An Open Letter to Mr. Dinaw Mengestu upon the Publication of “How to Read the Air”
I recently finished your second novel, How to Read the Air, which was released yesterday. It was okay. Good, but not great. Normally, I would have no problem reviewing it on its own merits, and recommending that people go see you talk at the Seattle Public Library on Monday, October 18th.
I think books like How to Read the Air are important. I strongly believe that stories of diaspora, of separation and uncertain communion, need to be told. I believe that we, as societies experiencing an unprecedented global diaspora, need to hear the noise of cultures clashing. I want writers to write the stories, publishers to publish them, and readers to read. I believe in the importance of having the conversation with the fiery passion of a thousand burning optimists.
Which leaves me with a dilemma. I’m tasked with giving my largely introverted and antisocial neighbors a reason to leave the house, despite uncertain weather and unreliable drivers, not to mention that the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is running next week. It’s a big responsibility.
I loved your first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. It was one of those books that comes around rarely, a story that fundamentally affects one’s perceptions. When I finished Beautiful Things, I saw the world differently than I had before I started. I had greater compassion for my fellow humans. It was, indeed, a beautiful thing.
How to Read the Air is not as well crafted, or as interesting. Although How to Read the Air explores the same themes as The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears–the immigrant experience, specifically of Ethiopians in America–the language is not as concise and distinct in your second novel. All of the adjectives and metaphors cut from Beautiful Things seemed to have fled to How to Read looking for work and boy, howdy! did they find it.
Jonas, your Air protagonist, is an unreliable and largely unlikeable narrator. His (ex)wife, Angela, is undeveloped, as well as being unreliable and unlikeable: she is alternately a female-shaped reflection of Jonas, and a foil. The other characters are barely present–often told, but rarely shown.
Superficially, the plot is about Jonas’ attempting to reconcile his personal history by retracing his parents honeymoon, but really the novel is a story about stories. The stories we tell ourselves, that we tell others, that we use as social cover. I get that. If I had had any doubt, characters point out within the narrative that all stories are the same story, several times–with one tiny, shining exception: in a meta-moment, Angela briefly rebels against the novel’s narrative treadmill, and declares, “that’s not true. It’s not the same story.” If only.
In every way, How to Read the Air is a weaker novel than Beautiful Things. Even the cover is sadly second-rate. I feel sort of sorry for the new book, like it’s the smallest puppy in the litter, but one can’t save every puppy, nor attend every reading. What to do? Should we go to see you speak at SPL, watch Ice Road Truckers, or attend the screening of Florent: Queen of the Meat Market? As I stated, it’s a dilemma.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I wish you all the best in your career, and look forward to reading your future books.