Finder, Keeper

Tremor by Teju Cole. New York: Random House. 256 pages. $28.

The cover of Tremor

NOVELISTS ARE LUCKY. Not only is their “I” a fiction—even or especially when the veil is of the gossamer kind—but when they need some space to say what can only be said when “I” is another they can always switch to third person. The critic tends to get stuck in first. So I find myself in a waiting room, just as he does. I am in New York and he—Tunde, a photographer, writer, professor and sometimes narrator in Teju Cole’s novel Tremor—is in Boston. His friend and colleague Emily has cancer. The tests or treatments she is undergoing might give some rough idea as to the span of her life. “For the sake of loyalty,” Tunde thinks, “we keep in our minds the imagination of their private anguish.” But his mind wanders. He has just been thinking of slavery and now his thoughts drift to the shock of a death close at hand, to the difficulty of reckoning with one’s “own extinction.” He swivels away from himself and into history, to young kamikaze pilots accepting their duty. I put the book down and text my friend, a doctor who trained in Boston, about these coincidences. “Oy,” she texts back. “No escapism for you.” I smile. She sends another: “Though that’s not really usually your thing.” A man in scrubs opens a door and calls my name. Autofiction, I think, should mind its own business.

Cole’s essays and novels are squatters. They quickly, quietly stake a claim to the corners of my mind without my noticing. When I first read his previous novel, Open City, a decade ago, a friend asked what I thought of it. I told him that I was not sure yet. A year later he noted that since my equivocation I had mentioned the book at least once a month. Cole has a knack for inhabiting other consciousnesses, so much so that I have at times wondered just how much his page was beginning to inhabit mine. What slips under the skin can induce bliss but also numbness or agony—no matter the sensation, the point of contact still itches.

For readers who double as literary sleuths, biography threatens to fix meaning in advance, as a friend’s gossip shades the faces of mere acquaintances. Suffice it to say that in addition to location, career, and background, detectives can find the source of several events from Cole’s novel in his essays. This does not unlock much. As with Open City, the plot in Tremor, such as it exists, is beside the point. The overarching drama is a simple one: for some unnamed reason, Tunde and his wife, Sadako, take a short break from each other and try to come back together. The book’s real engine is recollection and retelling. Cole’s characters are often intellectuals, more dislocated than alienated, continually remaking home as their perambulations demand. Tunde’s jaunts, near and far, are always stirring up internal discourses on love, patrimony, colonialism, music, and painting. He is someone for whom a dérive is less an elected avant-garde practice than a historically conditioned curse. He steps outside and all the beauty and wreckage of several centuries rise to meet him. We all have our triggers: a madeleine, the town of Nevers. When the past bursts in the present like a summer hull, those with better repressive mechanisms set to the work of weeding out all the shoots before history flowers again. Cole’s novels work the other way. Something disturbs the terrain; he provides memory a trellis.

Cole has written of W. G. Sebald—the patron saint of errant intellectuals burdened with memory—that his texts are like “a billowing cloud seen in slow motion.” When Cole is at his best, his prose works like this, too. Characters wander; the prose billows. In Tremor, Tunde is troubled by a photograph he cannot quite figure out how to make and by his faltering marriage. Between him and the world there is a persistent gap papered over by his nature (“he is improvisatory and when it suits him inexpressive,” Sadako thinks). He cannot always afford those he loves a real connection, so he displaces his intimacies into history. His wife is named on the seventh page of the novel after Italo Calvino, Bamba Suso, Banna Kanute, Homer, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Lorna Simpson, Chris Ofili, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus. Just before their brief separation, Sadako’s hunt for an antique table is the impetus for Tunde’s first preoccupation: the massacres of colonial New England and the historical record’s refusal to name the Indigenous dead. It is easier for Tunde to think of the nation’s crimes than his relationship, and his tone is so essayistic that the pleasure of tracing the outline of his mind is almost enough to obscure its silences. This is a hallmark of Cole’s writing. Even when I disagree with where it lands, the method seems right, inevitable. It is on the strength of Cole’s form that I find myself now convinced, now argumentative, now quieted by its calm, now wishing it would strike. Part of a cloud’s beauty is its latent power. It might billow and dissipate, but sometimes a charge builds, the pressure drops, and a bolt screams toward the earth.

