How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010)
"One September afternoon, Yosef and Marian, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Just months later, their son, Jonas, is born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas is desperate to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision the future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, he sets out to retrace his parents' trip and, in a stunning display of imagination, weaves together a family history that takes him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to a brighter vision of his life in the America of today, a story -- real or invented -- that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption."
"It was four hundred eighty-four miles from my parents' home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, a distance that in a seven-year-old red Monte Carlo driving at roughly sixty miles an hour could be crossed in eight to twelve hours, depending on certain variables such as the number of road signs offering side excursions to historical landmarks, and how often my mother, Mariam, would have to go to the bathroom."
I really, really wanted to fall in love with this book. It didn't happen -- in fact, I practically had to force myself to keep reading it -- and I closed the back cover wondering if the reviews were pretentious or I Just Didn't Get It.
Mengestu's language is, indeed, lovely, poetic, even (cliche though it is) luminous. Trouble was, there wasn't much to the story said language was telling. Yosef and Mariam are recently reunited after a three-year separation, but scarcely know each other; Yosef also happens to be brutally, inexplicably abusive. Mariam thinks about leaving and makes several false starts throughout Jonas's childhood, but doesn't until much later (perhaps not until after Jonas is grown). Yosef has died before the novel opens; Mariam lives, proudly independent, in a series of small towns on the northern Atlantic coast.
Thirty years after the road trip that represents their story, Jonas's fairly young marriage to Angela has fallen apart not with a bang, but with a whimper, and he's set out to retrace his parents' trip. Most of his story, though, recalls his crumbling marriage to Angela (he says and feels almost nothing, and their entire marriage seems to have been based on jokes and invented histories) and his growing love for his job as a part-time English teacher at a private high school -- despite the fact that after his fathers' death, he spends a week or so telling his students an imaginary story about his father's life.
It could be an interesting story, but it's all so spare and clinical. Sure, I get that Jonas's past seems to have made him an utter emotional cripple (like his parents before him), but it's hard to see enough personality or feeling under the surface anywhere to care. And other than the (interesting but totally made-up) story Jonas tells his students about his father's trip to America, Nothing. Happens. Here. His parents' trip to Nashville is aborted when they get into a fight, Yosef lashes out to strike Mariam, and Mariam grabs the steering wheel and drives the car into a ditch. Jonas and Angela decide to end their marriage (I think) because there's no real substantive connection between them. OK, and ... ?
I dunno. Maybe after a week of Jodi Picoult and John Grisham, my brain's just too atrophied for Good Literature.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.