DINAW MENGESTU’S The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, published in 2007, concerns an Ethiopian man who fled his country for the United States. It hinges on friendships made from hardship, and identities cemented during transitions. The melancholic book doesn’t mince words, but the story is still charming and warm, taking hearts and selling copies.
So many, in fact, that Mengestu became a “prizewinning international literary star,” according to his book jacket. He was buried alive with accolades, and pigeonholed as an Ethiopian immigrant-story memoirist, even though it’s more accurate to call him an American novelist. (He was born in Ethiopia but raised in the US.) Now, in his second novel, How to Read the Air, Mengestu’s characters again arm-wrestle with identity and the American dream; and he’s also acquired the new burden of investigating storytelling itself, and the art (or game) of fiction.
Anger is the quiet engine in How to Read the Air, likely born from Mengestu’s particular experience as a famous author. The novel is a creative, not destructive, retort to readers and critics (like me) who think they know Mengestu’s story better than he knows it. “What does happen with immigrants and migration,” Mengestu said in a 2010 WNYC interview,
is it’s very difficult to take the stories that the previous generation has experienced and translate them into America. In that regard, there often is a distance and a silence that takes place between one generation and the next.
In How to Read the Air, Mengestu’s protagonist dives into that silence. Jonas Woldemariam’s marriage to Angela is falling apart, so for insight he recreates his parent’s disastrous honeymoon road trip from Peoria, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee. (He was present on the original jaunt, as a three-month-old fetus.) His folks, Yosef and Mariam, immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia as adults, and they lost suitcase-size chunks of soul en route. “I need a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me,” Jonas explains about filling the gap his father left him.
Both the author and the protagonist go on to test and bend and measure the powers of storytelling, as if gathering data to make a verdict. They graduate from this original purpose of filling a vacuum, of completing a history, to trying out darker, more illicit tricks, to working with more majestic reasons, and to playing stranger games. ...read more