Friction is one means of redistributing a charge, and if something catches in Tremor it is Tunde’s strange lack of it. His curiosity often leads him somewhere a touch too clean. Thinking of those colonial wars, he claims he “learned early that a ‘terrible tragedy’ meant the victims were white. Later and by bitter experience he came to understand . . . that the narration is never neutral.” True enough, but this is an old observation. So is “everywhere in contemporary photography is the same old vampirism but now it is smart enough to come with good wall text.” Nobody misfortunate enough to inhabit the art world has ever thought highly of the wall text. Of course it is a shield, but for more than racism. “If you can’t make it, fake it, by overexplaining it,” Jayson Musson said in one of his Art Thoughtz videos (in the guise of his character Hennessy Youngman) over a decade ago. If these observations stand out from Cole’s hypnotic prose, it is only because the reader recognizes just how dated they are. A book need not be an argument, but it is peculiar how rarely any outside opinion dares Tunde’s mind—and so much of the narration—to think more elegantly. He is often right, but that isn’t always enough.

When he is invited to give a talk at the Museum of Fine Arts, he fantasizes that he might “push” his audience and so avoid being reduced to stage decoration or “rewarded for his ease or eloquence.” The talk, which makes up an unbroken chapter, winds its way through J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) and the task of giving names to the unknown dead, Flemish masters, the Holocaust, provenance, British colonialism (massacres are always surfacing in this book), the Benin Bronzes, Bruegel, the bombing of Dresden and the loss of Courbet’s The Stone Breakers. This lecture formalizes ideas that appear as mere musings in the preceding chapters. Tunde acknowledges that he might be causing a “feeling of discomfort,” by pointing to museums’ refusals to take restitution seriously. Remembering a former interlocutor, he finishes by saying, “Perhaps I could have done a better job of persuading him that my point was not to give a brilliant retort but to convey my genuine sorrow at the long and persistent history of white people thinking they know better than the rest of us. That, I think, would be a good place to stop.” The passage is as beautiful and erudite as any in Cole’s work, but it is presented with a vexing surety. Because the chapter is only the lecture, we do not know if there was any discomfort, if the audience coughed and shifted in their seats, or if they did what people often do in these situations—applauded. For a brief moment, Tunde interrupts himself to tell the audience that he has temporarily lost sight in one eye. As far as metaphors go, there are few starker than a visual artist losing the ability to see clearly while trying to tell museumgoers to take restitution seriously. But then we cannot really be sure what he was looking at to begin with. Readers must take the place of the audience, and decide whether they have really been pushed.

Perhaps it is my own shading that makes me impatient. “Almost every time” Tunde enters Harvard Yard, he thinks of those enslaved by two former Harvard presidents, producing a strained lineage between them and himself by virtue of keeping them in mind. Cole once called the Black Atlantic a “single pulsing bruise.” Its contused elites are always striking queasy bargains. Such a person in such a place surely suffers the slings and arrows of countless minor misfortunes. We have all heard a “hello” that sounds like “get out,” but the charge does not build because a Harvard librarian “wants to know if she can ‘help’ him with anything,” speaking “in a tone he recognizes.” It comes in the involuntary obeisance that class inculcates in the talented tenth, who tend to believe they know enough history to know better. Yet it was not a tenured professor at Yale who smashed a window depicting black people picking cotton in a building named for an architect of Southern secession; it was Corey Menafee, a worker in the dining hall. We do not always do as we are told, but for some of us, some things don’t even need to be said.

