“Thinking Through Tremor

Morality as an uncanny city in Teju Cole’s second novel: “And if we are to think of music as a sort of shield for him, then we are invited to think of his dead friend as having once played that same role in his life.”

When we first meet Tunde, the main character in Teju Cole’s second novel Tremor, he is attempting to take a photograph in what seems to be a residential area. The parametres of his vicinity aren’t filled in for us. “You can’t do that here,” an aggressive, condescending homeowner tells him.  “This is private property.”

It is our first introduction to Tunde as intruder, and his artistic medium, photography, as a tool of intrusion. It is a motif in the book. Once, he takes a photograph of who might be an undocumented African immigrant in Paris, illegally selling souvenirs outside the Louvre. The man is distraught at having his photo taken without his permission, and tries to get Tunde to delete it. But Tunde, this time, holds his ground. He is distressed afterwards, especially after flying to Mali, the country he assumes the man is from, and wonders if his photograph is exploitative, ashamed that he had been so crass.

He, after all, is as learned as can be. He lectures in the Humanities at Harvard, owns volumes such as Calvino’s Invisible Cities and two versions of Epic of Sundiata, the Bamba Suso and the Banna Kanute, hunts the tundra of New England for antiques, and enjoys African and European classical music. In every way he is a cliché of the cultured black man, one who has escaped the bounds of race.

Except for the tiny but tremulous fact that he is plagued by nerves. He is nervous in his relationship with his wife, Sadako. Nervous in his bisexuality. Nervous in his intellect. Nervous in his social standing as a black man in the predominantly white culture of America. Nervous in occupying a position of  privilege: an academic at Harvard.

One could say that his nerves are synonymous with the times. We meet him in what seems to be the Trump era, although the narration takes pains to limit all references to the former American president. But, of course, the unending anxiety of the black mind in society predates the Trump era.

Teju Cole - Tremor

With a book like Tremor, form is as important as content, not only because it shows how to access the ideas of the narrative, but because it deepens the understanding of those ideas.

The first of its three sections, told in close third-person by an unknown narrator, grapples with the ethics of the visual. In a workshop Tunde teaches, a student of his, Amina, presents a video interview of a serial killer confessing to his crimes. The man, Samuel Little, is compelling as a visual specimen:

When it begins to play he is surprised to see that Little is black and elderly and has a sweet manner. The most prolific American serial killer is black? The man is not wild eyed like Charles Manson. And though he is evidently intelligent he does not seem to have the hostile insinuating charm of a Ted Bundy or Hannibal Lecter.

The man’s chronicles of his crimes are titillating, and, at some point, Tunde is forced to observe the emotional distance afforded him as an uninvolved onlooker, which isn’t an option for the families of the victims. The camera lens distances, and in that distance lies voyeurism. Tunde watching the clip is a voyeur in the same way Western audiences who glut on images of impoverished Africans and violated black people all over the world are voyeurs. What, then, to make of black people who play a hand in this violation?

To Tunde, a photograph cannot be separate from the intentions of the person behind the camera, so he draws a moral distinction between “making” and “taking” them. Most photographs are “taken” as the photographer aims to extract something from the image for their own selfish gain. A photograph or film can only be “made” if the person behind the camera aims to depict the image or images for their own sake, their own contained beauty. (Tunde is twice stricken with blindness, similar to what afflicted Cole in real life, and one must wonder if this is the price.)

The stakes of Tremor are spelled out in these scenes. Its higher question: morality. A book that nudges the reader towards defining themselves around morality, towards taking sides. An artist, David Ward, installs a new artwork at Harvard, and then, during its unveiling, talks about not positioning himself, either in celebration or critique of the institution. Tunde is having none of it and insists that Ward is already positioned by giving the art installation to the institution, a tacit celebration of it and its values. “There is no view from nowhere,” he concludes. What side then is Tunde on?

Early in the novel, in the pastoral idyll of him driving through the New England countryside searching for antiques, he arrives in a shop in southern Maine where he has two encounters. The first with a traditional Malian headgear, the ci wara, which makes him ponder its journey, and how something of significant meaning to an African people could end up as no more than decoration in a Western space. The second encounter is with a photocopied note, a summary of the life of an average yet locally renowned New Englander, a Thomas Wells, whose wife and children were massacred during an Indian raid while he was away. After the tragedy, Thomas Wells left for Massachusetts, stayed for fifteen years, before returning to what is present-day Maine with a new wife and children to resettle the homestead.

