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Biblioracle on Adam Langer’s eye-opening “Cyclorama”

You think you know the place you grew up in — in my case, the northern suburbs of Chicago — but then a novel comes along that makes you see it with new eyes.

That novel is Adam Langer’s “Cyclorama,” and it reveals hidden depths about the world I come from, while also delivering a page-turning novel that is by turns funny, despairing and even affirming, a complex and powerful mix.

Langer, whose 2004 debut, “Crossing California,” was recently named as one of the 10 best “21st century Chicago novels” by Chicago Magazine, is the underappreciated bard of Chicagoland, someone who can capture both the physical and spiritual presence of a place and its people.

“Crossing California” is set in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Langer’s birth, 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 being mounted at a fictional magnet school, presided over by director Tyrus Densmore, a sad and petty tyrant who appears to derive great pleasure from emotionally and physically manipulating his young actors.

While each chapter focuses on a different character, it is Densmore who controls everyone’s fate. For example, young leading man Declan, certain he will be cast as Peter Van Daan (Anne Frank’s boyfriend) is relegated by Densmore to a secondary role, sending him spiraling. Carrie, Declan’s girlfriend, plays Anne, and uses Declan’s emotion as a way to free herself from Declan’s overbearing nature as she grows closer to her co-star, Franklin.

Other minor and major dramas are established among the characters, with Densmore’s caprice at the center. Everyone, including the high school’s journalism teacher, knows Densmore is inappropriate (or worse) with students, but no one does anything about it.

The students are flattered by Densmore’s attention, even as it becomes obviously abusive. When he makes sexual jokes, or leaves pornography laying around, or grabs a crotch or two, he tells them that this is how the adult world works, and don’t they want to be adults? Densmore dangles a solo trip with him to New York City for one of the cast, where everyone knows Densmore will attempt to prey upon the chosen one, but it’s still a badge of honor.

I experienced a cringing nostalgia reading the 1982 section, recognizing it as “a different time” when teachers like Densmore were allowed to get away with abuse under the guise of treating students like “adults” supposedly for their own good. How many of us heard whispers about things we knew to be wrong, but did nothing about?

Fast forward to 2016, right around the election of President Donald Trump, and we see the consequences of Densmore’s unaddressed abuse on the now grown-up, one-time performers. An incident once buried in 1982 surfaces, and each player has a choice on whether or not they will finally speak up.

The entire cast of the novel comes alive so vividly; I’d love to see the story translated to stage or screen. Langer even brings great depth to the villain of the story. Densmore is a small-time Trump-like figure, a bluffer who runs a confidence game to make others think he’s uniquely gifted, and that his attention is worth something, a self-deluding man who makes others party to his own delusions.

Anne Frank’s last line in the play is “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Langer manages to craft a story that will have you simultaneously agreeing with and scoffing at Ms. Frank.

That is an interesting feat.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read

1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

2. “That Summer” Jennifer Weiner

3. “Sea of ​​Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel

4. “Book Lovers” by Emily Henry

5. “Mercury Pictures Presents” by Anthony Marra

—Beverly P., Chicago

This is an occasion that calls for J. Ryan Stradal’s “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” which straddles both the serious and lighter drama that is reflected in Beverly’s list.

1. “Speedboat” by Renata Adler

2. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

3. “No One Is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

4. “The Dud Avocado” by Elaine Dundy

5. “Stoner” by John Williams

— Maria T., Chicago

Someone has been sampling the New York Review of Books Classics series, with books number 1, 4 and 5 coming from that imprint. I see a draw toward a book that delivers a particular kind of deep and satisfying emotional ache. For me, that’s “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell.

1. “Crossroads” Jonathan Franzen

2. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

3. “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

4. “The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich

5. “To Paradise” by Hanya Yanagihara

— Lisa P., Evanston

Pretty heavy list of books here. I’m going to lean into it and recommend another weighty read, “Telephone” by Percival Everett.

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Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to [email protected]

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