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Teju Cole’s ‘Tremor’ Records a Post-COVID Landscape of Art and Rage

If there is any consolation to be had in Teju Cole’s slippery and sinuous Tremor, it’s not found in art or literature but in the music that permeates its pages.

Teju Cole
Random House
October 2023

A few years ago, while Teju Cole was visiting the school where I teach, a student asked him the purpose of art. “Consolation,” he responded. I thought about that response throughout my reading of Cole’s latest novel, much of which is about how art leaves us inconsolable and disturbed, if not actively enraged. In other words, the world has changed since that visit, not so much in that there is more to be angry about, but that since 2017, art has been opened up to admit rage into its practices, its reception, and the discourses surrounding them.

Even when raging, mind you, Teju Cole is a brilliantly accomplished and controlled practitioner of photography, fiction, and personal essays; he is also a brilliantly accomplished and controlled art critic. In its form, Tremor seems consciously fractured. It reads at times like an extension of Cole’s nonfiction, at times like autofiction in the mode of his first two novels, 2007’s Every Day Is for the Thief and 2012’s Open City, as if he is striving for some new hybrid form better able to contain what he now needs to say. If there is any consolation to be had in this slippery and sinuous book, though, it is not to be found in art or literature but in the music that permeates its pages.

Music has always been integral to Teju Cole’s writerly world, but it permeates Tremor in a way I can’t recall it ever has before. A playlist I made to keep track while reading contains over 40 songs and artists from around the world in genres high and low, familiar and obscure. Moreover, the cultural elitism that often characterized the singular first-person narrators and hierarchically organized their broad palette of references in Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City has been replaced with something like equal respect for the full range of global cultural production. Similarly, rather than the dominant consciousness of a first-person narrator that reads a lot like but is not quite identical to Cole’s nonfiction voice, Tremor renders the protagonist Tunde’s consciousness in third-person indirect free style, and it shifts the perspective several times to Tunde’s longtime wife Sadako in their home near Harvard University.

More dizzyingly, narrative modes proliferate unpredictably. One chapter is rendered in the first-person voice of a lecture Tunde is giving at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; another collects some 20-plus first-person stories told to an unnamed interlocutor by a varied swathe of Lagosians, at least some of whom in one way or another relate to Tunde’s early life in Lagos, which is also where Teju Cole grew up after being born in the US in 1975. These vignettes may or may not correlate with the 22 photographs from a Lagos visit that Tunde sets aside “for further consideration”, where, for some reason, we hear his voice in the first person rather than his thoughts in the third. To compound the formal complexity of Tremor, the entire narration turns out to have been addressed to a recently deceased friend. The friendship, which had lasted two decades, began in a museum, revolved around art and music, and was primarily conducted through correspondence, of which it is implied that this fairly brief novel constitutes the final entry, never to be received by the friend, although perhaps it will be shared with his son Lucas.

Rather than the city portraits—New York and Lagos, respectively—the structure in Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City provide consistency to the narrator’s peregrinations and reflections. Tremor resembles more in its constellation of ideas and settings the paired text and photographs of the 2017 volume Blind Spot. The difference is that what binds Tremor’s episodes to one another is not only meditations on seeing, hearing, and understanding but also a reckoning with loss, mourning, and anger, simultaneously personal, social, cultural, and historical.

For the first time I can recall in Teju Cole’s writing, other characters vividly emerge as more than just sounding boards or subjects of analysis for the narrator. For example, in addition to (briefly) her own voice and her own family history, Sadako also gets her own playlist, soul, and R&B from the 1970s and ’80s, “old-fashioned tastes for which [her older, hip-hop-obsessed sister] still calls her ‘grandma.’” As opposed to Anner Bylsma’s recording of Bach’s Cello Suites, which Tunde’s friend had introduced him to and a rarefied love for which they shared, we never learn what he thinks of Sadako’s taste in music, except that he reports it neutrally, accepts it as hers, and that together they share a love for John Coltrane.

