A running joke in How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel, sees the book’s narrator Jonas Woldemariam repeatedly asked about his origins. Jonas’s typical response—“the Midwest”—is more often than not greeted with polite incredulity, with further prodding about where he comes from. Though Jonas is, in fact, Midwest-born and bred, he’s perpetually perceived as Other, as outside; never having set foot in his ancestral Ethiopia, a country whose history and politics he can only vaguely approximate in his imagination, Jonas is almost risibly inept when it comes to assimilation. But the comedy of the American-born son condemned to a lifetime of being mistaken for an immigrant is imbued with sadness by the reality of Jonas’s life: Lacking real ambition, without any meaningful sense of belonging, adrift and drifting, his is the uneasy existence of an exile, a refugee of sorts.
Jonas’s predicament as a young man, saddled with a strange-sounding name and an exotic appearance, is, Mengestu suggests, the condition of the second generation, the sons and daughters of parents damaged by the travails of exile, children whose inheritance is an uneasy, troubled rootlessness, an impossible-to-master history. The attempt to grapple with the legacy of displacement, the pain of loss, and separation shapes and structures the novel; the suggestion that the painful past can only be dealt with imaginatively gives it life, a compulsive sort of energy: lies beget lies, and these lies in turn become full-fledged narratives, made-up but nonetheless starkly true.
How to Read the Air opens with a reconstruction of a particular moment in time: the preparations undertaken by Yosef and Mariam Woldemariam as they set off on a road trip from Peoria to Nashville. But, as we quickly learn, this finely drawn scene, with its seemingly astute grasp of emotion, of secret hopes and concealed resentments, of private motivations and cherished delusions, is a fiction of sorts, a chronicle determined by fancy rather than fact. Indeed, the occasion is narrated by the couple’s then-unborn child, Jonas, who is, some 30 years later, trying to make sense of his parents’ marriage as his own falls apart. (The narrative is made up of two strands, one focused on the relationship of his mother and father, the other recounting his own courtship and marriage to a woman named Angela.) Impulsively deciding to trace Yosef and Mariam’s trip, stopping along key points of their route, Jonas means to recreate what he sees as a fateful journey, an odyssey that irrevocably set the course of their relationship and his own upbringing. But, Jonas ultimately discovers, it’s impossible to understand that relationship, that journey, without going further back, without returning to Addis Ababa, contextualizing the people who inevitably fell apart without context. Separated by political turmoil almost immediately after their wedding, Yosef and Mariam reunite in America, but their time apart, overstuffed with experiences neither can articulate, dooms their marriage, which is quickly wrecked by paranoia, mistrust, a descent into violence. Their car ride through the American Midwest, with nearly forgotten historical sites for destinations, is a doomed-from-the-start attempt to elide over the insurmountable distance between their earlier journeys, which the other can never fully comprehend. Yosef, in particular, seems trapped by his terrifying passage to the West, making his way, concealed in a box, on a ship bound from Sudan for Western Europe.
The road trip ends in disaster, a conclusion we anticipate before the car—a red Monte Carlo—even leaves the driveway. The threat of violence hangs over the couple, essentially strangers, to each other, to this strange land. How do we become familiar? Mengestu seems to wonder, and his answer, by and large, is that we never quite do. To live far away from home is to be ever vigilant, ever afraid, scanning the air for signs of danger. There is an isolation bred of estrangement, a self-perpetuating loneliness. The immigrant pushes others away, refusing to make new connections, refusing to believe in the permanence of good will, of peace, of affection. And loneliness breeds loneliness: The son of immigrants, Jonas is the inheritor of nothing but damage and alienation and estrangement. For such a man, assimilation—in the form of happy, white-picket-fence, upwardly mobile family life—is simply an impossibility.
How to Read the Air is an elegiac book. Jonas begins his examination—of parents, of self—following news that his father, whom he had not seen in several years, has died. Thus, his need to come to terms with his father’s life—a story he narrates, with the sort of relish reserved only for embellished narratives with the most marginal connection to the historical record, to his English literature students at the private school where he teaches part-time—is a way of mourning the man. But there’s more to mourn too: his marriage, his inchoate ambitions, his never-quite-realized belonging. Like his immigrant parents, Jonas continues to “read the air,” to grasp at the immense emptiness that here defines the experience of being set loose in a world that refuses to accommodate, to make itself a home. With a simple, elegant sadness, Mengestu gestures at the heart of the loss that defines dislocation as it reverberates from immigrant parents to American child. So effective, so convincing, so thorough is this bereavement that the notes of grace the novel occasionally sounds strike a false note. The air speaks, finally, of damage and sorrow, and it tells us that stories are all we have to go on.
Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air was released on October 14 by Riverhead Books. To purchase it, click here.