D’Ascenzo Studios, Cotton Field (broken), Philadelphia, 1932, vitreous enamel on plate glass, 12" × 9 1/4". Courtesy: Yale University
D’Ascenzo Studios, Cotton Field (broken), Philadelphia, 1932, vitreous enamel on plate glass, 12" × 9 1/4". Courtesy: Yale University

COLE IS NOT CHASING AN ERUPTION. Tremor’s great stroke is its play of pronouns, its greatest tension is the slipping of consciousnesses and narration. Those who begin as “he” or “she” might become “I” and assume direction of the novel before ceding the page to another mind, as Tunde slyly moves into the first person during the lecture and then cements his claim three-quarters of the way through the book. In a scene near the end, “I” is first Sadako and then Tunde, each in turn a surface only we are near enough to delve inside. Rarely is the reader’s privilege made so explicit. Tremor is in many ways Tunde’s book, but each new paragraph holds the possibility that the referent has changed. When “you” first appears, Tunde is not yet “I,” even if it is relative to him that the second person is used. It is an elegant strategy to demand close attention. This “you” is revealed to be a deceased close friend of Tunde’s, but it is played so lightly that mourning is transformed from sorrow to the refusal to break communion. “You” holds the beloved nearby, not to answer for the injustice of grief, but to keep company. Perhaps this is achieved through the narrowing of the object of bereavement. The novel gives Tunde but one “you,” with whom he tries to clarify the world. I tried to imagine who in that strange community I might uniquely hail in this manner, but “you” kept multiplying.

In Tremor it is “I” that cannot be contained. In the sixth chapter, Lagos is described obliquely through the streams of its consciousnesses as two dozen of its denizens take the novel’s reins by narrating slices of their lives. The book is hushed; the real world susurrates until “I” explodes laterally from break to break, passing through a woman trying to preserve her daughter’s body, a principal playing local power politics, a convert remembering an old religion, the wealthy perched on their hills, the poor praying that the walls built to keep them out don’t give way and come tumbling down on their heads in the gulch below. In the midst of a book that, even in the third person, concerns itself so deeply with sustained interiority, a social novel breaks out. It electrifies what follows as Tunde’s thinking could not. A gateman in Lagos tells the story of that collapsing wall and says “nobody can inspect the drainage in those compounds up there. Their runoff erodes the gully with every rainfall and it will always be so. . . . Two weeks ago workers began to rebuild the collapsed wall. Everyone who can leave this country leaves. . . . In thirty years Nigeria will be empty.” The rain falls; capital accumulates; a nation empties. This is history—not the dead past, but the living wave upon which we ride or else it crashes down upon us—cut to the quick.

Cole’s writing has been stalking death: mass killings, good deaths, distant deaths, public deaths, the slow, uneven ones of illness. The titles in his essay collection Black Paper alone include “Mama’s Shroud,” “Four Elegies,” “Two Elegies,” and “Pictures in the Aftermath.” The dead appear beneath more placid titles, too, like “Unnamed Lake” and “In Alabama” from Known and Strange Things. This may be too easy a point. It is only fitting for a student of the Dutch masters, with all that fruit of colonialism so lushly rendered and stilled on the eve of putrescence. Besides, a writer who isn’t obsessed with death probably isn’t producing much in the way of literature to begin with.

When Tunde thinks of his late friend, “the thought of you suddenly expanded to fill his entire visual field” even as his face and voice fades. Looking at photos of unidentified murder victims, Tunde worries about those who “die without even their death entering the community of the dead. . . . Death in human life only makes sense when death has been acknowledged. It is not a raw biological fact, not for humans. Death is the knowledge of death, death is the ritual for the dead.” It is the living who refuse to leave the dead alone. We call their names because it is their having had a meaningful name that prevents the enormity of a raw biological fact from displacing feeling, from reducing life to a way station. “Poltergeist” only names the sound of our own mourning going bump in the night. In Cole’s 2014 Twitter essay, “A Piece of the Wall,” he describes the places out in the desert where crosses are planted for those who have died trying to cross a brutal border. When unknown they are marked “desconocido, desconocido, desconocida, desconocido, desconocida, desconocida, desconocido, desconocido, desconocido.” A place must be held where the name would go. Even “desconocida” or “Doe” says “there was” instead of saying nothing at all. The living cannot bear the silence.

