After finishing Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers earlier this week, I did not immediately think back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I’ve read several books from African ex-pats over the last few years, so the connection didn’t spring immediately to mind. But as I reflected, the two books became more and more entwined in my thinking.
Some of the comparisons are obvious, if superficial. Both novels portray immigrants from African countries who work their way through similar layers of the American immigrant experience, including protagonists who find jobs in service that bring them into the orbits of privileged white Americans. Behold the Dreamers follows Jende and Neni, a Cameroonian couple trying to make their way in Harlem just before the 2008 financial crisis. Their lives change dramatically when Jende snags a job as a chauffeur to the wealthy Edwards family–whose patriarch is an executive at Lehman Brothers. Americanah’s chief protagonist is Ifemelu, a Nigerian student separated from her original love interest by post-9/11 visa restrictions. Though she also does a tour as a nanny for a white family, her real exposure to white privilege is through a romantic relationship that opens her up to travel, fine dining, and ultimately to being fundamentally misunderstood. The contrasts between the worlds of black immigrants being exposed to America’s endemic racism and the lives of the white people they interact with inform both authors’ visions of America and, to varying degrees, act as the engines driving their characters’ evolutions.
And much separates the two novels as well. Adichie’s Americanah is undeniably a more sophisticated work. One of the highlights is the way that the first half of the novel is structured around an extended flashback while Ifemelu has her hair braided (a conceit that, sadly, has no parallel in the second half of the novel) and Adichie’s prose is on the whole richer, more sophisticated. Mbue’s prose on the other hand is unadorned, even pedestrian, but it steers well clear of any pat moralizing or judgments—even when the characters or their backstories swing toward melodrama. (She also insulates her white characters from too harsh a lens: Clark Edwards tries to warn his colleagues that the ship is sinking, but is dismissed; his wife is spared from being portrayed as simply a pampered wife of privilege through a painful and tragic backstory that earns her more sympathy that most people would earn while fretting over the horrific prospect of having to give up a summer home because of the national economic meltdown.)
It would be easy to read either novel simply as an indictment of the American Dream, which fails to deliver its promise in both. But Mcue’s impartial, plain-voiced narration and Adichie’s carefully interwoven storylines seem to fall short of offering an outright evisceration of that American Dream on the order of something like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle from past eras. Perhaps that’s because other great novels that have analyzed these themes were surgery, diagnostics–but both Americanah and Behold the Dreamers feel more like postmortems.
Both feature characters choosing to abandon the American Dream instead of being crushed by it. Through those perspectives of erstwhile American immigrants returning to their home countries and using the experience and resources gleamed from their temporary immigration to build better lives back home, I wonder if something fundamentally new isn’t being documented. Much has been written in the wake of the Trump era about the decline of American, its loss of prestige, the likely end of the “American Century” before it quite hit the 100 year mark. These novels reckon to some extent with the catastrophes of 9/11 and 2008, and looking back, I wonder if historians won’t look at these as a chain of routs like those that befell Rome before its collapse: barbarians at the gates and mad rulers fiddling while the city burned.
But if we are living through the death throes of the American Dream, Mbue and Adichie’s novels suggest something else may be happening alongside this contraction. I’m fond of telling my high school students that they need to know this sequence: Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the known world–and that’s why Greek culture was so influential.
It’s an oversimplification, of course, but cultural myths always are. The American Dream is, or was. But as I think about the way that dream captivated characters like Mbue’s Neni and the way that American media has transmitted the underlying ethos of that dream throughout the world, I wonder if even when it is no longer a lure to others, it might mutate into something America exported, something unconscious the myth disseminated into the hearts and minds of millions of others around the world.
Perhaps that’s what novels like these, so clearly American in their structure and ambitions, offer us: a window into a post-America American Century.