Halfway through Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue’s lush and lovely debut novel, Neni Jonga finds her employer, Cindy Edwards, unconscious on a bed, surrounded by pill bottles and an empty wineglass.
Neni is a Cameroonian immigrant, an aspiring pharmacist who’s earning some extra money by working as a temporary housekeeper for a wealthy family that also employs her husband as a chauffeur. It’s 2008, and Mr. Edwards works for Lehman Brothers, so things are tense. Still, Neni can’t imagine why Cindy — wealthy, beautiful Cindy — would need to take drugs.
She isn’t sure what to do. If she touches Cindy and then Cindy dies, will she be blamed? But if Cindy dies because Neni did nothing, won’t Neni also be to blame? She’s only barely documented; any trouble could get her deported.
So she wakes Cindy up, carries her out of bed, feeds her, and bathes her. The next day, she listens with compassion as Cindy explains her tragic backstory, how she grew up with nothing:
"I came from a poor family. A very, very poor family."
"Me, too, madam — "
Cindy shook her head. "No, you don’t understand," she said. "Being poor for you in Africa is fine. Most of you are poor over there. The shame of it, it’s not as bad for you."
Neni closed her eyes and nodded as if she completely understood and agreed.
It never occurs to Cindy to ask Neni about what her life is like, and Neni certainly doesn’t volunteer details. Their relationship is not reciprocal; it is transactional. But Neni is doing a lot more than Cindy is paying her to do.
The soul of this book is rooted in the complex relationship between employer and employee
The labor that Neni performs for Cindy in the above scene is not only physical; it is emotional. She’s asked not just to keep Cindy’s opulent Hamptons home spotless but also to take on Cindy’s psychological baggage, to soothe her and tend to her, to ignore her own interests and dignity in order to preserve her employer’s.
This is the slippage that lies at the heart of the impressive Behold the Dreamers: how easily the physical labor the Edwardses demand of the Jongas blurs into emotional labor.
So as Neni covers for Cindy’s ever-more-frequent drinking sprees, her husband Jende drives Clark Edwards to seedy hotel trysts with escorts. When Cindy asks him if Clark is cheating on her, he lies. He learns of Clark’s doubts about the worthiness of his work and his confused estrangement from his children. He acts as a kind of confessor in the front seat of the car, absolving Clark of his sins.
By the end of Behold the Dreamers, as Wall Street goes up in flames, it’s clear the Edwardses have outsourced all of their emotional labor to their household staff, and it’s taken a toll on the Jongas.
Behold the Dreamers reveals the dark side of the American dream
The toxic relationship between the Jongas and the Edwardses reveals itself slowly, almost imperceptibly. The Jongas are jubilant at the start of the novel, when Jende lies his way into the chauffeur job for the princely salary of $30,000 a year: At last, they say, they can start to save for a house! And then Neni can finish school and become a pharmacist, and their children will reap all the benefits of an American education, and they’ll truly be living the American dream.
But as they spend more time with the Edwardses, Jende and Neni begin to argue more and more. Jende starts telling Neni she’s stupid; Neni starts to hide things from Jende. She even begins to fear that he’ll beat her — but if he does, she thinks, she’ll know it wasn’t really him but "a grotesque being created by the sufferings of an American immigrant life."
It’s not all grotesque suffering, though. Mbue finds room in Behold the Dreamers to highlight moments of intense joy in the Jongas’ life: They feast on fried plantains and cocoyams and smoked turkey neck; they glory in Columbus Circle — "the center of the world"; and they dance ecstatically at a house party:
They jumped and skipped as they pumped their fists, shouting together as loud as they could, Blazo, blazo, zoblazo, on a gagné! On a gangné! When one of Jende’s non-African friends from work asked him what the song meant, he shouted, without pausing to catch his breath, it means we have won, man. It means we have won!
But as joyous as the moment is, it also invites the difficult question: What have they won? Was it just the opportunity to work for selfish wealthy people who unthinkingly suck the life out of them? Is that, ultimately, all the American dream has to offer the Jongas? And if it is, Behold the Dreamers asks, is it a dream worth dreaming?