Death by Twitter

On Teju Cole’s small fates

Gary Robinson once tried to cut seven people in line at a Church’s Chicken in Miami. It was near closing time. He wanted a small box of fried chicken, which in those days — 1985 — sold for $2.19. He was rude, but he listened when the young woman at the register told him to go wait in line like everybody else. When his turn came, the Church’s ran out of chicken. So he punched the girl at the counter in the face, hard. Then a security guard shot him three times.

Gary Robinson was not an important man. He was an ex-con and a drunk. But veteran Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan started her story about his demise with four words that would eventually become four of the most famous words ever written about anybody in any American newspaper: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

And that’s how a nobody died famous.

Most of us are nobodies, and we have a few writers who make nobodies famous. We keep most of them in newsrooms. So it’s not that what Teju Cole is doing — making Lagos’ nobodies famous — is, technically speaking, all that unique. What’s new is that he’s doing it on Twitter.

@tejucole, Aug. 29: Scoop, scoop, scoop, spark. Four of those who were collecting petrol from a damaged tanker in Benue died right there.

@tejucole, Aug. 25: Children are a gift from God. In the returns department: a baby girl, left by the side of Effiom Ekpo Street in Calabar.

@tejucole, Aug. 23: O believers! Know that during the Hajj, a Jeddah hotel housing 34 Nigerian pilgrims went up in flames, and none were harmed.

@tejucole, Aug. 22: Even if one does not believe in ghosts, 2,700 of them continue to draw salaries from the Imo State payroll.

@tejucole, Aug. 19: The Nigerian police motto is “the police is your friend,” but Taiwo, 25, beaten in Alapere for not paying a bribe, has his doubts.

@tejucole, Aug. 14: An Air Force officer in Bayelsa who mistook himself for a cop mistook the baker Paul Wisdom for a thief and shot him in the head.

Cole, a novelist and sometime journalist, lives in Brooklyn but grew up in Lagos, the burgeoning Nigerian metropolis that will soon overtake New York City and Los Angeles in population if it hasn’t already. (Cole’s first novel, the recently published Open City, won love from New Yorker curmudgeon James Wood — no small feat.) While working on a book about Lagos, Cole discovered the oft-bizarre tragedies sketched out daily in its newspapers and set about refining them into a purer concentration of fate’s ironies. As he wrote in Berfrois:

That outlet turned out to be a form of writing for which there is no exact English term: fait divers. This is a French expression, in common use for centuries, for a certain kind of newspaper piece: a compressed report of an unusual happening. What fait divers means literally is “incidents,” or “various things.” The nearest English equivalent is “news briefs” or, more recently, “news of the weird.” The fait divers has a long and important history in French literature. Sensationalistic though it is, it has influenced the writing of Flaubert, Gide, Camus, Le Clézio and Barthes. In Francophone literature, it crossed the line from low to high culture. But though a version of it was present in American newspapers, it never quite caught on in the English language as a literary form.

He cites briefs from 1906 by journalist Félix Fénéon, who wrote for the French daily Le Matin: “Raoul G., of Ivry, an untactful husband, came home unexpectedly and stuck his blade in his wife, who was frolicking in the arms of a friend.”

The form adapts perfectly to Twitter, to which Cole has taken to promoting Lagos’ ephemera:

“Nobody shot anybody,” the Abuja police spokesman confirmed, after the driver Stephen, 35, shot by Abuja police, almost died.

Knowledge is power. He graduated in business administration in Calabar, and Charles Okon has since administered sixteen armed robberies.

Cole brings a literary horsepower to his tweets that’s a little hard to tease apart with conventional critical methods. For one, his fait divers — which he also calls “small fates” — often deploy an elusive irony or the logic-dazing bluntness of a Zen koan, which are tough modes to penetrate in any format. That’s compounded by the 21st-century issue, which is that we critics don’t really have a familiar rubric for analyzing Twitter yet. We can compare books to books and movies to movies, but my comparisons for Cole still leave me reaching for poetry and newspapers. Cole’s small fates lack the gallopy brevity of many tweets by journalists, who tend to doff definite articles and punctuation like blazers at a jackets-optional restaurant. Nor do the small fates have a prolonged alternate-reality narrative a la the now-defunct Rahm Emanuel imposter @mayoremanuel, or the ostentatious sprezzatura of @georgelazenby, who resides somewhere on the spectrum between symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and standup comedian/ walking erection Rob Delaney. Analyzing each of these feeds are theses by themselves, a whole undiscovered country growing larger by the day, and so it’s hard to know where to fix them among the constellation of peers that now includes @tejucole. Despite having tens of millions of active users, Twitter remains, critically, a dark matter.

But we can size Cole’s tweets up enough to paint a few basic points: His fait divers, like most crime briefs, are factual enough to technically be called news, but they’re so evanescent, so insubstantial, and ultimately and so without real utility that they can’t escape any casual comparison with divertissement. Yet even this point is compromised, as you could lob that criticism at most serious writing currently percolating on Twitter. When I asked Cole why he decided to take to Twitter, he acknowledged that it wasn’t really viewed as a serious medium with serious contributors. “There are some exceptions — a handful of good poets, as well as some very gifted comics,” he told me. “But they are the exceptions. But most see it as a sort of ephemeral and unworthy venue. My view is: that’s where the people are, so bring the literature to them right where they are.”

However, there is a bonus ethical question here that remains unique to Cole’s tweets: Should we feel bad about enjoying his work, which so often springs from real sadness? I couldn’t say, because I personally flirt with occasional bouts of soullessness. I’m inclined to believe that how you react to news of, say, a murder, ultimately says more about you than the way somebody told you about it. Then again, we generally have more control over saying things than listening to them — well, except on Twitter, where you can unfollow anybody who says something you dislike. The iTunes era of personal choice means we’re more responsible than ever for what we like. So there’s a moral peril for us here as consumers that’s as old as the news: What does it mean when we enjoy Cole’s tweets about death?

The thing about tragedies is that the gaps between confronting them personally and publicly are massive. We can frame this economically, in terms of scarcity: A relative’s murder is an enormous emotional event which may never happen to most of us in our lifetimes. But in public, murders are an abundance. Murders get 50 words thwacked next to the announcement of the opening of a new pool because they’re not unusual enough to merit more space.

Economic terms are not out of place here, because we’ve long commoditized the misfortune of others. I don’t really mean that as a critique of capitalism. I’m talking about gossip as an exchange. Media have simply monetized an impulse to disseminate that has existed at every kitchen table and supermarket aisle in the form of Hey, have you heard? Bill’s wife left him, the Joneses took a bath in the stock market and might be putting up their house, Jenny got kicked out of school.

But isn’t there a cautionary moral in here somewhere? What about when misfortune befalls us?

And then right around the time I started thinking about this, murder came to Cole’s door. Sept. 1:

A quiet young relative of mine in Nigeria got into an argument yesterday, was hit on the head with a blunt object, and immediately died.

This fait divers was different. All ironed down and hammered into straight lines. No joy, no play. Pain is implied solely through the words “quiet young relative of mine,” which, if replaced with “man,” would make this tweet indistinguishable from a bureaucratic report.

After a respectful amount of time had passed, I asked Cole about the death. I wanted to know whether he felt he needed distance from his subjects to fashion them into fait divers. “In the case of my relative, I grieved him, and left a space where I might have written the details of his sad death,” Cole wrote me in an email after a scheduled phone interview fell through. His written responses to my questions were thoughtful and restrained, as if not to jostle the analytical telescope through which he needed distance and stillness to view the world. “In the case of people I don’t know, I press on, with the full details as presented in the newspapers,” he wrote.

But what about sensitivity? Death has its ironies, but I’m reminded of a line from one of Edward St. Aubyn’s novels, a quick shiv that comes after one character is praised for never losing his sense of humor: “He only saw the funny side of things that didn’t have one. That’s not a sense of humour, just a form of cruelty.” When can tragedy have a funny side? Where’s the line where dark things can allow in a little light? Can that line even be consistently drawn?

Cole hints that one exists. “Whether I’m writing fiction or reportage or the small fates or poetry, I have to be aware at each instance that someone else might be affected by what I write, that someone else might choose to write it another way, or choose to pass it over in silence,” Cole wrote me. “So, to the question I often ask myself, about what right I have to write in an ironic or even humorous way about someone else’s distress, the answer is that it’s the same right I have, in the first place, to write anything at all about anyone at all.” When I asked him about what specific situations had given him doubt, he demurred.

Without explicitly mentioning it, I later realized our conversation had hovered around that great unwritten maxim of storytelling, which is that not all tragedies are created equal. “…of course there are many crimes I don’t write about because they lack a sufficiently pungent detail,” Cole confided, a reality every journalist understands — the necessity of material, which can be the difference between powering a writer’s oven with kindling or with uranium. And I worry here that I haven’t even stuck up for the inviolable cause of Free Expression that we all adore and require. Perhaps I’m even thinking too hard about the unavoidable moral quagmires of this, something which could force us to lose our ways, much how, as Steinbeck wrote of Texas’ mystique, “few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox.” Here, the paradox seems clear. It’s like the contradiction of liking animals but eating meat. At some point, eating a hamburger means that you’ve either chosen to ignore what’s happened to the cow or you’ve considered it logically and coldly approved it. To find pleasure in reading about any real suffering is either to ignore reality or to — perhaps even worse — rationally justify doing so. But I can’t take Cole to task for this without indicting myself, someone who’s written about a few too many crimes with a little too much fun. And we’ve all read those kinds of stories. No one is innocent.

So I surrender. In the end, despite these dark glances through the looking-glass, Cole adds more to this world than he’s taking away. Nor is he writing about fictional events; he’s writing about the truth. Without him, at the moment, I can certify I’d know nothing of Lagos’ people outside the size of its population: that it’s nearing those of Los Angeles and New York City, if not surpassing them already. Well, a big population means there are people living out their lives there. Nobodies, maybe, like Gary Robinson and like the rest of us, but Cole’s giving them their 140 characters of fame, and unless he finds some hidden way to take the suffering out of this world, I wouldn’t have him stop.