23 July 2007

Logan Circle in transition.

Dinaw Mengestu's novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears uses Logan Circle of the late 1990's as its setting (reviewers who say otherwise probably didn't catch the narrator's mention that old calendars with three years from the mid-1990's still hang in his neglected grocery store (the exact years escape me now, but I think he mentions 1993, 1994, and 1996), which DC residents should realize were pivotal transitional years in Logan Circle's transformation from a run-down affordable neighborhood rife with prostitution to an overpriced hip location that houses one of the busiest Whole Foods stores in the entire chain.
I lived in the Logan Circle area (13th and N) for a year (1994-1995), and I found much familiar about Mengestu's description of the parade of prostitutes and the long line of cars with their solitary drivers looking to make a deal, but a few notes did hit a bit wrong, such as when he placed 12th and New Hampshire only "a block and a half from General Logan's statue." Perhaps he meant 12th and Vermont or 12th and Rhode Island, because 12th and New Hampshire don't ever intersect, and if they did it would be in Columbia Heights, not Logan Circle (12th ends at Euclid Street and New Hampshire is interrupted around 15th Street and doesn't pick up again until 10th Street). This technicality, while jarring for someone familiar with the area, is more an editorial issue than anything else; Mengestu's story is beautifully written and full of significant observations about gentrification and its discontents as well as immigration and its discontents.
The narrator, Sepha Stephanos, is an immigrant from Ethiopia, a refugee from the Red Terror of the late 1970's. While the novel's present is the late 1990's, Stephanos fills in the gaps between his fleeing Ethiopia and his current situation as a small business owner in a gentrifying neighborhood through interspersed recollections. At the age of 19 he finds himself working at a hotel in Washington, DC, and living with his uncle in Silver Spring. After a few years, he opens his grocery store in Logan Circle, but this story is not the stereotypical tale of hardworking immigrant makes good and flourishes in the land of opportunity; to begin with, Stephanos is not exactly hardworking and his neglected store, with out of date merchandise and few customers, is not going to be his for long: behind on his rent, he has been served an eviction notice. He feels himself to be stuck in a rut, and he's confused about his future and not particularly concerned about his present. As for the past, he's neither overwhelmed by it nor free of it.
His two closest friends, Kenneth and Joe are fellow immigrants from Africa, and the three of them spend much time together drinking and playing a game best described as "name the coup," in which they toss out a coup leader's name and the others try to guess the year and the country. It's a sad observation, as Stephanos realizes, that they can play this game forever, because they will never run out of names. Although the three friends met while working at the same downtown hotel (named the Capitol Hotel in the book), their lives have taken different trajectories since: Kenneth is now an engineer working in a small firm, Stephanos is an independent small business owner, and Joe is now waiting tables at one of the more exclusive Washington power dining spots (think Capital Grille or some such den of lobbyists). The interaction among these friends is the highlight of the novel, in part because it allows Mengestu to break up the monolithic "immigrant experience" into several strands and to present competing attitudes toward their home continent and countries.
The title is drawn from Dante, and references abound to the Divine Comedy throughout the book. Some of the references are quite direct, such as Stephanos or Joe quoting directly from Dante, but it's also hard to overlook the fact that Stephanos is 37 years old, pretty close to Dante's narrator, who begins Inferno with the lines, "Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost." Stephanos is indeed lost, not seeming to have any clear attachments to anyone or anything. Additionally, it's not hard to see Logan Circle as one of Dante's circles of Hell, but which one? Lust? Avarice and Prodigality? Fraud?
A second storyline in the novel is Stephanos's relation with a new neighbor, Judith, and her 11 year old daughter, Naomi. Judith, a white professor, moves to Logan Circle to rehabilitate one of the dilapidated mansions that ring the circle, and as such she's a representative of gentrification. Her daughter is obviously biracial, and it turns out that Judith had been married to a Mauritanian professor of economics. Mengestu highlights the relationship between Stephanos and Naomi, who comes to the store after school to hang out and talk with him; they eventually begin a book club of sorts, taking turns reading to each other from The Brothers Karamazov, which is an odd choice for an eleven year old, but they trudge through it nonetheless. The relationship between Stephanos and Judith is less pronounced, leading one to wonder how much of it is actually just wishful thinking on Stephanos's part, and is full of lingering unrealized possibilities that fall apart as class and cultural differences come into play. Judith becomes a target for neighborhood resentment of gentrification, and Stephanos becomes caught in the middle, although it might be more appropriate to describe him as a spectator, like Dante, walking through hell.

Looking down P Street, from Logan Circle toward Dupont Circle.

At one point, in fact in the final afternoon of the novel, Stephanos serves a tourist couple then abandons his store to follow them at a distance as they walk along P Street to Dupont Circle. At Dupont, Stephanos lies down in the grass and stares up at the sky, while his store remains untended and unlocked. Eventually he wanders back toward Logan Circle, but the novel ends with his not returning to the store, instead preserving in his mind a more idealized vision of the store and leaving us with the idea that even if he hasn't found his way forward, his life as a shopkeeper is over.


Momentary Academic said...

I'm going to have to read this. Adding it to the pile!

cuff said...

MA it shouldn't take long: I read it in 3 days and I'm willing to bet someone could read it over the course of two afternoons...

Reya Mellicker said...

Thank you for the review. Let's see ... which circle of hell is Logan's Circle? I did a lot of research on its history when I was doing my performance art magic there.

The history of the neighborhood is always way up then way down. This latest gentrification is nothing new.

It's part of the original Masonic design of the city, one foot of the Masonic triangle of which the White House is the "head." (Dupont Circle is the other foot.)

The circle, originally called "Blodgett's Wilderness" - can you imagine?, functioned as an executioner's square during the Civil War where spies and traitors were hung. Grisly, eh? Later on it was the site of lynchings on a regular basis. One DC historian I spoke with told me there are photos from the turn of the last century (1900) in which so many men are hanging from the trees that they look "like Christmas ornaments."

Later, during Prohibition, it was a marketplace for moonshine, opium and heroin.

Maybe that's why, no matter how ritzy the neighborhood is or was during previous gentrifications, the circle is so damn creepy.