Tremor: A Novel by Teju Cole

Random House

Review by Walter Cummins

I read Tremor as the story of all that is taking place in the activities and in the mind of Tunde, Teju Cole’s protagonist, even when the telling seems to be coming from another narrative source, as in the section of personal life statements from a diverse cross-section of Nigerians. Tunde couldn’t have had so much intimate information about apparent strangers, but his empathetic nature could have realized a creative connection with others he only saw on a street corner. He is able to imagine what their lives may have been like. 

Much of Tunde’s own biography mirrors what is publicly known about Teju Cole—their writing, their Nigerian origins, their knowledge of art, their photography, their teaching at Harvard, their travels. My assumption is that the people close to Tunde are versions of people in Cole’s life. And I also suspect the thoughts that obsess Tunde are also those that occupy Cole’s mind. Is Tremor a version of autofiction? It seems to be. But using the persona of Tunde gives Cole a certain distance from his character, with the freedom to shape and invent, to enhance what might have been real life to give more force to his fiction. 

Tunde’s thinking may mirror that of many people as they relate their individual emotions and circumstances to those of others and to the larger world around them, and to the historical events that created that world. A crucial difference from the average person is the strength of Tunde’s intelligence, the depth of his knowledge, his compassion, and his ability to understand relationships on both the subjective and cultural levels: “Everyone arrives at knowledge of the world from a personal point of view and is not the poorer for it. Each person understands life on the basis of small personal events. Firsthand experience is what matters. It is by being grounded in what we know and what we have experienced that we can move out into greater complexities.” 

These strengths do not assure happiness and satisfaction. In fact, much that Tunde knows is the source of distress. The novel opens with a rejection, Tunde ready to take a photograph of foliage as an unseen man chases him away, “You can’t do that here, the voice says, this is private property.” Is it because of Tunde’s color? Most likely. 

In the novel’s next scene he receives a message of death in a square black-trimmed envelope announcing that a faculty member he does not know had died. Tunde collects such cards, memento more. At least one colleague he cares for will die. The novel opens ominously: “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. It is a vast oblivion but also a relief that we are not inundated with the faces and presences of the innumerable dead.”  

That thought may be a central reason why the novel offers the section that allows “insignificant” men and women in Nigeria to present intimate details of their lives. Elsewhere in the novel, telling of an example of colonial abuse, he says, “Who shall we say these massacred people were? I think it is important to try to imagine them as real and individual people.” 

Tunde, a man of prestige and privilege, is also haunted by the fact that many of the historical killed were, like him, black in skin color. Another section of the novel is devoted to a transcript of Tunde’s lecture on J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On. Not only were those disposed people captured Africans, their sacrifice was done for economic purposes, insurance claims for property losses. They were legally regarded as objects in the “profit-driven mass murder of human beings.” 

Tunde also reflects on art museums like those at Harvard displaying the appropriation of creations from lands defeated and then powerless because of wars. As one example he cites the 1897 British army’s massacre of citizens of Benin and the looting of artworks that followed the killing. This event typifies the abuse of power that rules the world: 

How is one to live without owning others? Who is this world for? White people taught us that the world could be dominated by means of religion and warfare, collected for the sake of pleasure and scholarship, possessed through travel, and owned by anyone willing to claim and defend that ownership. How is one to live in a way that does not cannibalize the lives of others, that does not reduce them to mascots, objects of fascination, mere terms in the logic of a dominant culture? 

Tunde does not limit himself to the abuse of African people in his contemplations. Murder, theft, and destruction exist throughout the world—the results of greed, selfishness, and assumptions of the rights of superiority. For all that he has achieved in life, Tunde suffers a form of despair: 

The work I do takes me to places where I am received as a guest of honor, places where I try to think and speak and where I try to avoid speechifying. All of this is true but none of it is where reality is. There is another reality, the personal one. And then there’s the secret one that is as dark as the blood beating in my veins, a cold river flowing undetected far from view, a place of uncertainty and premonition. Something is moving there that does not need me for its movement and that is taking me where I cannot imagine. A darkness to which the eyes can never become adjusted. 

As if his eyes can no longer bear seeing literally and experiencing mentally, Tunde’s vision fails. A momentary blackout causes him to interrupt a lecture. But the novel culminates with a greater loss, as if all that he has witnessed directly and in his imagination can take no more. 

After a satisfying party as which he has gathered many of the people closest to him, he experiences his own tremor: “My head vibrates like a struck bell and I experience a surge of nausea,” as he suffers the vertigo of a moving room, his lover Sadako beside him, their wrists touching, “as though each wrist were seeking the other’s pulse.” Tunde asking himself when in his life he was happiest. “I listen for the soft beat of blood through the skin. I listen as best as I can in the dimming stillness. I slow my breathing and soon I hear nothing.” 

In a sense Tunde is obliterated after enjoying a moment of absolute closeness with another human being. Has this Tunde at his happiest enjoyed a redemptive moment? In this visual darkness has he escaped from the miseries of human existence?