|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Jardine Libaire on How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu
Good Liar, Terrible Liar
February 27th, 2012
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,
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.
During the course of this experiment, Mengestu exploits each character as a storyteller, to a rainbow of ends. He hands the reader a stack of drafts and anti-drafts in the guise of a book. The material is rife with desperate riddles: What is true? Who is honest? How do these conflicting stories fit together? What does it mean for these stories to coexist? Who owns these stories? Who is responsible for their repercussions? Is a lie a story? Is a story a lie?
In How to Read the Air, a story is first and foremost a sacred action. Jonas works temporarily at a refugee resettlement center in Manhattan. He is “the literary type in the office,” and lawyers pass client fact sheets to him to be “‘touched’ or ‘built upon.’” As an example, he takes
Jonas saves lives with fiction. Meanwhile, his mother often tries to save herself by dreaming stories. After being beaten, in the “twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds that she was unconscious,” Mariam dreams a replica of the house where she grew up, but it has new furniture, “sleek, low-slung, and thoroughly modern,” and a “sheer absence of sound that is otherwise impossible to find except in dreams. Here then is the place where no harm can happen: sanctuary that even the dead would be envious of.”
Abrahim is the prophet-like man who educates Yosef about survival while Yosef prepares to smuggle himself out of Sudan. Abrahim, in Jonas’s version of his father’s story, should have no hope left, but
In a 2010 interview with The Rumpus, Mengestu said that “there is a necessity to imagination that I believe in very deeply. Fiction fills a role in our lives that I think nothing else can,” and Jonas’s return to his parents’ honeymoon warpath is a spiritually responsible act of imagination. As he stops at a landmark on the drive, he calls his journey a pilgrimage: “It’s been said that the only way to truly know any history is to walk in its footsteps.”
Although storytelling is demonstrated here as an honorable pursuit, there is a cost to the storyteller, as there can often be to messengers and visionaries. Jonas has heard bits and pieces of this road-trip-from-hell tale over the years from each parent. And he finds himself in the archetypal position of the “broken family” child:
It’s a psychological burden to know two true and conflicting stories. Jonas even feels this schizophrenia on a visceral level, and he will occasionally “submit to the confusion of time” that is brought about by weather. He talks about how September can feel like May, and
This division unnerves him. As does his mother’s wariness when he visits her late in the story to talk about the family’s past, and he can tell she still doesn’t know which parent’s version he believes.
Nurturing multiple realities in one’s imagination is the basic trade of a good writer, but Mengestu has said that the family in this book is not based at all on his family, so this is not where he was trained in double lives. He does however, in a 2010 Paris Review interview, mention a different schism omnipresent in his life: “I’m aware that I’m American and African at all points and times.”
One of the most pressing dualities raised in How to Read the Air is the guilt or innocence of a storyteller. Mengestu pokes and prods at the issue. In The Rumpus interview, Mengestu brags: “Of course, I’m a good liar — I’m a fiction writer. I could tell you anything.” In the novel, Jonas lies, hiding his layoff at one job, fabricating a promotion at another, and his wife calls him out: “‘You think you can lie,’ she said. ‘But really you can’t. You’re terrible at it.’”
When does storytelling cross over from art to manipulation? Mengestu spends much of the book drawing this line, erasing it, trying again. In happier times, Jonas and his wife play an almost adolescent game of redesigning better pasts:
The territory becomes more dangerous when Jonas, now an English teacher at a private high school, invents a story for his students about his father’s illegal border-crossings. He makes most of it up, extending the story for days, using up class sessions, forfeiting the syllabus. The abstract recipient of Jonas’s story (and perhaps of Mengestu’s writing) is personified by one student, a “round, freckle-faced blonde” who wants to know where his teacher with the exotic last name “was from.” Jonas has “heard that question before,” and knows it’s only one of the “warm-up questions to the greater narrative that they wanted to get a hold of,” the one that would allow them to “mark me as being theirs.” This is where Mengestu presents us with the hardest questions about the responsibilities of both reader and writer. When Jonas launches into the mythologized story of his dad, the dynamic in his classroom changes dramatically. Jonas sees the students
Eventually, stories about Jonas’s father “began circulating freely around the academy.”
