FEBRUARY 27, 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,
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.
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
“They came at night” and turned it into “We had all gone to sleep for the evening, my wife, mother, and two children. All the fires in the village had already been put out, but there was a bright moon, and it was possible to see even in the darkness the shapes of all the houses. That’s why they attacked that night.”
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
[w]hen it came to Europe or America, men supposedly hardened by time and experience like Abrahim were susceptible to almost childish fantasies. They assigned to these faraway lands all the ideals of benevolence and good governance lacking in their own, because who among us doesn’t want to believe that such places exist.
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:
I didn’t know it at the time but two completely different versions of history were being offered to me in preparation for my inevitable role as both advocate and judge over what happened between my parents on this trip, the events of which would determine nearly every aspect of their relationship from that point on […]
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
the shared sense that you can get at the start and close of each season — the tumult and confusion that comes when the air holds the distinct memories of two different times at once.
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.
She leaned in at that moment and almost touched her hands to mine, but pulled back before she could complete the gesture; she didn’t know if I was fully on her side, and was afraid of finding out I wasn’t.
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:
Our inventions, you see, worked both ways, and in whatever false histories I created, there was always room enough for Angela to join me when and if she cared to — “What happened after graduation?”“You picked me up in your father’s car.” “What kind of car was it?” “A 1972 black BMW.”“Really?”“Yes. It was your graduation gift, remember?”“That’s right. He bought it used from a friend.”“Exactly.”“And where did we go?” “We drove all the way to Chicago.”
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
lingering together in the hallway after class, convinced that they were privy to a private history that only they could understand. Even though large parts of what they had been told were fabricated, I took pride in feeling I had brought them together.
Eventually, stories about Jonas’s father “began circulating freely around the academy.”
There were smiles for me everywhere I went, all because I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that finally outstripped anything my students could have personally hoped to experience.
At a certain point, Jonas feels a “growing vortex of e-mails and text messages” passed among students about him.
[…] I was their sole subject and object of concern. I don’t know why I found so much comfort in that thought, but it nearly lifted me off the ground […]
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?”
If my fictional narratives lacked any veracity, it didn’t really matter. Whatever real histories any of the people I encountered had were forfeited and had been long before I came along, subsumed under a vastly grander narrative that had them grateful just to be here […]
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:
Bill put it to me this way once: “When you think about it, it’s all really the same story. All we’re doing is just changing around the names of the countries. Sometimes the religion. But after that there’s not much difference.” It was his suggestion that I borrow from one story to feed another.
And Jonas goes along with the process.
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:
My students, for all their considerable wealth and privilege, were still at that age where they believed that the world was a fascinating, remarkable place, worthy of curious inquiry and close scrutiny, and I’d like to think that I had reminded them of that. Soon enough they will grow out of that and concern themselves with the things that were the most immediately relevant to their own lives. They will opt for the domestic and local news any day of the week; they will form rigid political alliances and dogmatic convictions that place them in good standing with one group or another, but at that time these things had yet to pass.
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.
Angela, a skeptic at heart, tried to remain unaffected. I thought, if she’s ever had an addict in her life, this is what he must have sounded like. Always this promise of renewal.
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.
The temptation to set her loose makes for a stronger narrative. I can let her dash past bushes and branches. I can give her scrapes on her arms, let a little blood trickle down her legs over her knee, where it dries and hardens into a firm dark blotch.
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:
“We had no memories in our house … We were never allowed to, we never spent time talking about it, and yet you’re very aware that it haunts everything. It’s that absence that creates the concern for it. Nothing can be passed on.”
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:
As babies and young children we know and understand only what is immediate and before us, I told her. We accumulate memories and in doing so begin to make our first tentative steps backward in time, to say things such as “I remember when I was.” And from there our lives grow into multiple dimensions until eventually we learn to regret and finally to imagine.