s as though Cole isn’t satisfied just to show us how different a modern novel can look; he’s also going to demonstrate how intellectually and emotionally engaging a lecture can be.

And then “Tremor” shakes its structure yet again, and Tunde travels back to Lagos, “a city which changes faster than it can be described.” We’re suddenly delivered into a chapter of some two dozen short personal statements by various people in Nigeria. A wealthy man’s driver, a man suing his brother, a grieving mother, a prostitute, a contractor, a lawyer, a muralist and many others – each speaking in the first person, without context, explanation or judgment. Taken together these testimonies of thwarted hope constitute a striking, if implicit, rebuke to centuries of white presentation, approval and interpretation. They’re what Cole refers to elsewhere as “the untranslatable consolations of their lives.”

“How is one to live without owning others?” Tunde asks. “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?”

Such existential questions, even elegantly phrased, can give a novel the gamy taste of spoiled meat. But in the winding, demanding chapters of “Tremor,” Cole keeps this ruminative, insightful man tenaciously alive.

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