You think you know the place you grew up – in my case, the northern suburbs of Chicago – but then a novel comes along that makes you see things with new eyes.
This novel is Adam Langer’s “Cyclorama,” and it reveals hidden depths about the world I come from while delivering a page-turning novel that is alternately funny, desperate, and even affirmative, a complex and powerful blend.
Langer, whose 2004 debut Crossing California was recently named one of the top 10 “Chicago Novels of the 21st Century” by Chicago Magazine, is the underrated bard of Chicagoland, someone who has both the physical and spiritual presence of a place and its people.
“Crossing California” is set in Langer’s native West Rogers Park neighborhood, while “Cyclorama” is set in Evanston, where Langer attended high school. “Cyclorama” is split into two sections, dated 1982 and 2016. In 1982, a production of The Diary of Anne Frank is set in a fictional magnet school directed by Tyrus Densmore, a sad and petty bully who appears to take great pleasure in emotionally and physically manipulating his young actors.
While each chapter focuses on a different character, it’s Densmore who decides everyone’s fate. For example, young lead actor Declan, confident of being cast as Peter Van Daan (Anne Frank’s boyfriend), is relegated to a supporting role by Densmore, which sends him into a spiral. Carrie, Declan’s girlfriend, plays Anne and uses Declan’s demotion to break free of Declan’s overbearing nature while growing closer to her co-star Franklin.
Other minor and major dramas are established among the characters, with Densmore’s whim taking center stage. Everyone, including the high school journalism teacher, knows that Densmore is inappropriate (or worse) when dealing with students, but no one is doing anything about it.
The students are flattered by Densmore’s attention, even if it becomes obviously abusive. When he makes sexual jokes, leaves porn lying around, or grabs a step or two, is he telling them that this is how the adult world works and they don’t want to be grown up? Densmore plans a solo trip with him to New York City for one of the cast members, where everyone knows Densmore will try to hunt down the chosen one, but it’s still a badge of honor.
As I read the 1982 passage, I experienced a crawling nostalgia and realized that it was “another time” when teachers like Densmore were allowed to get away with abuse under the guise of treating students like “adults,” ostensibly on their own best. How many of us have heard whispers about things we knew were wrong but didn’t take action?
Fast forward to 2016, right around the election of President Donald Trump, and we see the ramifications of Densmore’s unaddressed abuse on the now-adult, one-time cast members. An incident from 1982 resurfaces, and each player has the choice of finally speaking up or not.
The entire cast of the novel comes alive like this; I would love to see the story translate to the stage or the screen. Langer even brings great depth to the villain of the story. Densmore is a minor Trump-like figure, a bluffer who plays a game of trust to make others believe he has unique gifts and that his attention is worthy, a man of self-deception who shares his own delusions with others.
Anne Frank’s final line in the play is, “Despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Langer manages to invent a story that will have you both agreeing with Mrs. Frank and mocking her at the same time.
That’s an interesting achievement.
John Warner is the author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you read
1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Cupid Towles
2. “This Summer” Jennifer Weiner
3. “Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel
4. “Book Lover” by Emily Henry
5. “Mercury Pictures Presents” by Anthony Marra
—Beverly P., Chicago
This is an opportunity that calls for J. Ryan Stradal’s “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” which spans both the serious and lighter drama reflected in Beverly’s list.
1. “Speedboat” by Renate Adler
2. “Clara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro
3. “Nobody talks about it” by Patricia Lockwood
4. “The Dud Avocado” by Elaine Dundy
5. “Stoners” by John Williams
– Maria T., Chicago
Someone sampled the New York Review of Books Classics series with books #1, 4, and 5 from this publisher. I see an attraction to a book that triggers a special kind of deep and satisfying emotional pain. For me it is “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell.
1. “Intersection” Jonathan Franzen
2. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by HarperLee
3. “Go and set a guard” by HarperLee
4. “The Sentence” by Luise Erdrich
5. “To Paradise” by Hanya Yanagihara
– Lisa P., Evanston
Pretty heavy list of books here. I’ll dig into it and recommend another solid read, Percival Everett’s “Telephone.”
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Submit a list of the last five books you read and your hometown [email protected].