Saturday, July 10, 2010

Short-a-Day: Dinaw Mengestu's "An Honest Exit"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 12 & 19, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 80.

"I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that outstripped anything they could personally have hoped to experience." Fiction is the vicarious lie that tells the truth, right? That's what I'm reminded of when, in the middle of Mengestu's semi-history, his narrator--a teacher of "Early American literature to privileged freshmen"--is called to account for the story he has been telling his students, the story of his father's exodus from Ethiopia to Sudan to London to America, a story that he has taken many liberties with as a means of coming to terms with his father's recent death and all the unspoken things that lay between them. The professor doesn't mind the inaccuracies, though: "Regardless of that," he said, "it's good to hear them talking about important things. So much of what I hear from them is shallow, silly rumors. They can sort out what's true for themselves later."

That's what works in this short: true or not, it's substantive, with a real weight and history to it--and a real surprise of an ending, one that's sadly all too American. The son's fictitious representation of his father, having betrayed the man who smuggled him out of Sudan, thinks to himself: "There were no rewards in life for such stupidity, and he promised himself never to fall victim to that kind of blind, wishful thinking. Anyone who did deserved whatever suffering he was bound to meet."

It's such a jaded end to such a hopeful story, and considering that the son is the one making up these details, essentially creating the father and the past that he wants, what he's lost is even more tragic. Hope, thinks the son through the father, is a stupid thing, as is faith, and it's only facing the truth that will help us. And yet, this story is almost entirely fabricated, so what sort of suffering is the son setting himself up for? Or already living? It's hard to write both sincerely and cynically, and Mengestu gets away with it by alternating between scenes involving the teacher in the present and the scenes he is "recounting" to his class, tales of the past.

That said, the story itself is almost too straightforwardly told for my tastes: Mengestu is a clear, traditional storyteller, and he shows a fine ear for historical details--true or false--, but he doesn't really have much of a voice (not like The White Tiger or Everything Was Illuminated, which are exaggerated, I know) that makes him stand out. Still, some great descriptions: "His clothes fit him poorly. His hands looked larger; the bones were more visible. He thought his fingers were growing."

No comments: