July 20, 2010
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