DH: This is the last of my three posts on Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel, How to Read the Air. It’s about the lying at the heart of the novel, in the creation of the character, Jonas Woldemariam. If this were a 19th century novel, a novel by Dickens, then Jonas Woldemariam , like David Copperfield, would be the best title for it. But Jonas is no hero.

Jonas’ fitful employment history starts out in a non-profit agency that helps illegal immigrants to stay stateside. DM’s very effective narrative strategy sets up these little scenes where the hapless applicants lay out their paltry documents, stories, photographs to justify their appeal for asylum. Jonas doctors them up. He uses his fiction skills to make the refugees seem more appealing to the authorities. Where an emigrant says he was threatened in his homeland, JW says their house was burned down. If they say they were threatened with imprisonment, then Jonas writes down that they were arrested three times and did prison time under torture.

Later, Jonas teaches at an upscale Manhattan private school, you know, like the Dalton School …a place that I’ve visited. It’s a plum job for a gifted English lit major fantasizing about getting a doctorate. His wife, Angela, pulls strings at her law firm to get him the job. One of her law partners is a trustee at the school.

His privileged students get treated to a long-winded tale about his father’s attempt to leave Sudan. The story is distorted family mythology. Jonas is a diffident David Copperfield…a Dickens’ impossibility. Jonas lies because he withdraws. He withdraws so he can be a writer in the most generic sense…so he can lie.

At home with Angela, he tells more lies to spin his life over. The scenario is that he is going to be promoted at his “academy” to a full time position. It’s as if David Copperfield said: “I’d like to say that this is what happened. I am imagining that it could have been this way.” But one way to view any novel is to say “this is what might have happened”.

Dickens’ conception of character is moral and reforming. But DM’s approach, through his lead character Jonas, is aesthetic and “fraudulent”. It’s lying. “How to Read the Air”, what does the title mean? My take is that it’s quixotic. It’s impossible. You can’t read the air. Reminds me of Kierkegaard…and Camus. The aesthetic approach to life as an evasion because the character can’t do the moral or religious. The lying “fiction” as a critique that uncovers. Because where the lying fails, there the truth can be glimpsed…if only for a second out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

But How to Read the Air is slipping away from me as I try to grab hold of it. Its complexity fights being analyzed. What a great book club selection it will make! And what a devious writer Dinaw Mengestu is! That’s why I love him. As Jonas crashes and burns lies into the fragile connections of his world, one is led to a wondering about his real sensitivities to his parents and himself that he is trying so hard to conceal from Angela. How can any relationship bear up if it is being asked to bear so much concealed emotional weight? Even the novel’s narrative style buckles and twists all over itself as events are related as they happened, or as they might well have happened, or as they expressly did not happen as the reader sees the lies that the audience in the novel believes. Massively well-constructed, How to Read the Air will be published by Riverhead in cloth


DH: This is my second post on DM’s How to Read the Air. Perhaps by the time that I finish this survey, I’ll have figured out what that great title means. You write about a book several times because you are peeling the onion. But there has to be an onion to peel. The praise is in the treatment, the attention that the book receives. Saying “I loved this book!” is silly. Talk it up. Books are the malls (agoras, if you prefer) of a literate society. When the mail packet from England arrived in NY harbor with the latest installment of the new Dickens serial, don’t imagine that the eager readers who snapped it up just read the content and then sat on their asses. They talked about it. And because the plot unfurled like a slow growing vine, everybody was on the same page when they talked about it.

And I think that was part of the point of lengthy Victorian novels. Their book talk was as measured out as the pacing that CD decided on for his storytelling. Our community has missed out on that. And don’t say that TV series perform that function. Even the most sophisticated series, most likely written by a committee, granted, of the talented…is trite in comparison to what Dickens could do with Little Dorrit in 1855. You may not think that’s so. But you’ve been listening to DM’s voice being watered down for your consumption for one hundred and fifty-five years. You have to restore Dicken’s words to the effect that they had on impact two centuries ago when every word that he wrote was fresh.

The central topic of How to Read the Air is marriage. And that’s my hope for the commercial success of this novel. Most readers won’t find the background material that helps explain the dysfunctional ticking of that marriage all that interesting. It’s my guess that DM has some issues that he is working out in this story. I wish he would forget about that

It’s wonderfully ironic that when Jonas and Angela realize that they are having some growing issues with their relationship, their half-thought out solution is to get married. But Jonas and Angela, as young adults, are always acting out the roles that they think they are supposed to play. This is very Updike of them. Read John Updike The Early Stories which is a blueprint of martial role-playing.

I greatly appreciated DM’s fine remark that you have to be in a relationship to understand that locations can become “haunted” (my word) with decisive emotional events that have taken place there. The writer is talking about the couple’s home. And aren’t there places in your own home, in my case one is the end of a cabinet in the dining room, where you will never forget what was said there? The atmosphere lingers, like a faint smoke or an odd feint of light.

