The infernal urge to make a Chicago Masterpiece
The doorstopper of Chicago literary ambition of 2011 was Adam Levin’s “The Instructions,” tipping the counter at 1,000-plus pages, winning awards and a fuss-and-fury of reviews. Early in 2012, a slim, condensed take on Chicago came in the form of Dmitry Samarov’s “Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab,” which revealed a keen eye and ear from one of many local writers who are embellishers and keepers of their own Algrenish dustbins and alleyways: life seen, categorized quickly, judged in reflection, from the limited perspective of a driver’s seat. What flotsam, which jetsam from the sea of Midwestern humanity, would flag down this stern observer? An even more stern and steely gaze flashes from “Heroines,” a sustained, shapely rant-cum-jeremiad by Kate Zambreno (a former Newcity editor) takes issue with the male urge to masterpiece, countering with a female-identified knack to journal. The book, coming after two novels, is its own answer to its own call for women to raise their voices willfully, resisting male condescension, being neither shadow nor shade, while looking to predecessor “heroines” like Zelda Fitzgerald, and gnomic confessor-observer-slipstreamers like Renata Adler (“Speedboat”) and Elizabeth Hardwick (“Sleepless Nights”). Throughout, “Heroines” questions the inflation of ambition and calls pish-tosh at an unnamed but readily identifiable Levin and “The Instructions” in a pivot point of the book. But most readers, some writers, want any book to be a bolt from on high, inspiring in its absorption only a short sharp shock of breath and the pulse of a thought: “Dear God. This exists.” The lamp has been lit. The frozen sea within ourselves is axed. Which all of these writers have done in their way. But then, of course, October came, when you slipped the soft, clear wrap from the treasure-chest-sized carton of Chris Ware’s “Building Stories,” oh my, a nourishing slumgullion of the smallest artifacts of daily life lived by several tenants in a Chicago brownstone, captured in fourteen elements, from hardcover books to origami-like loose gatefolds, to a playing-board like portrayal of the building its characters breathe within, Jack Chick-like pamphlets and other forms of ephemera and detritus elevated to elemental desiderata. This exists. Levin, Samarov, Zambreno and Ware all invite us to gawp at Chicago, their Chicago, all our Chicagos. Of course, there are dozens more names we know and more not yet heard. Bring it on, Chicago.
Best of Chicago 2012