The Clues Leading to Page 138
On page 138 of All Our Names, Mengestu confirms that the Isaac we’ve been following in the Midwest is Langston at the beginning of the novel. When I read this passage, I had to put the book down because I was simultaneously shocked and impressed with Mengestu’s bold literary choice. I would like to look back on some of the foreshadowing throughout the novel.
On page 5, the narrator says Isaac’s “name became his last and most precious gift to me.” I also found it interesting that Langston says he wants to be a writer on page 10, and then Helen immediately remarks about Isaac’s literary passion, when the original Isaac did not seem particularly inclined toward literature, instead dubbing Langston “the Professor.” And Midwestern Isaac’s restlessness and lack of a sense of home on page 100 is paralleled by Langston’s mental separation from his family in the chapter immediately following, after he’s beaten up and loses his Kampala home (102-3). Lastly is Helen’s comment on page 98 that the only solid fact in Isaac’s file was his name, “but even that was no longer substantial: any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.”
These clues on top of the fact that the chapters switch between Isaac and Helen, not Langston and Helen, something I brought up in class the other day before reading ahead and realizing why Mengestu made that stylistic choice. I found this frustrating throughout the novel until he justified it with the surprise twist in plot. He did a good job leaving room for this switch to be plausible, given the mystery Ugandan Isaac remains shrouded in on both sides of the pond, and a number of places where he throws us off, such as setting up false parallels. For instance, the similarity in the two restaurant scenes implies that our male protagonist is the same relatively-confrontational person in both situations.
Mengestu’s novel is beautifully crafted and incredibly well-executed; it would have been successful without this surprise, but its successful execution enhances the story.