Thursday, December 19, 2013

How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu

Until people are no longer able to move, the immigrant experience will be fodder for novels. In How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu draws on his own family's experience to create a complex multi-layered story of Ethiopian immigrants struggling to find purchase in the United States. The story is narrated by Jonas Woldemariam, a young man who was born in Peoria to immigrant parents, escaped his violent home (and, to a great degree, his relationship with his parents) to land in New York, but is struggling in both his career and his personal life.

When the book begins, Jonas is helping immigrants write their statements to be presented in an effort to gain refugee status. Jonas finds he has a gift for extending their stories, making them more tragic, a practice he will apply to his own life story before the book ends. At the center, he meets a young attorney, Angela, and the two get married. When Jonas is laid off from the immigrant center, Angela's connections at her law firm help Jonas get a part-time job teaching literature at a private school. Although Jonas enjoys the job, he realizes he is in career limbo--and he and Angela are in something of a suspended state as well, living together as husband and wife but never deepening their relationship, primarily because of Jonas's reticence..

Intercut with the narrative of Jonas and Angela is Jonas's telling of his parents' story, beginning with a trip from Peoria to Nashville intended to be a honeymoon but ending in disaster. Jonas is retracing their path at some time in the future, when he has left Angela and found himself needing to understand his parents' story. A third layer is his father's back story, a long and difficult trek from Ethiopia to Peoria, with stops in Sudan and various European cities along the way. This story, which is quite clearly confabulated, if not entirely fabricated, Jonas spends weeks telling his students during  an apparent breakdown following his father's death.

Mengestu's novel is about the simultaneous fear of disappearing and the inability to take the steps that will prevent that disappearance, about the search for redemption through retelling our stories and the impulse to rewrite those stories as we tell them--powerful themes. The author's prose is often graceful, if not poetic, and the complex structure supports the author's ideas about the mutability of our stories. And yet the book just missed the mark for me--it didn't feel fresh enough to draw me back(I had to renew it twice--and it's not even very long) and the ending left me flat.

Favorite passage:
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. He had learned early in his life that before any violent gesture there is a moment when the act is born, not as something that can be seen or felt, but by the change it precipitates in the air.

She almost pressed her hand against the window, as if there were something on the other side of the glass that she could touch, and in doing so would save her from the irrepressible fear that she was lost and would never find herself again. That gesture, however, would have made the longing that much more difficult to bear. It was better, she believed, not to translate emotions into actions, to let them lie dormant, because once they were expressed, there was no drawing them back. They enter the world and having done so become greater than us. Of all the lessons I learned from my mother, this was the first.

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