“The Bakweri people of Limbe believe August is a cursed month. The rain falls too hard and for too long; rivers rise up too high and too fast. Dry days are few; chilly nights are many. The month is long, dreary, and hostile, and it is for this reason that many in the tribe do not marry, build homes, or start businesses in August. They wait for it to go away, along with its curses. Jende Jonga, a Bakweri man, believed nothing in curses.”
Behold the Dreamers, p. 355
By Imbolo Mbue
Published 2016 by Random House
“The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick” is an early short story by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the story, Richard Hoffman expresses frustration that his daughter, Esther, is not a natural magician: “She’s pretty terrible. Too dramatic. She says, Behold! It’s terrible. Behold this! Behold that!” But it is Esther who ultimately saves the day and utters the very last word of the story – “Behold” – as her father realizes she is indeed “a most gifted young woman,” having little to do with sleight of hand.
“Behold” naturally stuck in my mind and for a few days I found excuses to say it, and imagined conversations in which I would dramatically slip it in. On one of those days, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers arrived at my front door, and you can imagine the meaning I assigned to the coincidence.
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, 2016) intertwines the lives of two New York City couples who represent vastly different versions of the American Dream. Clark and Cindy Edwards split their time between Manhattan and the Hamptons, a pampered life made possible by Clark’s prestigious position at Lehman Brothers. Jende and Neni Jonga live in a cramped apartment in Harlem, happy to have left their native Cameroon and desperate to build a new life in America. Jende is hired to be the Edwards’ chauffer, Neni their housekeeper, and the two become all-too-intimately involved in the crumbling lives of their wealthy employers.
In 2008, Lehman Brothers infamously filed for bankruptcy, unleashing an eerily endless ripple effect: “All through the land, willows would weep for the end of many dreams.” Countless lives were derailed, and Behold the Dreamers is a fictional take on that moment in recent history. There is one particularly endearing scene in which Jende and Neni jump around their living room and shed tears because Barack Obama has been elected president: “The son of an African now ruled the world.”
Dreams do not always come true, a lesson rarely imparted to children yet one of the first learned as adults. The American Dream, one of the grandest promises of all, is particularly vulnerable to falling short because it underestimates the impact of variables that are often impossible to control. For example, one of the issues the book examines is immigration, as Jende and Neni are under continuous stress that they will be forced to leave the country. When Jende loses his job and deportation appears imminent, the stress is palpable, leading to dark and highly questionable actions. Neni is depressed during the entire last stretch of the story, and the ultimate decision – to stay in America or return to Cameroon – is made by Jende and does not lift her spirits.
Of course, the ultimate lesson is not that to dream is futile. Rather, that if you persevere, a dream will continuously rearrange itself, mold itself to the conditions it encounters, and become real in a way you could not have even imagined. Perhaps such unpredictability is what keeps the magic in tact. Hence, behold the dreamers!
“Tamar was sweet and kind, but the world she moved around in seemed like a television set: limited and straightforward and mundane, with the notations and structures of normality. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There wasn’t a frightening gap between the life she was living and the way she thought about that life, a dark ravine I often sensed in Suzanne, and maybe in my own self as well.”
The Girls, p. 275
By Emma Cline
Published 2016 by Random House
The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016) reflects the author’s fascination with Charles Manson and the girls who followed in his wake, but make no mistake, this is pure, mesmerizing fiction. The story centers on 14-year-old Evie Boyd, all too lonely and taken by the wild, tattered beauty of three girls she one day eyes in the park. She is unable to piece together their strange behavior, proof that she is far too removed from their universe to ever suspect the obvious truth, that they are members of a cult. Evie lives in Petaluma, a city within shouting distance of my own home in Sonoma County, and just about every Northern California city I know and love makes an appearance: Berkeley, Santa Rosa, Sausalito, Humboldt, Ukiah, Palo Alto and San Francisco. How strange to recognize the terrain of a story as that of my very own. Evie ultimately joins the girls on their rotted ranch where she meets Russell, the cult leader whom the girls obscenely worship, though Evie’s obsession curls towards 19-year-old Suzanne: “Her face could have been an error, but some other process was at work. It was better than beauty.”
The magic of fiction is felt in the instances that Evie runs into the girls, so perfectly timed, so serendipitous, allowing the story to make full, easy strides forward. Beautiful metaphors are abound, including “spare and empty as a coastal church,” “their hair streaming behind them like flags,” “her life like a TV show about summer,” and my very favorite: “Like royalty in exile.” Cline’s observation of girls is as fine tuned as a medical textbook, putting forward defining markers of girlhood:
“I waited to be told what was good about me.”
“At this age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power of every interaction onto the other person.”
“It was an age when I often conflated liking people with feeling nervous around them.”
I wish such self-awareness had blossomed in me when I was 14, or perhaps had been nurtured in me by a wiser adult, throwing some light into the dark confusion of adolescence. But self-discovery is never to be dependent on others, and above all notoriously late.
Emma Cline is the literary world’s most recent darling. An article in the New York Times practically gushes that Cline “has long strawberry-blond hair, light-blue eyes and a habit of staring into space while formulating her thoughts.” How lovely. The Girls (her first book) caused a bidding war (won by Random House for a cool $2 million), and she’s under contract to write two more. I’m wary of the tendency to amplify a single voice, to idolize, to elevate one above the rest. Surely there are others who have spun words just as fine. Then again, at times, I understand this kind of frenzy that the publishing world orchestrates. The Girls really is that good.