Tremor mourns but the dead are not lost. For the past few centuries people have fought their own disappearance by furiously producing an archive of the self. Until then, Tunde notes, “most of the human beings who have lived and died have left behind them no trace of how they looked, what their voices sounded like, how they moved, what they preferred.” He thinks this while looking at an AI website that generates lifelike likenesses of people who have never existed. Today, our ability to produce records has outpaced our ability to produce memories. The photograph and the gramophone altered the manner of our living less than they did the long wakes of our demise. Now it is “possible for anyone’s voice at all, no matter how eminent, to be recorded and heard after their death. The earlier privilege of remaining uncaptured, of dying with one’s death, was lost.” I have watched childhood footage of people I have only known as adults, and if I were to survive them, these images would be as much a fact of their lives as the memory of their faces, as aged as I have known them, turned toward mine.

It is the same with the renowned. One knows Bach through scholarship and interpretation. But “Say It (Over and Over Again)” is not a remembrance of musical ideas. Lower the needle and what plays is a physical act: this is the air blown from John Coltrane’s lungs and out through his lips; that is Jimmy Garrison’s calloused finger plucking at catgut. Though it has neither sound nor images, Tremor partakes in this impulse. “In a hundred years,” Tunde thinks, “I will not only be dead but I will also be meaningfully gone, surviving only as rumor, only as a trace. And that oblivion comes through suffering, a terrible path to a terrible fate.” The moment comes: our breath escapes and all the catastrophes that have befallen us, all the catastrophes we have been to others, all the grievances and grace will be but hearsay, already sluicing away from memory as soon as they are recalled. Unless, of course, there is some keeper. The novel collects, calls, names. It keeps the dead close.

When Emily tells Tunde she has cancer, she hastens to add “I am fighting it, of course.” Then she admits, “I sometimes want to be done with it, with the chemo, with life, all of it.” Tunde tells us “the silence goes on so long I think we’ve been disconnected,” but he says nothing. She has violated the code of ill health. The sick are supposed to be warriors, survivors. Anything else upsets the well. No one may admit he felt “Death brush its fingers lightly across his face,” and, rather than recoil, pressed his cheek more firmly against its hand, if only to rest for a while. Emily breaks the silence. She talks of coming to her senses, of using the time left to her. Tunde thinks, but does not say, “let them be months rather than weeks.”

Death has drawn so near that Tunde begins to see the hazy outline of his own. He thinks, “We believe that there will be sufficient warning so that we can either save ourselves or at least minimize the shock. We want to think we can avoid suddenness, we want to think that we can prepare ourselves for suddenness. Then the ground opens up.” Then Tunde, trying to console himself, goes a step too far, thinking “If we were aware of the full extent of shipwrecks on the sea floor we would never set out in our boats.” This is logical, but it is not human. People risk their lives to visit shipwrecks; we say Babel fell, yet towers rise; no number of failed revolutions ever prevents the next. The odds are always stacked against us, but it has not mattered yet. “I will have to understand that my suffering has no greater meaning,” Tunde warns himself. Easier said than done. The shipwreck is an accomplished fact; it means as little as a grave. It is the storm, the iceberg, the rocky outcrop we are most likely to abstract into a metaphor, to make mean something, anything, other than a torrent dispassionately toying with our life. In one of Cole’s elegies he wrote, “Death’s only lesson: we lived,” and later, “Death’s only lesson: no one knows what death’s only lesson is.” Raw fact creeps in again, but still we look for some other answer.

