You think you know where I grew up – in my case, the northern suburbs of Chicago – but then comes a novel that makes you see it with new eyes.
That novel is Adam Langer’s “Cyclorama,” revealing hidden depths about the world I come from, while also providing a page-turning novel that is in turn funny, hopeless, and even emphatic, a complex and powerful blend.
Langer, whose 2004 “Crossing California” was first selected as one of the 10 best “Chicago novels of the 21st century” by Chicago Magazine, is the underappreciated Chicagoland poet, someone who can capture both physical existence And the spiritual for a place and its people.
“Crossing California” is set in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Langer’s birth, while “Cyclorama” is set in Evanston, where Langer attended high school. “Cyclorama” was split into two parts, dated 1982 and 2016. In 1982, a production of “Anne Frank’s Diary” was set in a fictional magnet school, headed by director Tyrus Densmore, a sad, petty tyrant who appears to reap great pleasure from emotionally and physically manipulating his young actors.
While each chapter focuses on a different character, it is Densmore who controls everyone’s destiny. For example, the young lead Declan, sure he’ll cast the role of Peter Van Dan (Anne Frank’s friend), has Dinsmore relegated him to a secondary role, leading to his escalation. Declan’s friend Carrie plays Anne, and uses Declan’s demotion as a way to free herself from Declan’s arrogant nature while getting closer to her co-star, Franklin.
Other dramas small and large were created between the characters, with Densmore’s whimsy at the center. Everyone, including a high school journalism teacher, knows that Densmore isn’t a good fit (or worse) with students, but no one does anything about it.
Students are flattered by Densmore’s interest, even when it becomes clear that he is abusive. When he makes sex jokes, quits pornography, or grabs a crotch or two, telling them that’s how the adult world works, don’t they want to be adults? Densmore dangles on a solo trip with him to New York City for an actor, where everyone knows Densmore will try to prey on the Chosen One, but it’s still a badge of honor.
I experienced painful nostalgia upon reading the 1982 section, considering it a “different time” when teachers like Densmore were allowed to get away with abuse under the guise of treating students like “adults” for their own good. How many of us have heard whispers about things we knew were wrong, but did nothing about?
Fast forward to 2016, near the election of President Donald Trump, and we see the consequences of Densmore’s unaddressed abuse on the now adult, one-time performer. An incident once buried in 1982, and each player has a choice of whether or not to speak up at the end.
The entire protagonist’s crew clearly comes alive; I would love to see the story translated into a stage or screen. Langer brings great depth to the villain in the story. Densmore is a little Trump-like character, a con man who plays a confidence game to make others believe he is uniquely talented, that his attention is worth something, a self-deceiving man who makes others partake in his own fantasies.
Anne Frank’s last sentence in the play is “In spite of everything, I still think people are really good.”
Langer manages to craft a story that makes you agree with Mrs. Frank and makes you laugh at her at the same time.
This is interesting work.
John Warner is the author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Essentials.
Book recommendations from Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “Lincoln Highway” by Omar Tools
2. “That Summer” Jennifer Weiner
3. “Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St John Mandel
4. “Book lovers” by Emily Henry
5. “Mercury Pictures Presents” by Anthony Mara
– Beverly B, Chicago
This is an occasion that recalls J. Ryan Stradale’s “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” which includes the serious and lighter drama that is reflected in Beverly’s slate.
1. “Speed Boat” by Renata Adler
2. “Clara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro
3. “Nobody talks about this” by Patricia Lockwood
4. “The Dud Avocado” by Eileen Dandy
5. “Stoner” by John Williams
– Maria T. Chicago
Someone sampled the New York Review of Books Classics series, where Books 1, 4 and 5 come from that imprint. I see an attraction towards a book that presents a certain kind of deep and satisfying emotional pain. For me, this “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell.
1. “Crossroads” Jonathan Franzen
2. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
3. “Go set guard” by Harper Lee
4. “Sentence” by Louise Erdrich
5. “To Heaven” by Hania Yanagihara
– Lisa B, Evanston
The list of books is pretty heavy here. I will count on it and recommend another important read, “Telephone” by Percival Everett.
Get a reading from the Bible
Submit a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown email@example.com.