“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!