Dinaw Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, was not only widely-praised but the recipient of several prestigious international literary awards. Mengestu was only years old when he and his family left Ethiopia and moved to the United States. Unlike Asian-born writers, African-born novelists have rarely set their stories in the United States. That’s a pity, because if the United States still thinks of itself as a melting pot, then we need the observations of writers from around the world telling us what we often fail to see about ourselves. Mengestu’s first novel and now his second, How to Read the Air, probe deeply into the experiences of immigrants in America.
Jonas Woldemarian’s–the main character’s–search for an understanding of his parents’ marriage is the primary focus of Mengestu’s haunting narrative. An odd quest, perhaps, since his father, Yosef, arrived in the United States—in Peoria, Illinois—three years before his wife. The intent was that Yosef would establish himself before her arrival. A fair amount of space describes the obstacles Yosef had to overcome to find refuge, first as an illegal in Europe, before he eventually made it to Illinois. It’s a harrowing fight to reach the promised land. If America has lost some of its attractiveness for immigrants during recent years, thirty years ago that was not the case.
Much of the early narration describes Jonas’ speculations about a road-trip his parents made from Peoria to Nashville shortly after his mother’s arrival. Yosef is a bit of a history buff, insisting that the two of them stop at largely-forgotten historical sites and markers as they inch toward Nashville. Part vacation, part honeymoon, the trip quickly goes sour—because both of them begin to realize their incompatibility. What was a hastily-arranged marriage back in Ethiopia becomes increasingly tenuous because of their three-year separation and their differing temperaments. This part of the novel might be called “Portrait of a Failed Marriage.”
Sadly, there is a second one: the narrator’s. Parallel to Jonas’ reconstruction of his parents’ marriage is the destruction of his own. Jonas met Angela, an African-American with a legal degree, when they both worked at a government facility, representing immigrants from around the world seeking asylum in the United States. After a lengthy relationship, they marry but both of them already know that their marriage is bound to failure. Like his own parents, Jonas and Angela are also incompatible, though—also like his elders—they also attempt to stick it out. Both marriages end disastrously.
The core of the two relationships is the destructiveness of the four characters–especially their delusions about one another. Mengestu painstakingly depicts these two marriages in such a compelling way that the story, which begins slowly, reaches a state of tension—a little like a snake slowly coiling up, waiting to strike. The reader vicariously observes that snake, unable to remove his eyes from what will shortly be a fatal blow.
There’s a third story that energizes much of Mengestu’s imaginative narrative and gives it still additional heft. After they no longer work with illegal immigrants, Angela gets a job in a law firm and Jonas begins teaching an English class at a prestigious private secondary school in New York City. When he realizes that his own marriage is about to crumble, Jonas stops adhering to the curriculum and begins devoting the entire time in the classroom telling his students about his father. Curious about Jonas’ looks, his students have already asked him where his family came from, and on that occasion he told them about his father’s difficulty in reaching the United States.
There’s one major problem with Jonas’ classroom narrative: it’s largely an embellishment of the stories of the asylum seekers he worked with several years earlier—hair-raising accounts of danger, death, and misery. Jonas’ wholesale fabrication is, in fact, the problem with the two marriages: the lies that the four people tell one another, the gross distortions of what they have done in order to conceal the truth of their past lives, as well as events in the present they need to keep from one another. This ubiquitous mendacity in both marriages becomes the self-generating power of the narrative.
How to read the air? Well, Yosef and Mariam and Jonas and Angela can’t understand one another because they’ve polluted the air around them. Out of such bleakness, Dinaw Mengestu’s mirrored relationships of these two failed marriages will leave you spellbound.
How to Read the Air
By Dinaw Mengestu
Riverhead, 305 pp., $25.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.