How to Read the Air
is a novel by Dinaw Mengestu. It’s a work of literary fiction about an Ethiopian-American named Jonas, who tries to trace his family history after the death of his father when he is thirty years old. The story follows Jonas after his father's death, when he leaves behind his life in New York City to follow the path his parents took just after emigrating, and his ability to finally reconcile the America he knows with the America his parents discovered so many decades before.
Narrator Jonas begins the novel in a bit of a crisis. His family has left him traumatized and essentially unable to cope with the world – he is so terrified of conflict that he will do absolutely anything to avoid it, even if it means losing everything he loves. This is the case when the novel begins. Jonas is a compulsive liar, often telling people what they want to hear to avoid any hurt feelings or anger that might come from telling them the truth. This has become problematic for Jonas's wife, a successful young lawyer who is unsatisfied in their marriage.
Early on, Jonas's wife reveals her secret, and the lies she has been telling – she has been unfaithful to her husband and wants a divorce. Jonas is devastated but has almost no outward emotional reaction; his trauma has paralyzed him to the point where he can barely express joy, never mind anger, sadness, or grief. Around the same time, Jonas loses his job for problems that are also related to his compulsive lying and lack of affect. His high-paying, comfortable job teaching English at a private school in the city is gone, and he is left with nothing.
The story of Jonas's losses comprise one third of the narrative; the other two pieces are focused on a trip from Illinois, where Jonas was born, to Tennessee. The first trip was taken by Jonas's mother and father before he was born, when his mother was pregnant with him. In the second trip, Jonas retraces their footsteps, following in their path to try to uncover some part of himself.
Jonas's mother and father had a tumultuous and violent marriage. Jonas's father was brutal and abusive, with a hot temper and a penchant for throwing things when he got upset. In contrast, Jonas's mother was helpless, passive, and subservient. She avoided problems rather than confronting them, and facing the wrath of her traumatized and rage-filled husband.
The trip Jonas's parents took from Illinois to Tennessee was a kind of second honeymoon for them. They had both been reunited in America after years of separation during the war in Ethiopia. They are both happy to see each other, and filled with the trauma of war and leaving their homes behind. The trip alternates between fits of rage when Jonas's mother's anxiety and passive behavior leads his father into a fit, and moments of attempted, forlorn tenderness, as the couple try to reconcile with each other.
As Jonas travels this same path, he is forced to consider the violence that brought his parents to America, and the violence that separated them from each other for so many years. Though he can't excuse his father's brutality, he does have a moment of redemption in which he recognizes the cycles of trauma that brought him to this point – as the child of immigrants, he is a product of the pain that forced them to leave their home behind. This redemption is the crux of the novel, and it forces Jonas to consider how his own behavior is only one step in a long path toward generations of recovery.
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia. During a period known as the Red Terror, his father applied for political asylum, while his mother was pregnant with him. Eventually, he and his siblings and mother were reunited with his father in Illinois. Mengestu lived in Oak Park in Chicago, and eventually attended Georgetown and Columbia University as a student of English. His books include The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, How to Read the Air,
and All Our Names
, among other titles.