Tunde makes it clear that he has very little sympathy for the tragedy of Thomas Wells. He does feel badly for Wells’ wife and children, who paid for the sins of the husband and father, but as concerns Wells himself, he is more interested in investigating the history of the Wells’ homestead, the violent displacement of the Indians who lived there, and the enslavement of black people to toil the land, all to feed the largesse of a white man and all his descendants.  A result is that the abductions of Native Americans by American settlers “were later pressed into the service of a national myth.” A byproduct is that “the ideal of heroic rescue” became faux glory in films like The Searchers, a 1956 flick starring John Wayne.

How can Tunde not be on the side of the oppressed minorities of America, when American history is one of violence, and the American creation myth is based around the valorization of aggression? 

Before Tremor splinters — into three further sub-sections, in which our ostensible protagonist is missing, even as his presence hovers over events — Tunde lets us into another one of his many anxieties, the one of cultural assimilation. As a child, he hated using native bathing soap, preferring the foreign equivalent. As an adult, he is able to speak with great insight about European art and Bach’s Cello Suites. But he is so fearful about losing himself to Western culture that he turns to Malian music for protection, like “an acoustic amulet averting evil from him.”

Of note is that one mutual area of interest he shared with his dead friend was music: Malian music. And if we are to think of music as a sort of shield for him, then we are invited to think of his dead friend as having once played that same role in his life. The loss of the friend can then be read as a loss of protection, hence we are unsurprised when he embarks on a sort of pilgrimage to Mali, the birthplace of the music that has given him succor. There, he surmises that the traditional, organic delivery of the tunes and vocals is an experience that cannot be replicated by more technologically advanced, but ultimately artificial, means of epiphanic simulation.

It calls to mind an earlier discovery. During a conversation with an American friend about space travel, he recalls having the same conversation as a child with a family employee back in Nigeria. To the Nigerian psyche at the time (we aren’t told Tunde’s present age, but we can guess from his pop cultural references that he is in his fourth decade, which would place his childhood somewhere around the late 1970s and the early ’80s), space travel was still a magical concept, but to the American imagination it had already been stripped of all properties of awe and wonder. Scientific and technological progress has made the American world a less colourful place.

Later on, while participating in a public event, he is asked by a member of the audience to state who he admires most in the world. His response is Pius Mau Piailug, one of the last people on earth to navigate the oceans without using modern instruments. His reverence of this man invokes a reverence for a natural and traditional way of being. Progress for its own sake, progress that doesn’t include a rebalancing of the world along moral lines, is of no interest to him.

And so Tremor splinters and, in the ensuing three sub-sections, an active Tunde is suspended from the text, but his concerns and preoccupations remain, and are made manifest to the reader, first as a lecture delivered by an unnamed speaker at a museum.

This lecture is about two paintings. One, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) by J. M. W. Turner, raises the disturbing immorality of dehumanizing Africans in the name of art. The other, Herri met de Bles’ Landscape with Burning City, forces some thinking about ownership. The unnamed speaker traces the path that that piece of art followed in order to arrive at the museum. He notes that at some point it was owned by the Nazi commander Hermann Goring, and the reader is left to wonder if the work is somehow tainted by an ethics of ownership and transport. It is no great leap then to arrive at the Benin Bronzes, currently on display in English museums. The speaker is earnest in informing the reader that these sculptures were looted from the Benin people of what is today Nigeria, by the British, after conquest and massacre.

In response to whether artworks looted from conquered people are not better taken care off in the home countries of the conquerors, the speaker points out that, if said artworks and other Western artworks as well had been located on continents like Africa and South America during the Second World War, maybe they would have been spared mutilation and destruction by both Allied and Axis military campaigns. Which is to say, these artworks aren’t safer in their illegal homes than they would have been where they belong. Afterwards, the speaker thinks to themselves that perhaps they had been too smart for their own good, that perhaps a better response would have been a more earnest one, straight from the heart.  What might such a response, from a thinker already seeking earnestness, have been?

