Thursday, August 25, 2022

Cyclorama, by Adam Langer: Is Understanding the Past Enough to Avoid Repeating It?

"In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart."
-- Anne Frank

Is this notion the naivete of youth, or a sentiment that bears out accurately?  As much as history has repeated itself in the last several years, it's often hard to believe that people are really good at heart. That question is the central through-line for Adam Langer's astonishingly agile and immensely entertaining new novel, Cyclorama.

The first half of this novel is about a group of high school kids in the early 1980s in Evanston, Illinois, putting on a play about Anne Frank. They are your typical high school kids. They party, they have crushes and rivalries, and they try to dodge skeevy adults, including their ultra-skeevy drama teacher. 

Then we switch to 34 years later, it's 2016, the Mango Mussolini has just been elected, and we catch up with all these characters again to see how so much of what they experienced in high school informed their adult lives. Some are famous, some have been beaten by life, and some, for better or worse, have simply wound up becoming who they were supposed to be.

This ingenious structure lets Langer explore the idea of history repeating itself, both for all these characters (how did the trauma some of them experience so long ago inform their modern lives? And why are these still important?) and also for the world at large. Langer draws parallels between Anne Frank in 1942 and immigrants in America in 2017 being hunted down and deported. Think just being aware of history means it can't repeat itself? Think again. 

But so are people basically good? This novel doesn't give easy answers. But what a fascinating, immensely entertaining, carefully constructed and executed, and inspiring read. This is near the top of my list of favorites of the year. HIGHLY recommended.

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