The rogue in the postcolony is a pícaro (in the literary sense), and an instantiation of the internally displaced persons who Mike Davis chronicles in his Planet of Slums (2006). This particular rogue lives in the shadows of a new “lettered city”—an imperialist fantasy made possible by the discovery of petrol, if not silver and gold. His tale deploys such picaresque signatures as hunger and privation to critique and expose the real economic consequences of persons displaced by companies like Shell or Texaco-Chevron, not to mention mining companies across the Global South. Rife with moments of Swiftian abjection, Chris Abani’s picaresque novel GraceLand (2004) is an exemplar of the form. It sutures corporeal depictions of life in Maroko—a slum community on the outskirts of Lagos—within an episodic narrative that defies the chrono-normativity of the development paradigm.
Common approaches to Lagos generally evince one of two images: what Matthew Gandy calls “eschatological” images, which recall V.S. Naipaul’s writings, or the utopian landscapes of what recent architects have called “new modes of urbanism.” The latter, in their potential to efface the region’s economic history, are surely no less problematic than the former. This essay proposes that neither image is sufficient to the task of representing the increasingly invisible rogue, who continues to be occluded in our myopic vision of globalization. We might look instead to petro-picaresque novels like Abani’s as a means of navigating the aporia between the actual conditions of the city and the simulacra that saturate popular representations.