To Air Is Human
How to Read the Air
Jonas Woldemariam, the diffident and aloof Ethiopian-American narrator of Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air, was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, but is afflicted with the angst and uncertainty of a deracinated and perpetual migrant. Now in his early 30s and living in New York City, Jonas decides to retrace a fateful journey his Ethiopian immigrant parents took from Peoria to Nashville when his mother was pregnant with him. In alternating chapters, Jonas describes his life in NYC, his parents’ trip, and his attempt to earn some measure of self-knowledge by visiting an abandoned fort in rural Illinois where they stopped on their way to Nashville. “If asked by anyone what I’m doing here,” he reassures himself, “I’ll say I’m looking for something I lost, something important that I accidentally let fly out the window somewhere right around here … and now I’ve finally come back to retrieve it.”
Recently excerpted in the New Yorker following Mengestu’s inclusion in its “20 Under 40” issue dedicated to young fiction writers worth watching, How to Read the Air is Mengestu’s second novel. He earned acclaim for The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a melancholic tale of an Ethiopian exile in Washington, D.C. and his memories of life in Addis Ababa. In How to Read the Air, Ethiopia again appears as more than just a backdrop. Indeed, even before Jonas fancifully attempts to reconstruct his father’s escape from Ethiopia’s political turmoil in the mid-1970s, a project he undertakes for the high school literature class he teaches, he provides a glimpse of certain seminal experiences in the man’s youth. “He had learned early in his life,” relates Jonas of his father, “that before any violent gesture there is a moment when the act is born, not as something that can be seen or felt, but by the change it precipitates in the air.”
Nevertheless, one cannot escape the impression that this is merely a clever literary tactic. By repeatedly delving into his father’s haunting past, Mengestu adds socio-political heft to what is otherwise an utterly ordinary—if occasionally lyrical—story of domestic unhappiness. And there is plenty of run-of-the-mill unhappiness in this novel, whether Jonas is recalling his upbringing in the shadow of an abusive father and a mother constantly plotting escape, or recounting his decidedly less traumatic but similarly doomed marriage to Angela in New York City.
Admittedly, Mengestu provides perceptive insights into the psychology of his main characters. He proves particularly adept at demonstrating the manner in which childhood strains manifest themselves in adulthood. Angela, who grew up poor, places an inordinate emphasis on money as the factor determining marital happiness and stability. Meanwhile, Jonas, who spent much of his childhood getting out of his father’s way, nurtures a talent for embellishing and even lying—in other words, for storytelling—possibly as an indirect means of asserting his relevance. “I may not have had a solid definition of who I was,” he muses, “but that was only because for so long I had concentrated my efforts on trying to appear to be almost nothing at all—neither nameless nor invisible, just obscure enough to always blend into the background and be quickly forgotten.”
Yet even with his newfound penchant for telling stories, Jonas’s self-effacement continues. Unsurprisingly, it remains difficult to identify with a man who seems devoid of ardor. Jonas pities his mother, but doesn’t love her, and remains unmoved by his father’s death. Moreover, the reason he and Angela marry appears to have much less to do with emotional and physical affinity for each other than a combination of shared interests and conducive circumstances. Even their road to separation lacks the usual stinging confrontations—with one partial exception.
Indeed, Jonas’s detached and passionless (yet intriguingly cerebral) drift through life informs his narrative style, which rarely expresses or elicits strong emotions. Perhaps Mengestu deliberately adopted such a tack, thinking it would serve his protagonist’s consistency. But it was both unnecessary and unwise. After all, a shy and unassuming person can convincingly shake off his or her reserve during the liberating and confidence-enhancing process of storytelling. Because Jonas Woldemariam doesn’t, How to Read the Air rarely overcomes its narrator’s studied apathy.
RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF is a writer and book critic in Beirut.