The second section is an assortment of first-person voices in Lagos, Nigeria. The book provides no context for this development, but plunges into a hyper-real, slightly off-kilter reproduction of a world and a people. Off-kilter in the sense that there are certain pronouncements by the voices that do not hold much authenticity with the actual lived experiences of the people it imitates. An example is when one of the voices talks about buying two jerrycans of water for N500. This is an exorbitant amount of money to pay for two containers of water that can barely see one through an entire day, and which, if accurate, would render most denizens of Lagos unable to purchase what is the most accessible commodity in the city and state. There is another passage where an even more inaccurate sentiment is expressed. Tunde has a conversation with a taxi driver about an epidemic of dog-eating in the city and the country at large. In the world of the novel, people apparently abduct pets, foreign dog breeds, for their gustatory delight. Any gastronome of dog meat, a common delicacy in most cultures derided and historical oppressed by the West, would tell you that the only breed suitable for consumption is the basenji, as all others, particularly the Alsatian breed mentioned by the taxi driver in the book, are too fatty and resistant to seasoning to provide any real pleasure for the diner.

In the final subsection of this middle part of the book, Calvino’s Invisible Cities makes a return. Not in actual fact but in impression, like Tunde himself. The portrait of an unnamed city is fleshed out, just as in the Calvino book, beginning straight forwardly enough but becoming more and more uncanny. The streets, byways, and neighborhoods of the city feel less and less like physical spaces and more like the furrows and angles of a consciousness. The reader is being guided through the circuit of a mind. The self or a series of selves is what is being investigated here. The convolution of human interaction (there has been a violent disturbance in the city’s near past; there is civil unrest in its present), the attempt towards moral balance:

The dream-citizens meet nightly and rebuild the razed city with elegant parks, sustainable infrastructure, humane architecture, and inclusive principles.

But despite their best efforts, the self is untamable. Human nature remains what it is, and so the self is fractured, wrenched in two to create a shadowy self, similar in almost every way to the original, but terrifying in its unpermitted appearance.

The narrative has taken a break in order to dive into a place within Tunde, within the book itself, that the prior structure could not reach. Tunde has been fully exposed. And so he is ready to re-enter stage, naked, in his own voice.

Tunde is a man capable of stringent repression, but Tremor also makes his narrative a personal one, bringing in his romantic relationships and close friendships. We learn about his wife Sadako, and the periodic bad spells in their marriage. They undergo one such bad spell in the first section of the novel, brought on by Tunde’s inability to see Sadako with the same vigor he uses in scrutinizing media. We learn, too, that this limitation of Tunde’s predates his marriage, back to when he dated a man called Sandro.

For the longest time during that relationship, Tunde worries that he is unable to show Sandro how much he loves him, and yet he is still blindsided when, during a vacation, Sandro tells him about wanting to end things. Eventually they find a path forward.

Later, when Sandro breaks up with him, he receives it as a deep hit:

Tunde switched on a light in the living room and was suddenly thrown by a powerful electric shock. He collapsed to the tiled floor. Sandro rushed over to him frightened and Tunde pushed him away, barely able to do so, trembling and weeping like a broken child. A short while later he took a shower, still weeping. He had felt death brush its fingers lightly across his face in this place far from anywhere he had ever called home.

The portraits we get of Tunde are unsatisfying. We know he is capable of great tenderness with Sadako, yet he is unable to show us that he truly means his words to her. He misses a friend yet is unwilling to mourn him in front of us. (Cole also never properly explores what bisexuality, any contrasts in his affections for Sadako and Sandro, might mean for him.)

Tunde is dealing with trauma, physical and mental. But it is only in one instance, recalling being attacked by a dog as a child, that he shows how he has worked through it; in that case, to not develop an unnecessary aversion to canines.

With his close friendships, things are less complicated, even if still dire. There are three of note: Emily, a colleague at Harvard; Yusuf, who lives in California and appears in the book only once; and Laurie, with whom he takes the trip to Mali. But there is another.

An absence hangs over the opening pages until we learn that he suffered the loss of a great friendship, the character referred to by the unnamed narrator as “You.” We do not see him mourn this death, though, which is strange as he does have a deep sense of, and reverence for, death. He agrees to meet with the son of his dead friend, and, over the course of three encounters, the nature of that now terminated friendship is revealed.