In this way, music becomes a means of accessing alternate subjectivities and experiences, especially in chapter seven’s Lagosian stories, which occupy nearly a quarter of Tremor‘s pages. These include a driver and his boss, one of whom excitedly recognizes an old Afrobeat classic in Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy” without listening to the cutting lyrics, while the other wants to tell him about the dangerous daily fight for water in Ifako Agege, the impoverished neighborhood where he lives and where conditions have only worsened since the heyday of Fela’s activist music.

Another story tells Tunde about the “long nights at Caban Bamboo, Stadium Hotel, Ambassador Hotel” with his father and their circle drinking and listening to juju music and highlife, a different “social scene” from Fela’s. In yet another story, an assistant organist and choir director provides Tunde (and the reader) a capsule history of Nigerian church music and the tendrils that link it to Beethoven and Brahms in one direction, to Coltrane in another and Yoruba folk song in yet another.

During a visit to Bamako for the photography Biennial, Tunde spends much less time describing or reflecting on the art than listening to the Mandinka repertoire, repeatedly visiting the Chameleon Club to listen and dance to “performances by Oumou Sangaré’s cousin, Toumani Diabaté’s brother, Kassé Mady Diabaté’s brother” and Bako Dagnon’s daughter. The driver he and his friend Naïny hire for the duration turns out to be the nephew of the “great guitarist” Djelimady Tounkara. The “cumulative effect” of this music, Tunde tells us, is “both uplifting and devastating”, and it leads him to the conclusion that “Other people’s lives. They are not subsidiaries, they are not symbols, they are not to be collected.”

Music, as Tunde experiences it and as the narrator describes it, is by no means untainted by exploitation, but its effect enables a direct negotiation of the costs of its production and surrounding culture in a way different than what we see of the fine arts or literature.

Teju Cole has never shied away from the ethical quandaries embedded in Western art, the global art market, or his own complicity in both; however, Tremor marks a new kind of questioning. “So great a counterreaction is a new, brutal tone in him,” we read as Tunde and Sadako drive home from the Republican-dominated State of Maine to the soundtrack of Deniece Williams’s smoky soul-jazz track “If You Don’t Believe” in the novel’s opening episode. The counterreaction is provoked by the vexed question of the authenticity of a Bambara ci wara headdress in an antique store paired with a note on a post in the store memorializing a fatal 1703 attack on the family homestead, “a fever dream of mindless Indian violence against people like ‘us.’”

Researching the attack by displaced Abenaki warriors motivated by a French bounty on English settler scalps that concludes with his discovery of a “negro man” bequeathed by the surviving family along with other “household stuff,” Tunde detects a “strange” transformation in himself: “this lack of sympathy for the Wells family.” Later, planning the lecture at the MFA that we will read in full as chapter five, “he feels he might push them at this talk … Behind this painting, after all, is real horror.” Although neither is mentioned anywhere in Tremor, we are resolutely in a post-COVID and a post-2020 protest world, a world saturated with death, guilt, and fury.

Whereas the mainly plotless narratives in Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City are punctuated punctured by a random act of violence perpetrated or threatened to be perpetrated against the narrator, in Tremor, violence, random and otherwise, is everywhere. It’s as much a part of everyday life as the music that seems to be the primary way in which we can access the “firsthand experience” allowing us to process that violence. “It is by being grounded in what we know and what we have experienced that we can move out into greater complexities.”

Indeed, recorded music is everywhere in Tremor, but most frequently as experienced or purchased with others. The transcendent moments, those that “fortified the web of human relationships, strengthening the connections between a human community and the universe in which that community found itself”, arrive in the unforgettable but unreproducible moment of performance: the “third thing” created by Madou’s rhumba and highlife in tandem with the flamenco “inflections” of Luis’ guitar (Cole drops characters by name into the flow of the narrative often without letting us know anything else about them); “the collective experience” of “hundreds of strangers” at a late stop in Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré’s farewell tour in New York City; and “the exquisite embodiment at the heart of” the “music for dancing” on Tunde’s third consecutive night at the Chameleon Club in Bamako.

