Book review: ‘How to Read the Air’ by Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu’s “How to Read the Air” opens audaciously — the unnamed narrator writes of his parents with impossible intimacy. He knows what his mother thinks as she stands before a mirror a year before he is born, what she hears in the middle of the night, what she feels when his father’s breath touches her neck. This is, of course, the project of fiction — the full imagining, the stretch of empathy — but it is notable that this story is not simply told, but told by her son.
That son, Jonas, is 30, trying to understand his own failed marriage through the lens of his parents’. He follows the path of a road trip they took through America’s heartland as recent African immigrants; his story and theirs alternate chapters. Always, though, it is clear that Jonas is doing the telling.
“This is how I like to picture him, whether it’s accurate or not,” he imagines his father. “A man standing underneath, or perhaps even across from, a row of trees in search of a home on a summer night. If he was ever happy here, and I doubt he was, it would have been on that evening, which I’ve only just now invented for him.... Regardless, history sometimes deserves a little revision, if not for the sake of the dead then at least for ourselves.”
This inclination toward revision is both a habit and a vocation. After college, Jonas slides into a job at a Manhattan refugee center. He reads applications for asylum, and with a nod from his supervisor, juices up immigrants’ stories. In his hands, a family’s departure from Liberia to Dubai via business class turns into weeks in a church, hiding from soldiers. A brick thrown through a window becomes a house burned to the ground. What the agency and clients need are the stories that the people with power to grant them immigration want to hear.
This grates against Angela, a young attorney volunteering at the center. Nevertheless, she and Jonas soon fall in love. Their relationship is filled with a tenderness neither had growing up and they create a private world. They selected their own cafe, their own bench and share cute private jokes. Sometimes, like any couple, they make up stories together, grand and silly imaginings about their life together.
This life begins to wither after Jonas loses his job. Through her connections at her firm, Angela helps get him a new one, teaching English at a private school. Yet her practical concerns — money, moving forward — clash with his, which are more dreamy and existential. Where they once shared stories, they now have unhappy silences.
Still, they’re doing better than his parents, whose relationship’s toxicity is revealed the more Jonas recalls. His father brutalized his mother; she was trapped, unemotional. She longs for escape; it takes years. For Jonas, any revision that gives them inner lives, that opens up their own strange logic and inflicted fears, is an act of grace.
“As soon as my father said the last two words of that sentence, he felt the abrupt and dramatic shift in the air that precedes any violent confrontation. Something vibrated, buzzed.” Jonas imagines. “The world around us is alive, he would have said, with our emotions and thoughts, and the space between any two people contains them all.” This is an elegant doubling, the father coming alive on the page, redeemed in a way by words the son gives him.
This is exactly what happens late in the novel, when Jonas tells his students of his father’s emigration from Africa to America. Jonas takes over whole classes (and Mengestu fills pages of the novel) with the story. It is compelling, filled with brilliant detail: a desert journey in the back of a truck, hiding under a blue tarp; a dusty port town; a friend, a betrayal, the terrifying shape of the journey across the sea. Of course, it is as invented as anything Jonas came up with for his asylum seekers.
In crafting this richly imagined scene for his father, Jonas is filling his students’ expectations, and Mengestu is slyly pointing out what readers seem to crave of immigrant narratives. Like the immigration officials, readers want drama and arc; reviewers praise exotic street scenes and tenuous escapes, overlooking the fighting couple pulling off an Illinois highway.
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, and immigrated two years later to Illinois with his mother, where his father waited for them. His first novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction in 2008. Our reviewer, Chris Abani (a UC Riverside professor from Nigeria) wrote that Mengestu “made, and made well, a novel that is a retelling of the immigrant experience, one in which immigrants must come to terms with the past.”
Now Mengestu, 32, who lives with his wife in Paris, is creating more than a sweeping portrait of the immigrant experience. He’s pulled off a narrative sleight of hand, weaving two — or is it three? — beautiful fictions, while reminding us subtly that the most seductive may be the least true.