Eventually, the mourning denied the reader by Tunde’s repression comes to bear when Emily is diagnosed with cancer. He shivers and quakes in fright. Cole uses the opportunity to show the potency of the love between Tunde and Sadako. She supports him through this trying time, and some of the scenes between them are as tender as they are affecting.

You keep me from losing my head, Sadako texts him at one point. 

Without you, I would lose my footing, he texts back.

But Sadako is a person herself, and, in a shift in narration working towards a similar effect as that in Cole’s first novel Open City, Tremor makes this point by switching to her point of view right at the end. The present of their marriage is related through her eyes. Tunde gives her companionship, also a sounding board for all the neuroses visited on a contemporary consciousness, also partnership, like during a dinner party, where they split hosting duties with a suaveness only available to a veteran couple.  

It is after that party that Tunde returns to the scene of the attempted photograph that opens the novel. This time, there is no pompous homeowner to stop him. The photograph is of a house where enslaved black people overthrew their overlords. The reprisal was swift. Some of the uprisers were resold into harsher slave conditions, some were executed, and the leader of the revolt, Mark, was not only executed but his body was gibbeted and displayed for years until his bones whitened in the sun.

Atrocities cannot be forgotten. No matter how much time passes. Not even when confronting them creates a quake in the soul that surfaces with symptoms of vertigo, like the one Tunde experiences after taking the photo.

He returns home to Sadako and she puts him to bed, just as he is about to “loose his footing.” Just as he shuts his eyes, not in death, like all the millions of black people in the past after their worlds had been shaken and upended by external forces of violence, but in sleep, suggesting perhaps that this time around, history might be kinder to the black body and mind. ♦

Edited by Otosirieze.

Tremor by Teju Cole is published by Random House.

More Essays & Fiction from Open Country Mag

— “Our Literature Has Died Again”: Nigerian Writing in the Era of the Nomadists

— River Spirit by Leila Aboulela

— “The Nigerian Oppression, as Chinua Achebe Would See It”: Emmanuel Esomnofu

— The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

— Between Starshine and Clay by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

— “Revel, Again, in the Beautiful Absurd”: Ernest Ogunyemi

— Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga

— Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

— We Once Belonged to the Sea by Diriye Osman

— “Creating a New Tradition in African Poetry”: 20.35 Africa VI: Introduction

— Biracial Britain: A Different Way of Looking at Race by Remi Adekoya

— The Fugitives by Jamal Mahjoub


The stakes of Tremor are spelled out. Its higher question: morality. A book that nudges the reader towards defining themselves around morality, towards taking sides.


How can Tunde not be on the side of the oppressed minorities of America, when American history is one of violence, and the American creation myth is based around the valorization of aggression? 


The second section is an assortment of first-person voices in Lagos, Nigeria. The book provides no context for this development, but plunges into a hyper-real, slightly off-kilter reproduction of a world and a people. 


Tunde is a man capable of stringent repression, but Tremor also makes his narrative a personal one, bringing in his romantic relationships and close friendships. 


The portraits we get of Tunde are unsatisfying. We know he is capable of great tenderness with Sadako, yet he is unable to show us that he truly means his words to her. 

Reyumeh Ejue for Open Country Mag

4 Responses

  1. Reyumeh’s insightful critique provides a crystal understanding of Tunde’s Tremor in terms of the story behind the story. Open Country Mag is a welcome development with intellectual effervescence.

  2. Amazing review, it has left me craving a copy of “Tremor” immediately. Tunde is a complex character, just like the complexity of the writing itself; having sections with alternate point of views, I’d personally like to see how this all works within the story.

  3. This is a beautiful and succinct way to write about a book that borders on the density of human experience. Teju Cole is a man of many ways and his writings are often a voyage into the transcendental landscape of a character’s mind. A very beautiful review and I look forward to reading the book.

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As conversations sethe about the “death” of Nigerian literature and the loss of authenticity in its poetry, a writer counters for the growing japa-MFA subculture: “I call them the Nomadic Generation because of their complication of nationalism.”
On the eight anniversary of his burial, we look at the great writer’s continued relevance. By engaging his work more as a chronicle of oppression, one sees him as a modern voice who still has so much to say.

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