A weekend spent antiquing is shadowed by the colonial atrocities that occurred on that land. A walk at dusk is interrupted by casual racism. A loving marriage is riven by mysterious tensions. And a remarkable cascade of voices speak out from a pulsing metropolis. Tunde, the man at the center of this novel, reflects on the places and times of his life, from his West African upbringing to his current work as a teacher of photography on a renowned New England campus. He is a reader, a listener, a traveler, drawn to many different kinds of stories: stories from history and epic; stories of friends, family, and strangers; stories found in books and films. Together these stories make up his days. In aggregate these days comprise a life.
An elegant and unsettling prose still-life, which reflects on art’s relationship to theft and violence, to privacy and togetherness, and to the way we mark time ... At least half of the novel, which hews rather closely to its protagonist’s consciousness, consists of ideas about how to live, listen, think, and see well ... A work of autofiction with the ambition of a systems novel, aspiring to illustrate the world’s interconnectedness without recourse to the fictional conventions of plot and psychological portraiture. Instead, it moves like an essay, interweaving slices of life with musings on Malian guitar virtuosos, astronomical phenomena, films by Ingmar Bergman and Abbas Kiarostami. Cole’s mind is so agile that it’s easy to follow him anywhere ... There is a method to the meandering. Cole uses the resonance between fragments to imply a dimly apprehended totality, like a seismologist integrating measurements from different sites to map an earthquake.
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 ... t 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 ... Has little traditional plot but never lacks for interest or incident ... To read some of these chapters is to see the essay form in its most elegiac, elastic and epiphanic mode.
What is Cole trying to tell us? At first, it’s hard to say. One possible response is that this novel is simply a catalog of Tunde’s, which is to say Cole’s, obsessions ... Another theme emerges: the joys and challenges of forming a partnership with someone else ... Even as Tunde recognizes the need for narratives—especially in the face of mortality—Cole continually resists them. Tunde might desire a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but Cole is far more interested in constructing a novel that rejects such structures. Just when a story in Tremor seems to be picking up steam, Cole diverts our attention elsewhere ... This is an alluring novel, almost hypnotic in its unstable relationship to narrative.