By Michael Chin
The American Dream is a myth older than the United States themselves, rooted in conceptions of America as a place of opportunity in which hard work will be rewarded with a better life. The Dream is alive and well in Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, the immersive and powerful debut novel by Julie Iromuanya. As is the case for so many immigrants who venture to the States, protagonists Job and Ifi, each born in Nigeria, discover that the pursuit of happiness is long, and the achievement of it elusive.
The novel opens on Job and Ifi consummating their arranged marriage—“their first unchaperoned meeting”—in which Job asserts himself by quoting verbiage from American pornography. The scene quickly establishes the dynamic between the two. Job perpetually acts how he thinks he is supposed to, rather than being himself, even in the most intimate of moments; Ifi responds to his lewd comments by punching him in the ear.
From these rough beginnings, the two embark on a life in Nebraska. Job has already started his life in the States, first to partake in a Green Card marriage to a woman name Cheryl, and then to go to school. It was his family’s intention for Job to become a doctor and send back money for them, but Job winds up a college dropout, employed as a nurse’s assistant. He lives meagerly so that he can still send money home and uphold the lie that he is a doctor, and so he can still recruit a wife. All the while, he wears a white lab coat and stethoscope in public so that he might project the image of a doctor to the world, and even to Ifi herself—he hides the faux-doctor apparel and dons his actual uniform in a deserted parking lot before each shift.
Job is compulsively dishonest, and yet also irresistible as a protagonist. I don’t believe him when he tells himself he will go back to college and that he will finish medical school, but I do believe that he has convinced himself of this fairy tale, that he cannot let go of his version of the American Dream, even as it shrinks further and further from possibility, much less likelihood.
Unlike Job, Ifi does grow disillusioned quickly, able to see through Job’s lies soon enough and yet unable to speak to him about it. She’s rejected, even, when she attempts to share the reality of Job’s existence with her own family, including her visiting aunt, who is not deceived, but also not fazed by Job’s charade.
“Angrily, Ifi said, ‘He is not a doctor.’
Now Aunty faced Ifi. ‘Do you think you are shaming your husband with this nonsense talk? You are his wife. Do you understand’” Ifi did. Aunty had known all along. ‘You are everything he is. Do not expose yourself. I will never hear you say that again. Do you understand?’ Her words were low, yet sharp. ‘You are Mrs. Doctor.’”
In addition to living a real life within Job’s mythology, Ifi comes to accept that her own dreams—Job’s promise that she would be a nurse and work with him—will never come to pass. Upon the birth of their son—who Job impulsively names Victor Ezeaku (victorious king)—she faces the stark realization she will not go to nursing school any more than Job will ever be a doctor. On the contrary, in the book’s most heartbreaking moment, she acknowledges that, counter to pursuing any of her own ambitions, “having a child had made her a mother.”
Over the course of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, Iromanyua has much more to say about contemporary American life and the experience of immigrants adjusting to it. There is the nature of gender–Job engages in a testosterone-driven rivalry with best friend and fellow Nigerian Emeka, an elderly woman who lives nearby urges Ifi to leave Job, while Cheryl, who continually returns to Job’s life, threatens to reveal his schemes in the same breath as she both asks for his financial help and concedes that she still sees Job as family. There is the matter of race, which comes up after teenagers mug Job and police add insult to injury when they ask if the thieves were black like Job (“No. Not like me,” Job holds firm, insisting that the young black men are nothing like him.) Throughout all of this, the novel circles back to the American Dream. In Cheryl clinging to a family-owned house she can’t afford. In Job spontaneously buying a big screen TV in a vain attempt at making Ifi happy. Most of all in a lyrically written, particularly brutal moment of clarity that seems to sum up the American experience for Job and Ifi.
“From his windshield, Job was astonished to see a flock of ascending sandhill cranes alight the sky … In awe, Job’s eyes left the yellow lines splitting the highway ahead of him and took in the moving sky. Just then, a splatter of bird excrement painted his windshield. For the rest of the way home, his vision of the sandhill cranes’ grand flight was obscured by four white streaks of shit.”
Iromanyua pulls no punches in this tale of trenchant unhappiness cut by ambition. As a reader, I rooted for Job and Ifi against all hope, against all logic. Because whether or not I believed either would ever achieve a modicum of success, the author convinced me thoroughly of their existence as sympathetic, wholly believable people, and how could I not wish them well? Who was I to discount their dream?
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is available now at Greenville Public Library.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York, and is a recent alumnus of the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Prairie Schooner online,Bayou Magazine, and Gravel. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.