How to Read the Air moves precisely and methodically through related, yet separate stories about two generations of a family with Ethiopian roots who are struggling to find their place in the strange cultural melting pot of their host country.
For the first half of the book, odd chapters detail what Jonas knows of the relationship between his parents as they navigated their immigrant status, new marriage, and the strange world around them. Even chapters chronicle the Jonas’ adult life as an immigration center clerk and teacher, and his later quest to recreate a road trip from Illinois to Tennessee that his parents embarked on even as their marriage was disintegrating.
Mariam is beautiful, and quietly exotic. She often loses herself in memories of the mountains surrounding the village where she grew up, and she is unwilling to allow her husband to completely dominate her, even as he batters her body. When Mariam pushes the boundaries of the husband-wife relationship, seeking to establish herself as an individual when her native culture would have her submit, her husband seizes back some modicum of control through violence. Back and forth, they struggle to assert their individuality in the home so far away from the village where they first met and courted, a lifetime ago.
Yosef has tried to establish a foothold in American life, scraping together enough funds to bring his bride over from Africa so they can start their new life. He wants to be American, but at the same time expects things from Mariam as an Ethiopian woman that she is no longer willing to provide, as she sees the different standard of life around her. By immersing himself in obscure American minutiae, Yosef tries to prove that he is committed fully to his new nationality, completely missing the point of what it means to be part of the community of citizens. Yosef has compiled the trappings of the American dream, but they’re disappointingly shabby. He seeks to hide his shame at not succeeding utterly in his adopted country. Worst of all, Yosef can feel his wife’s contempt, and when it’s too much, when he feels she is testing him, he loses control of his temper.
Jonas keeps the story of his parents’ marriage, largely inferred from stories told in broken English by his mother and some knowledge of this particular road trip that his parents took together, separate from his own story of falling in love and marrying. It’s in the middle of the book, when he comes to the point when he can no longer skirt around the dissolution of his own marriage, that the stories converge.
Jonas fills the reader in on the struggle he and his wife Angela shared, growing apart, coldly ignoring each other, as he follows in the steps of his parents and begins to intersperse his personal story with descriptions of their disintegrating marriage. The trip that Jonas tries to recreate is one that his parents embarked on when his mother knew she carried a child. Mariam wanted to conceal her pregnancy for as long as possible from her husband, reluctant to hand him any advantage in their power struggle.
Angela accuses Jonas of not caring about his own history, of not feeling a connection with his roots. She jokes at parties that he was born in Ethiopia, then that he is merely from the Midwest and wishes he was really African. Angela uses every time that Jonas fails to demonstrate a connection to a place from his history as a weapon against him. His coping mechanism is to throw himself into his teaching, while Angela, a lawyer who lacks job security at her firm and can’t afford to move them out of their New York basement apartment, buys $300 shoes and ignores Jonas at home in the evenings.
Through recreating the journey his parents took, Jonas is trying to come to terms with his own inability to form rational human relationships. He is trying to understand how his parents got their communication so wrong, and why when he is faced with the opportunity to share himself with others, he tends to turn to falsehood and fantasy to impress his audience.
It’s rare to have such an eloquent narrator who freely admits that much of what he tells other people is invented, yet to be so convinced by his words that the story he tells about his parents and their miserable relationship is accurate. Once or twice Jonas slips, admitting that he can’t actually know the details he is sharing with us, but the picture he paints is so complete and so compelling that the reader believes him, anyway.
Author Dinaw Mengestu paints a beautiful and distressing picture of a family struggling to balance trying to define themselves and the world around them, each perceiving that world in completely different and sometimes conflicting ways. This is an entrancing, yet weighty story of a broken family from an Ethiopian culture and immersed in an immigrant community.