At a certain point, Jonas feels a “growing vortex of e-mails and text messages” passed among students about him.
Although there is disdain in these passages for the students, Jonas, the creator, is guilty, too. As he walks through the city, he passes people in the streets and incorporates them mentally into his narrative; “[…] I could add their stories to my own basket of origins.” He uses Haitians, giving them “a mix of political persecution at the hands of one of the Docs and several large-scale natural disasters,” and Orthodox Jews who had “made their way here immediately after the end of the Cold War and never once looked back,” and Africans who, “despite the reports of torture and imprisonment on their asylum application forms, were here just because they wanted to have an easier time getting on with their business plans and dreams, and who could blame them?”
This process of embezzling human stories is how things got done at the refugee center, too. Bill, one of the “white middle-aged lawyers” who ran the place, told Jonas it was necessary to combine immigrant narratives:
At the end of the book, one passage seems to forgive (or surrender to) Jonas’s students for the way that they are, and maybe social discourse for the way that it is:
Both Jonas as narrator and Mengestu as author reach a level of obsession with storytelling that verges on addiction. Jonas has to walk off his high after the classroom episodes: “I knew after the first time I told my father’s story that it was important to come down from the almost delirious heights I had reached before returning home.” He wastes hours roaming aimlessly, and buys Angela gifts and makes up unlikely stories for her afterward — pages torn from any junkie’s handbook.
Jonas’s lies to Angela about his promotion, his plans for success and how he’s going to achieve it, grow with the same exponential fever.
Jonas’s students start a Save Africa Now campaign, which Jonas sees as a sort of philanthropic addiction. “My students were naturally infected,” he says, because “Africa was everywhere in the news and the pity for it and its inhabitants had spiked a thousandfold.” The media has lured the kids into a craze for stories about violence, tragedy, grief, occasional triumph, injustice, and Jonas does nothing to deter them from the path.
As readers, we notice that Mengestu as novelist can’t stop either; he keeps playing, figuring out how many permutations of the “concept” of story he can use. He has Angela inventing anecdotes for her father’s abandonment of her family: once he goes out for cigarettes and never returns, or he goes to Mexico before Christmas and never returns, or he doesn’t come home from work, or he goes out for milk, or her mother throws him out. Mariam makes up stories for social workers: her family had been like royalty in Ethiopia, a grandfather has just died, Jonas has a mysterious ailment leaving him too weak to walk. Yosef memorizes stories about American landmarks because he thinks it will make him assimilated. Jonas tells the story of his own childhood to his recently deceased father as Jonas walks through Manhattan. Mariam makes up stories for Jonas about the people who once owned the family’s now secondhand furniture. Jonas imagines a moment on his parents’ road trip when they could have taken advantage of the silence and told each other stories, and Jonas makes up those stories for them in this re-imagining: Mariam tells Yosef about men she slept with in Ethiopia, Yosef dreams about being killed by a man who puts a bag over his head.
At a certain point, How to Read the Air feels like a funhouse of stories, an avalanche of stories, like a swarm of little stories that are devouring the larger one. This breeds claustrophobia, which is instrumental to this difficult novel. Once in a while, even Jonas goes too far though, testing limits like anyone caught up in compulsive behavior. While creating a rest stop vignette on his parents’ big drive, Jonas has put his mother in the woods, about to run away from Yosef.
Cutting up one’s mother is too taboo, too transgressive even for this narrator, and he retreats from the fantasy. “[…]but God, what a beautiful run we might have had.”
How to Read the Air, for all its back and forth movement, staking and unstaking claims, lying about the truth and telling true lies, does make steady progress to what feels like an inevitable end. But no question is answered. There is just the weary and sincere satisfaction one gets when every angle has been covered, all options exhausted. Reading the book is like watching a child play with clinical toys in a psychologist’s office, as he dedicatedly works out a few dozen versions of reality until the session is up.
In a 2010 New York Times profile, Mengestu talks about the trauma that sparked his own family’s departure from Ethiopia, and the subsequent silence:
How to Read the Air is the fulfillment of that empty house. In this way, Mengestu has participated in a cycle as necessary as decomposition or photosynthesis. Jonas exquisitely spells out the sequence to his wife: