Reporting from the Gaza Strip in 2006, the critic and essayist John Berger powerfully summed up the prevailing sentiment among suffering Palestinians: “How is it I am still alive? I’ll tell you I’m alive because there’s a temporary shortage of death. This is said with a grin, which is on the far side of a longing for normalcy, for an ordinary life.”

The Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole has written about Berger’s influence on his work, and his own novels seem touchingly attuned to the deaths that punctuate our longing for normality, to the phantom absences in ordinary lives. In Open City, a young Native American historian is emotionally wrecked by the details of the horrors inflicted by white settlers on her ancestors and ends up succumbing to a depressive episode. In Every Day Is for the Thief, the Nigerian-American narrator left Lagos at 17, sometime after his father’s death. He returns a decade or so later as a prodigal son of sorts, to conduct “an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home”.

You could say of Tunde, the protagonist of Cole’s latest novel, Tremor, that he is between deaths. The novel opens in the latter half of 2019 and tracks Tunde’s itinerant life through the months leading up to the pandemic. We learn that Tunde is grieving the demise of an older friend with whom he’d shared the “most voluminous and intense correspondence” of his life. He teaches photography at a university somewhere in Massachusetts, and every month two or three white envelopes with black margins arrive in the mail: “Official announcements of the passing of past or current members of the faculty.” Emily, a close friend and colleague in the astronomy department, is grappling with a sudden cancer diagnosis. On a trip to a 17th-century colonists’ settlement in Maine, Tunde reflects on the carnage wreaked on Native American tribes in those years. Inside the classroom, a student tells him about Samuel Little, apparently the most prolific American serial killer, and Tunde becomes obsessed with the chalk pastel drawings that Little went on to do of his victims, most of them black women. Little’s spooky portraits remind Tunde of paintings by contemporary artists such as Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas: “They have life but lack detail, are lifelike without being like life.”

Tremor, by contrast, is both lifelike and speckled with intimate details; the chapters are all treatises in learning to see and think. On a trip to Mali, Tunde wonders why the word “poor” keeps popping up in every journalistic dispatch about the country and yet “there was no connection made in any of what he read between Mali’s poverty and France’s wealth”. An entire chapter is devoted to the text of a lecture Tunde supposedly delivers at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, where he is quite persuasive on the need to repatriate the Benin bronzes, on the imperative to acknowledge that these west African plaques and sculptures were looted and shipped to museums across Europe and the US in the aftermath of a vengeful massacre meted out by the British army in 1897. Another chapter is written as a pastiche of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, presumably because a copy of the novel sits perpetually on Tunde’s desk.

But the novel’s pièce de résistance is a section that brings together punchy testimonies from 24 residents of Lagos, voices that Tunde encounters on a visit to the city that winter. We hear from a hairdresser, a street mural artist, a secretly lesbian radio jockey, as well as from Tunde’s uncle, his father’s friend, his trusted cab driver in the city. One Nigerian expatriate tells Tunde that every year he returns to Lagos to organise a peculiar ceremony. He invites his friends and relatives over one evening and puts together a feast. Then he dresses up in a suit and lies down in a casket for a few hours. “What I am doing is preparing for the inevitable day,” the man tells Tunde.

It is possible to laud Cole’s efforts to accommodate disparate points of view inside the airless one-sided rooms of other recent autofictional novels while also doubting if Tremor hangs together as a book. Tunde is one of those cautious photographers who distrusts speed; he ends up invariably deleting the hastily composed or impulsive shot. I wonder if the story should have made him reckon with the constraints of his artistic patience. Early in the novel, there are signs that Tunde and his wife, Sadako, are going through a “nebulous but persistent recent sourness” in their relationship, but the crisis gets resolved too quickly in précis. Tunde’s obvious fetishisation of cities outside the west also goes unchallenged. It is one thing to be struck by the density of experience in Lagos or Bamako and assert that “in a single life here there is so much life”, quite another to live in a cushy house in Massachusetts and speechify on the possibility of a war between US and Iran: “Foreign is my people, every city looks to me like Lagos, any act of violence towards such places is easy to imagine as violence towards people I love.”

The deliberate absence of narrative impetus becomes oppressive before long. Tunde is always listening to good music, or sampling culturally significant works of art. You yearn for an instance when he’d show up drunk at a gallery or watch someone bomb on stage. You wish his supreme attentive powers wouldn’t culminate in a tidy epiphany for once. Reflecting on John Coltrane at one point, Tunde decides that the jazz great’s “choices are musically driven but in his spirit is a consistent preference for ecstasy over entertainment”. One might hazard something similar about the meditative spirit of Cole’s novels, their reliably plotless outlines. And yet is it unreasonable to expect a bawdily funny scene or two in a novel that is otherwise so sober about the dead? After all, even in the midst of unprecedented grief, you occasionally crave light entertainment. There are days when you’d prefer to be just distracted enough to pass the time.