Interstate 74 connects the Midwestern United States with the South, running for about 450 miles from Iowa to North Carolina. In Peoria, Ill., I-74 crosses the Illinois River over the Murray Baker Bridge into East Peoria and, eventually, south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Built in 1958, the bridge has four lanes and is more than 3,000 feet long. It does not have shoulders. There is something both ominous and inevitable about it. An emergency pull-off is impossible. The car would end up in the river. But without the bridge, there would be no connecting Illinois to U.S. 41, U.S. 231 and the rest of the sorrowful Midwest.
Traveling down this lonely stretch of road, Jonas, the narrator of Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air, pieces together the story of his parents, Mariam and Yosef. The novel alternates between two narrative strands, Jonas’ own and the one he reconstructs. In the latter, Mariam is pregnant with Jonas and keeping it from Yosef; their “honeymoon” trip from Peoria to Nashville is doomed, almost biblical. “Honeymoon” is in scare quotes because Mariam and Yosef called it a vacation. They had already been married, on paper anyway, for three years. Yosef escaped a war-ravaged Ethiopia ahead of Mariam. Their knowledge of English is elementary.
The drive is their marriage in microcosm: the two refugees always running but never arriving. Even the promise of the America Dream’s blissful routine is empty, only a phrase. “Say America enough times,” Mr. Mengestu writes, “and you end up with a few skyscrapers stuck in the middle of a cornfield with thousands of cars driving around.” On the highway with the cover of a normal-looking domestic life in the Midwest lifted, the young couple stops performing their already unstable roles as man and wife (Yosef is violent and abusive, Mariam hasn’t loved Yosef since he left Ethiopia). They attack each other, as they have always wanted, without restraint. They never make it to Nashville.
By the end of the first paragraph, the feeling of foreboding is visible on the page like a curse on the characters. Here, Mr. Mengestu, for the only time in this, his second novel, tells us exactly how to interpret his words: “They had never really known who the other person was at all.” The conclusion has everything to do with the couple’s failure to understand “honeymoon” etymologically. “In its marrying of two completely separate words,” Jonas says, “each of which they understood on its own, seemed to imply when joined together a lavishness that neither was prepared to accept.”
This confusion of interpretation is the perfect metaphor for the marriage and for all of Jonas’ relationships. Two unrelated signs that mean something entirely different from their referent when grouped together. For two people that “had never really known” one another, the sign is just ink on the page, but even still the failure to understand its meaning is a dark blemish on their relationship. In other words, “Learning a new language was, in the end, not so different from learning to fall in love with your husband again.” Unfortunately, language and love are not learned by rote.
While deeply invested in language’s inadequacies, Mr. Mengestu has not written a didactically theoretical novel, nor is the book uneventful. But How to Read the Air is a strange book, ultimately a story about telling stories, producing an echo chamber of fictions that leave the reader unaware of how to trace the central plot. But one must attempt, anyway: Jonas, raised in the Midwest by the cold and loveless Mariam and Yosef, now teaches high-school English on the Upper West Side. His father dies, and for days after, as a kind of litany against his grief, he strays from the lesson plan and rants to his classroom, making up as he goes along his father’s life story and his escape to America as well as embellishing many details of African history. He is vaguely aware of the real story, but, as he often says, he does not know either of his parents at all. He can never be sure what’s true. His marriage is falling apart because his job is going nowhere and his wife, Angela, is lying about an affair. Jonas lies about a promotion that will never happen. Both are lying about their marriage having worked in the first place. They do not know one another at all, Jonas says.
Jonas has a breakdown and decides to reenact his parents’ drive from Peoria to Nashville, making up, once again, the details of their trip, filling in certain facts with fictions because he is not sure of the details. He was not there. All of this is told out of order, the lies mixed with the plot. So many lies are transmitted in How to Read the Air that it is difficult to sort through what is true and what is just another story. A strange dilemma. The novel is, after all, only another story. The folly of interpretation is inherent in the business of writing, and reading, any story.
For all his preoccupations with language, Mr. Mengestu’s prose is beautiful, as bare and direct as the Midwestern stretch of I-74 on which Miriam and Yosef travel south. There are few descriptions of New York as pitch-perfect as “this island that despite its massive numbers and seemingly crushing density still lets you reach its borders so easily, almost as a consolation prize for enduring the brute force with which it could sometimes bear down on you, as if to remind you that you always have the option to leave and at the same time come back should you care to.” The reader is in constant battle with the text, sorting fiction from fact, grappling against the strength of Mr. Mengestu’s words and his frequent reminders that words fail.
Near the end of the novel, this failure is so great that Jonas disrupts his story to invent a conversation between his parents, to hear them at last say everything that’s been on their minds, the words finally arriving as clear as air:
“Yosef: You have no idea what I’ve been through.
“Mariam: I have no idea how you’ve gone on living like this.”
A happy ending ensues. “But of course they still weren’t finished with each other,” Jonas admits, reality setting in once again, “and so remained obligated to see this story through to its end.” This imagined dialogue comes as Jonas attempts to recollect his parents driving aimlessly in the opposite direction of Nashville. They are lost because they failed to read the signs–literal and otherwise–right in front of their eyes.