In a world this far out of balance, a life defined to such a degree by loss, a cultural moment in which Tunde can no longer process the ethical equation between a prison recording of the “loving” narratives of the most prolific serial killer in history, a mild-mannered, intelligent-seeming black man and “a country built on genocide”, art, Cole argues, no longer offers a flawed moral compass. The catharsis of fear and pity Aristotle held tragedy to provoke no longer obtains. Only music, Tunde finds, can “still the violence beating in his heart.” Still, as much as music consoles and as much “pleasure” as there is in “a house full of people,” that moment ends, and the pleasure “is exceeded perhaps only by the pleasure of seeing the last few leave.”

Teju Cole frames Tremor not in song or learned allusions to music traditions but in two attempts by Tunde to take a photograph in a house near his own in Cambridge—to make art. The first time, a threatening voice chases him away; the second time, he returns to take the photo, realizing that “the memory of that threat, is part of the desired image.” Also now part of that desired image is the enslaved Mark, condemned to death for poisoning his sadistic owner John Codman, hanged on Gallows Hill, later renamed Avon Hill and the site of Tunde’s Cambridge studio. Mark’s body would be displayed “in the open in Charlestown” for 20 years, still part of the sky Tunde sees himself capturing in the photograph.

Along with the act of photography, two literary texts similarly frame Tremor: explicitly Italo Calvino’s lapidary collection of narrated imagined metropolises, Invisible Cities (1972), and implicitly Virginia Woolf’s novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Invisible Cities, we are told, sits on Tunde’s desk. It’s also the subject of one of the few art pieces Tunde describes in Tremor but does not argue with is a 1996 Harvard installation by David Ward called Canopy, “supplemented with additional stories about place, stories meaningful and personal to the various readers”.

To the Lighthouse is there in the framing photo’s echo of the painting that takes Lily Briscoe the duration of the novel and ten years to complete. And Mrs. Dalloway, down to the originally conceived ending of Clarissa’s suicide, is there in the party that concludes Tremor as it does Woolf’s novel: “I’ll buy the flowers myself,” thinks Sadako in a brief return to her perspective, “He has many other things to do at home.” The friend dying of cancer survives her second round of chemo and miraculously goes into remission. Sadako listens to their friend Rae playing on a recorder, notes she cannot place in space or time until they finally resolve into the love she shares with Tunde, John Coltrane’s “Naima”, named in 1959 for his then-wife.

Even less than the offstage war in Woolf’s novels, the tremor of Cole’s title is never mentioned directly in the text. What is there is the oblique experience of three catastrophic earthquakes, one—in Port-au-Prince, Haiti—from which Lucas escapes, another in Kobe, Japan, which Sadako felt in Osaka, and a third in Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994) that remains in the “background” of the “minor comedy” that is the film’s plot. “We see people who have come through the impossible and have resigned themselves to the necessity of being practical,” Tunde concludes. “In the film the landscape is what carries most of that grief across to us.”

So, yes, the aftershocks of COVID and the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement hover unmistakably in the background of Tremor. But Teju Cole would never permit himself so simple a moral as that. The temporal setting of the novel is vague at best, with one exception. Chapter three finds Tunde teaching a graduate seminar with one rule: no talk of Brexit. His students tell him of other current interests (James Gray’s 2019 film Ad Astra, Lana Del Rey, a newly discovered serial killer), all of which date the seminar to Fall 2019, well before COVID. The events of 2020 may have given new space for rage and violence to manifest in Cole’s fiction, but the fault lines have always been there, however much the momentary consolations of Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise”, Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt’s “Isa Lei”, or Bach’s Cello Suites may have briefly stilled the violence beating at its heart.

Indeed, there’s a third text seamed through Tremor, sharing desk space with Calvino: a translation of two versions of the 13th-century Manding Epic of Sundiata. Unlike the modern Western texts, the Epic of Sundiata exists only in the moment of performance by the griots whose descendants, like Salif Keita, populate the ranks of Mandinka music. “The music shields him,” we’re told of Tunde, “because there is another life into which his roots are sunk, a life to which he has access through language, through dance, through music.” It’s something he wishes to translate but also longs to preserve “untranslatable”. Tremor dwells on that double desire; it’s the source of its strength, its beauty, and its consolations, and also, intentionally, of its failure to communicate what it needs most to communicate.

RATING 8 / 10