Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Two Great Recent Chicago-Set Novels

Chicago-set novels are a bone fide literary Kryptonite for me — I can't resist 'em. Here are two great recent ones.

The Making Of Zombie Wars, by Aleksander Hemon
Have you ever read a Jonathan Tropper or other dude-lit novel, and thought, "Hmm, this is pretty good, but what it needs is more graphic sex and violence"? Well, here you go! Chicagoan Hemon gives us this goofy tale of a 33-year-old struggling screenwriter named Joshua Levin. Our boy Josh gets himself into hot water with his beautiful, kinky, way-out-of-his league lady Kimmy when he can't resist the charms of a beautiful Bosnian woman named Ana, a student in the English as a Second Language night class he teaches.

Joshua participates in a screenwriting workshop, and though he has many ideas for screenplays, he never finishes any of them ... that is until a great idea for a movie about zombies occurs to him. It's spring 2003, we've just invaded Iraq, and war is fresh in the hearts and minds of everyone. Part of the idea of the novel is to draw a silly parallel between art and life by showing that we dumb humans are more or less like zombies, only responding to our urges of the flesh (like sex and violence). And for Joshua, the irony here is that the only thing that can elevate him above his current zombie-esque urges is his art about zombies who can't resist their own urges.

It's a deceptively funny novel that includes a samurai-sword-wielding, Guns'N'Roses-listening, post-smoking, Desert Storm veteran named Stagger, cock rings and handcuffs, and Bosnian toughs named Esko and Bega who are constant thorns in Joshua's side.

Don't take this novel too seriously, and I think you'll dig it. It's a quick, light read with plenty of laugh-out-loud absurdity.

The Ghost Network, by Catie Disabato
This intricate debut thriller is a mixture of conspiracy theory, esoteric history and philosophy (both of Chicago and in general), and commentary on celebrity and pop culture. 

The set-up here is that a writer named Catie Disabato is publishing (with her own notes) a previously completed manuscript by another journalist name Cyrus Archer. Archer's manuscript is about the disappearance of a pop star named Molly Metropolis and one of her biggest fans' efforts to find her. But only a few months into the search, the fan, whose name is Cait Taer, also disappears — we learn this in the prologue. So what the heck has happened?

Taer's efforts to find Molly Metropolis before her own disappearance involve hooking up (figuratively, and romantically) with Molly's assistant Regina Nix and one of her confidants, Nick Berliner (great names, right?!). She has to delve into the history of the Chicago El, the faux-profound ramblings she finds in Molly Metropolis's journal, and a mysterious (and real) philosophical movement called Situationism

The cool thing about this novel is Chicago is very prominent — Cait and Regina spend tons of time just walking the streets, and we get to see a lot of great Chicago landmarks and neighborhoods. But the strength of this novel is its inventiveness, and how it manages to pull so many disparate elements into a what turns into a pretty taut thriller.

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