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Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Look At Literary Chicago: A Top Five List

For the last several weeks, I've been engaged in a titanic struggle with the 1,030-page behemoth The Instructions, by Adam Levin. The novel is about a 10-year-old Jewish kid who thinks he might be the Messiah. It also takes place in Chicago, which, as a Chicagoan myself, got me thinking about other novels I've read set in the Windy City. I had to think hard, because there aren't many — at least when compared with the number of novels set in New York (which I posted about back in May). Wonder why that is? (I'm being sarcastic. I know why it is: New York novelists write about New York. It's the same reason why there are so many novels about writers: When writers are out of ideas, they write novels about writers. It's what they know. So, hold the jokes about Chicago's corrupt politics, terrible traffic and awful weather...those aren't responsible for the dearth of Chicago novels. Well, they're probably not responsible.)

Anyway, let's take a look at five novels I've read and enjoyed that call the City of Broad Shoulders home:

5. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — I'm on page 651 of this huge book and cannot wait to finish and tell you about the precise reasons why you should read it too. It is really, really good. Chicago, its suburbs, and its public transportation all have supporting roles in Levin's debut novel. Levin is a Chicagoan himself — he teaches creative writing at Chicago's Columbia College.

4. Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers — Speaking of Columbia College, this novel examines an Algerian immigrant, who is a student at a thinly veiled fictional version of that small school. She is preternaturally happy all the time and therefore becomes the subject of much scrutiny. Characters in the novel whisk around the city on the 'El' and visit Chicago's many, many, many bars. Regarding the novel, normally I like Powers' combination of fiction and science, but this one fell flat for me. But, as I wrote here, it was largely my own fault.

3. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow — Beginning with its famous opening line, "I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city...", Bellow's famous picaresque novel follows its protagonist through Chicago's lively streets during the 1920s and 30s. Augie's somewhat erratic moral compass makes this classic a fantastic read. One of my favorites!

2. Native Son, by Richard Wright — This is the tale of Bigger Thomas, a poor black man trying to make his way in the slums of the Chicago's South Side during the Great Depression. Beginning with the famous opening scene in which Bigger kills a black rat in his family's apartment, Bigger's life spirals into violence and despair, ending with a death sentence for killing (accidentally, or inevitably?) a white girl.

1. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger — Of course, right? This much-loved novel (but very-much-less-loved movie) about the time-torn love between Henry and Clare is awash in Chicago landmarks — from the Field Museum to the Newberry Library to Grant Park. Niffenegger still lives in Chicago (I'm 99 percent certain I saw her at a restaurant not too long ago) and also teaches at Columbia College.

So what novels have you enjoyed with Chicago as their setting? Which ones did I miss here?

(And, if you're interested, here's a pretty comprehensive list from Chicago Magazine of Chicago novels. Frankly, I've never heard of most of these. But yeah, The Jungle, The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, Sister Carrie and Humboldt's Gift are probably pretty notable omissions from my list.)

17 comments:

  1. I kind of can't believe that Devil in the White City isn't on your list or Chicago Magazine's!

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  2. Wasn't Bellow Canadian? He sure lived long in Lasalle.

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  3. @Katie - Well, that's technically non-fiction. But I have read that - and loved it!

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  4. I'm so happy you included The Time Traveler's Wife. I adore that book and it's not something I would expect to see featured on your blog :) Also, I need to read Native Son.

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  5. @Ben - He was, indeed, Canadian.

    @Brenna - Yeah, I really, really liked that book. Why wouldn't you expect to see it featured here? ;)

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  6. What's with Columbia College? Every other Chicago novelist you mention teaches there it seems. Don't forget Chicago mystery novelist, Sara Paretsky.

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  7. Very cool blog post - I love the idea of looking at literature for a certain area. I've set both my novels in Worcester, MA - which is not pretty, not glamorous, and most importantly, not Boston (35 miles away). This makes me want to go look for other writers who have set a tale in "the Wu"!

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  8. There's like 10 landmarks in town named Saul-Bellow. The Saul-Bellow street, the Saul-Bellow cafe, the Saul-Bellow community center. I don't think he ever lived here, but he made people proud.

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  9. Most if not all of Jim Butcher's Dresden novels take place in Chicago.

    Certainly more science fiction than literary fiction...

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  10. I have never heard of The Instructions but from your description alone, I cannot wait to hear your take on why we should read it. Heck, I think it is going on my wish list now.

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  11. How about Crossing California by Adam Langer?

    One that's on my to-read pile and which is at least partially set in Chicago is The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.

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  12. I love Richard Wright--and I'm really looking forward to reading Saul Bellow. Glad to hear you love it!

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  13. Great post! Maybe I should do a Chicago themed reading session? Very inspiring post :-)

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  14. Native Son and The adventures of Augie March are on my list.

    The only one Ive read that springs to mind (aside from TTTW) is The Devil in the White city. Although non-fiction I did enjoy reading the world fair and the Devil.

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  15. Great post. I love Sister Carrie. Strangely enough, I started both Augie March and Native Son and put them both down (which doesn't often happen). Not a reflection on Chicago, of course. Can I cast my vote now for a let's all trash New York-centricity post?

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  16. Before I critique - I'll note that I've never read "The Adventures of Augie March" so I kind of suck as a good Chicago book critic. However, you very very much need to check out::

    1. Aleksandar Hemon - The Lazarus Project. Or anything else he's written - great Chicago writer originally from Sarajevo and probably the most talented English as a Second Language writer since Nabokov. No joke.

    2. Joe Meno - Hairstyles of the Damned. He's pretty good all around. And another Columbia College guy.

    3. Patrick Somerville - The Cradle.

    The only other one I'd add you already have. Native Son kicks ass. Also - check out my blog (shameless plug) we should be friends! www.iliketoreadandtravel.com

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