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


New Yorker cover

The New Yorker continues the full court press of it’s ’20 under 40′ list; I guess that makes sense, if you’re going to try to define a literary generation you should probably publish its members in your magazine.

In “The Young Painters,” a piece of fiction appearing in The New YorkerMs. Krauss delivers a powerful story about the provenance of a painting.   The story comes across as a confession, of sorts, like a person might tell a judge after harboring the awful truth for years, and when it all comes out, it does so with great force.  The story turns to the severely morbid almost immediately when we learn that the people who created the painting were children, and they met with a gruesome end at the hands of their deranged mother, but I’ll let you sniff that part of the story out yourself.

I’m not sure if story is a part of Great House, her third novel, which will be published this fall, or if it’s a stand alone story.  If we take the Franzen school of thought, at least from The New Yorker’s point of view, then this work of fiction from Ms. Krauss is a slice of her new novel.  After reading this story, I’d like to read the novel, if the two are connected in some way, and I’d like to read it right now.  There is a smoky quality to the language here, it reminds me of stories that I once heard at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve in Rome, shared with a small group, revealed to everyone like lost treasure, and hard to forget.  At the same time, there is a modern feel (I don’t mean “modern” in the Frank Llyod Wright sense of the word, more “contemporary”) to our narrator, like she’s going through some form of crisis, a kind of awakening, or perhaps a realization that as a writer, there are at least three sides to each story.  At the same time this woman is miserable at having to deal with realities which come with writing a novel about her own father, and how she doesn’t know the difference between being a storyteller, and a person in her own stories, or life.

The story our narrator hears is told to her while she’s at the home of the dancer, and later on we find out that the story in question is reworked by our narrator and published in a “prominent” magazine.  It’s no accident that The Young Painters has been published, and I can almost see around the next corner, where this story might be going, or where Ms. Krauss wants me to think its going.  Either way, our narrator and Ms. Krauss are in on the trick, or somehow I was fooled, which happens to me quite often.  I’ll admit it, Ms. Krauss, you got me.

-JR


I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.