Cover of Tremor


A Novel

Teju Cole

Book Info

Random House (2023), 257 pages
ISBN/EAN Product Code
Publisher Description

An “extraordinary, ambitious” (The Times UK) novel that masterfully explores what constitutes a meaningful life in a violent world—from the award-winning author of Open City New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice • “Cole’s mind is so agile that it’s easy to follow him anywhere.”—The New Yorker A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR Life is hopeless but it is not serious. We have to have danced while we could and, later, to have danced again in the telling. 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 speaks out from a pulsing metropolis. We’re invited to experience these events and others through the eyes and ears of Tunde, a West African man working 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. Tremor is a startling work of realism and invention that engages brilliantly with literature, music, race, and history as it examines the passage of time and how we mark it. It is a reckoning with human survival amidst “history’s own brutality, which refuses symmetries and seldom consoles,” but it is also a testament to the possibility of joy. As he did in his magnificent debut Open City, Teju Cole once again offers narration with all its senses alert, a surprising and deeply essential work from a beacon of contemporary literature. (Publisher's Description)

On this shelf:
Books Read in 2023

Thoughts on Tremor

I cannot believe it has been over a decade since I found my way to Teju Cole's Open City. I can't recall how I found it, only that it knocked my socks off and set me off annoying everybody to read it. "Guy walks around urban landscape and thinks about stuff" was, admittedly, in the wheelhouse of my wheelhouse, and Cole's cool, literate spin on that was catnip. As Ryu Speth puts it over at Vulture:

This sort of plotless, discursive writing, in which a swirl of associations and memories and ideas are held together by the centripetal force of an impeccably educated flaneur, is exceedingly difficult to pull off without sounding like a colossal bore — and Cole did pull it off, with great lyricism and sensitivity, his sentences strolling majestically through Julius’s neighborhood in Morningside Heights.

I just loved it.

And then I cold water was thrown on me when someone I respected (a writer of very, very good fiction of great intricacy and volume, published by a major publisher) chastised my friend and I for "falling for" Cole's schtick. I recall him dismissing it as pure self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation, and I think I felt stung because I could feel some truth in that.

Tremor, Cole's first novel since then, shows just how right we both were.

The protagonist of this multilayered novel is, like Cole, a Nigerian-born Harvard professor, photographer, and critic, but the strands of this novel incorporate different voices and perspectives to explore a wider world than the New York of Open City. There is a focus on the uses and abuses of art in our individual and collective cultural imagination, but the range of subject matter here is extraordinary: music, art, friendship, literature, geography, history, grief.

Yeah, the ghost of Sebald is here. SFJ says people compare Cole to W.G. Sebald "in the same way that any thrash band will be formally indebted to Slayer and Metallica." I think that understates the superficiality of the comparison. Sebald's plundering and erasure of his source material is exactly the sort of artistic appropriation he is shining a light on, even in himself.

Cole shows extraordinary attention to the world but can also keep the limits and qualities of his own attention within the frame without breaking the spell. And with discernment of a photographer accustomed to leaving nearly all the negatives unprinted, and almost all the prints out of the exhibition, he says just enough to hit his mark.