DM’s remark is interesting enough. But then he points out that Jonas and Angela have a studio apartment. The small living space becomes emotionally charged with their conversations. No wonder Angela and Jonas begin a long dance of finding excuses to be out of the apartment. Their conversations at home become an electrically charged field that either repels or attracts the spouses as if they were moths. The reader greatly looks forward to eavesdropping on these conversations. DM is a master at dialogue with shadows.

But there have to be characters that can cast a shadow. My greatest confidence in Dinaw Megestu as a author is that he can write characters. Angela is a bit easier to understand. She’s had an insecure family background. Now she is a young lawyer at a white shoe firm. She’s  anxious to make it and wants a stable marriage as part of a rock solid foundation on the anthill of Manhattan.

Jonas is the puzzle and DM’s great character creation. He has not been swallowed by the whale so much as it seems as if he is trying to swallow one. He’s drowning in adult commitments that he is not ready to make. Emotionally. he’s a child who doesn’t want to tell the truth, or stand out, or get emotional. Jonas wants to distill all the emotional terror of life into a fine nectar or subtle Bordeaux that can be sipped, appreciated as if he was a connoisseur of adulthood.

That doesn’t work for Angela. She wants the five year plan to material and martial success. She wants a life trajectory that will give her confidence that the walls won’t come tumbling down.

The great DM lobs volleys of conversational shots into this scenario as if he he were an authorial Roger Federer. It’s martial tennis without any nets or balls. I’ll try to sum up what I think about How to Read the Air in one last shot some other time.


DH: On my main library shelves sits a massive edition of Dickens, still awaiting completion.  And when I look at those intricately conceived word feasts, I am reminded that a lot of that story stuff first reached its readers in the form of installments in some scruffy periodical.

How quaint, reading a mag by gaslight to find out what’s going to happen to little Dorrit! But when eras do axial shifts, the quaint can be transformed into the cool. Why can’t our e-readers function that way?

Why can’t I arrange for Brad Watson to e-text me his latest story as soon as he has written it? And why can’t BW say, two weeks after that: “Oh, I revised it, dear reader. Here’s the new version. Which do you like best?

And why can’t I read Claire Messud’s new novel that way, by chapter installments. And if CM wants to do a take-back, because she’s decided to move her story in a different direction, what’s wrong with that? I can take it. In fact, I’d like it. There are “Seven Types of Ambiguity” in language anyway, according to William Empson. Why isn’t the writer…or the reader…allowed to change their mind? I’d rather buy the right to access the writer’s brain, who wouldn’t, than buy any particular static work. Don’t you get it? It’s “showin your skills” that’s the most admirable part…not the end result of those skills.

DM’s, the great DM’s, new novel “How to Read the Air” is divided into three parts and for once I am going to take these authorial Mason Dixon lines seriously and provide three reviews of which this is the first. It’s three attempts at being a good reader (and blogger).

“How to Read” arcs two parallel plots over about 300 pages. But it’s like a double helix. For each parallel plot has two phases. What the reader construes is really happening and how the central character, Jonas Woldemarian, is spinning it out. For this is a novel where lying is a compulsive survival strategy. Jonas lies to survive psychologically. But the characters are all weaving central fantasies into their lives. Dinaw Mengestu shows us how the stories we tell ourselves to get by and the stories writers give us as formal art, are just different phases of the same humane performance.

DM makes for an embattled author. His narrative voice, full of a suppressed pathos, comes up with amazing conditional voices as his detached third person narration slips into being Jonas and then slips out again. My favorite voice is what I’d call the “voluntary conditional”. It’s “I’d like to say this is what happened.” It’s a great way for DM to be Jonas and still be able to relate events at which the character was not present. He actually uses it to relate events in the life of Jonas’ mother, Mariam, that occur when she is pregnant with the son who is narrating the story.

All lovers of books discover those moments in literature that they will never forget, as if they were pivotal events in their own lives. I will never forget Mariam, in the opening of this novel, as I remember my own mother, waiting in her bedroom, stalling, refusing to go down to the car where her husband is impatiently waiting to begin an irrational trip to Nashville from the Midwest, a three-year deferred “honeymoon.” Mariam’s stalling; it’s passive aggression, part of the near constant war between her and her husband, Yosef. A war that leaves her battered and making “pretend” rehearsals of escape once her son Jonas is able to walk. Imagine your mother appearing with a suitcase and taking you as a child on a pretend trip to St. Louis. It’s practice at escapism. seeing how far you can get in a country you only dimly understand in a language you can barely speak. But Mariam and her son Jonas make “negative” progress. With each attempt they get a little farther away from Yosef before Mariam decides it’s time to head back to the starting point.

There are no “what will happen next” secrets to reveal in Mengestu’s masterful storytelling. The narrator already mentions, parenthetically, where everyone is going to end up. Rather, “How to Read the Air” is a brilliant attempt at emotional excavation. What survives? What survives every and any attempt to destroy it? What survives attempts to lie it away or batter it to death because it hurts so much? Whatever remains, that’s the truth. Stay tuned for another two posts on Dinaw Mengestu’s INCANDESCENT narrative skill.