Toward the end of the novel, Tremor returns to the love story. In a short paragraph, Tunde and Sadako’s hesitant reconciliation is described as succinctly as stage directions. “I walk up to her,” he tells us, “and bring my face close to hers. Our arms hang at our sides. Love is stunned into silence. She runs her hand along the scar on my forearm. I rest my right cheek on her right cheek.” Like this, a marriage is restored. Tunde, who begins the novel as a “he” and ends as an “I,” with Sadako’s wrist “resting on the flat inside of mine, as though each wrist were seeking the other’s pulse. I listen for the soft beat of blood through the skin.” Cole has a sensualist’s eye for the matter of proximity. Before, when they could not understand each other, both were made to do with “he” and “she.” Still, we are squarely with her as she eases into his new found willingness to listen and understand:

No there was no language yet for the little despairs nipping at her heels but now she knew he could receive that inarticulacy. His earnestness, his determination now to be better felt like warmth. In the weeks that followed, that warmth became a new intimacy. . . . It was there in sex but also in their moments of lying naked together. When you find your way back to each other you are mystified that the path was ever lost.

Intimacy holds out a promise of being near and private and indescribable, like one’s own death. There is, as Cole wrote in “Pictures in the Aftermath,” a “curious twinship of mourning and premonition.” Perhaps that is why this marriage story is so filled with the dead and the dying and the potentially so. Marriage projects a future, but nobody really wants clairvoyance. We already know what’s coming. Anyway, it is in the retelling that we make meaning. If Sadako and Tunde had never found their way back, they might have been mystified that a path was ever there to begin with. I think of my grandfather, married to my grandmother for decades, and whom I rarely saw in the same room as her, and whom I cannot recall seeing touch her, except once, as he braced himself against his cane and leaned down to kiss her lips before they closed the casket. Is this losing the path or holding fast to it? I would have needed Tremor’s access to their minds; I cannot slide so easily into another I, even as I watch a gesture so obvious, I must know what it means. In writing, if the need truly arose, I could grant myself the same “he” that Cole gives to Tunde, and so slip away from impossible imbrications of feeling and fact and fate, but in life we are stuck with the limits of our own first person.

On the other side of the automatic doors, I place Tremor on a cabinet. Yes, I say to the MRI technician, I have done this procedure before. He confirms my first and last name along with my date of birth. “OK. Small poke,” he says and inserts a needle into my arm. “Do you want any music? We have YouTube. You can listen to anything.” I mumble something about jazz. He puts on Blue Train. I know every note. It is all I have ever listened to in the darkroom. I have just read the section in Cole’s novel about Coltrane’s ancestors. Like many black American last names, Coltrane is a slaver’s name. Abner, the slaveowner, whipped a man named Alfred so mercilessly that he was charged for creating a public disturbance. Cole proposes that when Alfred returned home (insofar as a site of bondage can be that) the other Coltranes—made kin by common ordeal—may have tended to his wounds, and that among those tending may have been John’s great-grandparents. It is easy to imagine this care: rags, water sullied with blood, brow-borne flecks of sweat, and maybe, to pass the time, some low humming of a melody. I slide into the tube.

I think: about slaves in the Carolinas, about the saxophonist whose concert I have just purchased tickets to, about mercy, about cowardice, about the lives I have been exiled from and those I have exiled. Self-revelation often arrives at moments of failure, in the disjuncture between principles and actions, between desires and ability. But it can also arise when one senses the possibility of an ending, when it seems there is no longer time for change. We are never who we thought we were, but those are the fictions on which we survive. I make a list of who I am angry with, beginning with myself. I make a list of whose trespasses I would forgive, on which I am not included. Coltrane squeals. Somewhere in the machine, a prerecorded voice tells me to hold my breath. The music is drowned out by a mechanical thunk and an electric buzz. Something cold courses through my veins. I wonder what Emily was doing while Tunde waited.

The noise subsides. The blues are back. The machine says, “Please resume breathing.” He breathes; he trembles. In that trembling, clarity shakes loose. Though by now long gone, you are beside him. He should have tended you as Cole would have a Coltrane do. But stay, ghost. Your presence comforts him now. The dead do not haunt each other, only the living.

Blair McClendon is a writer and filmmaker living in New York.