How to Read the Air/Dinaw Mengestu: Reflections

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I have been struggling to find a simple way to recount the deeply quiet, deeply moving nature of Dinaw Mengestu's second novel, How to Read the Air, a novel that feels so searching, so dispelled that it is difficult to remember that it is not, in fact, memoir.

Air is the story of a young man so scarred by the anguish, anger, and finally submerged violence of his parents—Ethiopian immigrants who did not grow up to become themselves in this land of opportunity—that he lives at terrible remove from himself.  Jonas is the name of this unlucky couple's son, and as the novel opens he is newly in love with a lawyer, Angela, whom he will soon marry.  In short order (and with Angela's help), Jonas gets a job teaching English at a New York City academy.  In similarly short order, the two begin to carve out psychic and spatial distances within their 500 sf basement apartment.  There are lies that they do and do not tell one another.  There are games played and never won.  Jonas is a man who won't be provoked, and often that looks like indifference to Angela, who is desperate to know that she is truly loved.  That she is safe inside that love.

Don't all relationships hinge on conversation, of some sort?  Don't we expect each other to answer questions, to reflect back, to find some center of perceived truth?  Is civility just as cruel as violence, when the civility feels empty, fraudulent?

Jonas is not a bad man.  Indeed, he is a character with whom readers can easily empathize, and that is because Mengestu makes us privy to the now and the then of the thoughts in his protagonist's head.  We see him sifting his parents' past, looking for clues.  We see him leaning on fabrications, assumptions, and possibilities to give himself a sense of place, or having once been placed, inside the tether of a home.  If he is able to construct the story of his psychic inheritance for his students, he is not able to deliver that story to his wife, and she requires such binding in.  If he is able to know what love is, what it should be, he is unable to act on what he knows:

In our rush to presumably better ourselves we had both missed what had otherwise always been obvious—that it often didn't take much more than careful consideration of each other's needs to secure a degree of happiness.

There is an impeccable quality to Mengestu's prose—a calm, collected rise to despair and violence.  He puts a smooth-faced mirror to life—giving us much that we don't know (the plight, let's say, of Ethiopian immigrants) and giving us so much that we can at times know all too well.


Lilian Nattel said...

It sounds like a haunting book, Beth.

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