"How to Read the Air" by Dinaw Mengestu

I try never to let an emotional reaction to a book’s characters or events interfere with an appreciation of the writer’s prowess. And Dinaw Mengestu evokes such a sad and hopeless mood for the two marriages portrayed in "How to Read the Air" that I want to make sure readers know up front this is definitely a highly skilled writer. For all of the emotional and physical cruelty exhibited, this is a subtle piece, a piece that makes you dig for its significances and its lessons. Whether the story supports the lessons is open to debate.

Jonas Woldemariam, the son of Ethiopian refugee parents, narrates in the first person. He tells the story of his own marriage, and includes the meticulous truth about his own compulsive lying. He also re-creates the events of his parents’ marriage, the ill-fated union that led to his life, and he feels it is a worthless life. Here is one of Mr. Mengestu’s subtleties, perhaps the chief one: he has his first-person narrator fill in details of a story he cannot possibly know. The narrator apparently needs to piece together the story of his father and mother to make sense of his own seemingly marginal existence. This narrative takes on a vividness and reality as the author takes it over, and gradually the narrator’s part in the telling disappears. The story of the ill-matched parents consists in large part of a car trip from Peoria to Nashville, in which Yosef, Jonas’s father, takes a wrong turn immediately after he and his wife have a small, slightly-less-acrimonious interlude in the car. Neither partner wants to acknowledge that they took the wrong turn, and the upshot is one of the worst disasters described in the book.

So Mr. Mengestu keeps us a step removed from the parents’ story, possibly because his narrator must make it up as he goes along. In fact, he has always felt the need to prevaricate in the face of every important person or pressure in his life. He lies to his employer, his mother, and most devastatingly, to his wife Angela, another needy soul whom Jonas cannot fulfill in any long-term way. Toward the book’s conclusion, Jonas makes up an elaborate story of his father’s refugee life in Africa, only very vaguely based on the man’s life, and embellishes it for his English class students. He combines this fiction with a car trip in the same route that his parents took, and he begins to have an insight into his parents’ lives. As he finally breaks up with his wife Angela, a surprisingly amicable split, he assures her that even apart, they will have meaningful lives. How he comes to this apparently spurious conclusion is a bit of a mystery. He has some internal revelation and feels his life is affirmed. It feels tacked-on at some level – it doesn’t have an adequate foundation in the story. I hate to say this about this book, because other aspects of it are so impressive: the prose, the parallel narratives, Mr. Mengestu’s assured understanding of human nature.

Mr. Mengestu’s first book, "The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears," was an award-winning work, and though I have not read it, I’m sure, from my exposure to this book, that it must be a very gratifying piece. I cannot help but think "How to Read the Air" must represent a lesser accomplishment.

Listen to Dinaw Mengestu read from "How to Read the Air":

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  1. In case some of you are interested, KQED's "The Writers' Block" just published an episode of Dinaw Mengestu reading from his new novel:

  2. Thank you, liz, I do find that very interesting.

  3. You can also embed the reading - you'll find the code to the right of the
    audio player.