The book of the unnamed dead: Teju Cole’s new novel gives presence to those wronged and forgotten by the brutalities of history.
Tremor, by Teju Cole, Random House, 239 pages, $28
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If Tunde—the protagonist of Teju Cole’s new novel, Tremor—were describing the world as it is on October 16, 2023, he might walk us through the curved alleys of Lower Manhattan and speak of the Lenape people who lived on this land for generations before they were violently dispossessed, and he might describe the feel of the scarf around his neck and tell us where he bought it and then quote a writer who felt important to him in that moment, maybe Etel Adnan, who set down these lines, from Arab Apocalypse, in 1989: “Palestine with no Palestine / a blue acetylene sun died of frost / in the presence of a palm tree / in death one plus one makes three.” Tunde would slow down the pace of his wandering, let us decelerate our own thoughts and allow a collection of dissimilar truths to sink in, so that some of the peace the reader assumes as their right might be unseated. He would walk with us through a city in silence so that we might know the price of that quiet.
It is no insult to say that Tremor is not a novel in the way you expect a novel to behave; there is no plot to speak of and little narrative tension of the traditional kind. Tremor is narrated in a third-person voice that follows Tunde but also addresses a “you” who is never identified. Information about Tunde and his partner, Sadako, is introduced indirectly, over time, all in Cole’s patient, striated waltz, which refuses to gallop no matter how much blood is in the words. The quality of the author’s prose is itself central to his project, which is to peacefully voice many unpeaceful truths within a single space. Cole’s mode here is similar to that of his past novels—Every Day Is for the Thief, Open City—his book of essays, Known and Strange Things, and his three photo books, Black Paper, Blind Spot, and Golden Apple of the Sun, as well as his ongoing writing for the New York Times about art and photography. Throughout, every “beautiful” image of sunlight and shadow conceals another, undeveloped image of violence and dishonesty.
Tremor begins with Tunde and Sadako shopping for antiques in Maine. At this point, we barely know anything about either, except that Tunde is, like Cole, a photographer and professor somewhere—not that he teaches in Cambridge (lol) or is from Nigeria. Tunde sees a Bambara headdress, a ci wara, on the wall of the shops, and remembers that he saw a comparable headdress sell at auction for $400,000. Cole writes, “Those zeros, he knows, have everything to do with the trail of magic words that the auction house brushed over the object: ‘collected in situ,’ ‘acquired,’ ‘exhibited.’ ” Tunde and Sadako buy it, and a maple desk, but the image that captures Tunde’s eye, and the narrative, is a note behind the cashier, near a card signed by Laura Bush. Apparently they are in the Wells homestead, settled in 1657 by Dr. Thomas Wells. The note tells us, “in all-caps, worn by time and undated,” that “WHILE HE WAS AWAY THE TOWN OF WELLS WAS ATTACKED BY INDIANS. THEY STRUCK AT THIS FARM FIRST. AXING THEIR WAY INTO THE HOUSE, THEY MASSACRED MRS. WELLS, HER INFANT, 4 YEAR OLD SARAH AND 2 YEAR OLD JOSHUA. THEN THEY BURNED THE HOUSE DOWN.” After this “TERRIBLE TRAGEDY,” Mr. Wells returns to “RECLAIM THE HOMESTEAD.”
This is what Tunde’s thoughts return to, as they drive along I-95, listening to Deniece Williams:
Thinking about Wells, he can feel something unknotting in his brain. After nearly three decades in the US his sympathies have been tutored in certain directions. 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. But what is happening to him now is stranger: this lack of sympathy for the Wells family, the way he struggles even to imagine them. So great a counterreaction is a new, brutal tone in him. Is it brutal? All he can think about is that in the period of the so-called Third Indian War, Abenaki people were dispersed by the colonial settlers, dispersed by those who took it as their God-given right to seize their lands, who took it as their right to kill them if they resisted.
Cole goes on to observe that the “Indians were without names,” but this did not stop the note in the antiques store from expressing “a fever dream of mindless Indian violence against people like ‘us.’ ” This is the introduction to one of the book’s many themes, perhaps its most tensile—here is the tension, rather than in plot—that of the unnamed dead. Tunde mentions a Wikipedia page of “unidentified murder victims” and, later, “anti-jihadist” forces in Mali who drop bombs on “people for whom no obituaries will be written.” When Tunde gives a lecture at a museum in Paris, a twenty-two-page standalone chapter, he mentions Landscape with Burning City, a Flemish painting from the 1500s attributed to de Bles, and then talks about British troops who, in 1897, “descended on Benin like hellfire and began killing right away.” Tunde asks his audience, “Who shall we say these massacred people were? I think it is important to try to imagine them as real and individual people.”
The book moves back and forth from the people Cole would like to see named and those he has. Tunde and Sadako work through a “ripple” in their relationship; Tunde travels to Mali for a photography biennial; there are recollections of a male lover; there are dinners, dancing, and a long, sublime gloss on the nature of listening to music: “When possible he wants to listen and receive the music in his body before he gives it a name.”
The space Cole creates for his characters is described (indirectly) in Tremor by a radio DJ in Lagos, one of the twenty-four people who provide monologues for the lengthy sixth chapter of the book. None of these people are previously known to the reader, and, in keeping with Cole’s habit here of not overexplaining things, it takes a few pages to realize you are taking a kaleidoscopic tour of Lagos. The DJ says that her radio show is “a space for softness in a city that doesn’t have too much of it,” and tells us how citizens of Lagos call in to unload their stories: “People want to tell you about being stuck in traffic, they want to tell you about the time they got swindled, they want to vent about how bad the service is in restaurants, and they certainly want to tell you about matters of the heart.” If Cole provides a softness for his characters, but does not baby the readers, it is possibly because their stories are not soft and ours most likely are.
Much is made of his debt to Sebald, which is fair. Almost anyone who walks around and muses and includes photos in a book will seem Sebaldian, in the same way that any thrash band will be formally indebted to Slayer and Metallica. What Cole muses about, though, is entirely his own vivid crush of cruelty, mundanity, dirt, and sheen. His work is much more like a Delacroix, ultimately, than a Sebald. The luscious calm of Cole’s prose echoes the creamy vortices of Delacroix, both of which arrest the brutality of history long enough for us to see that the nameless dead did indeed live.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was just published by Semiotext(e).