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Catastrophe Fiction: Adam Levin's Mount Chicago
Sean Kitching , August 14th, 2022 08:33

The new novel by American author Adam Levin, about the fall out from a natural disaster, blends philosophical speculation with literary fillip to thrilling effect, finds Sean Kitching


The third novel from the Chicago-born author deliberately blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. It’s a refreshingly different take on metafiction that considers the relationship between humour and existential despair, amongst other philosophical issues, whilst maintaining the outward appearance of a lengthy shaggy dog story

I’ve been following Adam Levin’s writing since his stunning debut novel, The Instructions, was released in 2010. A thousand-plus page brick of a book about a battle-hardened ten-year-old scholar, Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, in rebellion against the oppressive system of rules at the reform school he attends, who may turn out to be not just ‘a naughty boy’, but in fact the Messiah. A collection of short stories, Hot Pink came out in 2012. To my mind these were considerably less successful than the novel that had preceded them, but only because the more concise form meant that originality strove for space against characterisation – apart from one story, ‘Finch’, which managed to accommodate both.

Then, in 2020, a second novel appeared, the almost 800-page Bubblegum. This was a wildly original novel that depicted an alternative present day in which the internet has never existed, but interactive ‘pets’ (possibly robot, or perhaps genetically engineered animal DNA derived) called ‘Curios’ or ‘Cures’ have played a central role in the public imagination since the 1980s. The bizarre set-up enabled Levin to comment on the ills of the post-internet world, without ever referring to the internet itself.

Released this month, Levin’s third novel, Mount Chicago, purports to be about a freak natural disaster that hits downtown Chicago, and the ways in which this ‘anomaly’ affects the lives of its main characters. Novelist, academic and cult comedian, Soloman Gladman, loses his beloved wife Daphne (and other family members) in the event and is plagued with guilt for not being with her at the time, due to indulging in the kind of selfish behaviour which proves to be an essential character flaw. Apter Schutz, Gladman’s biggest fan, is a political consultant with a background as a behaviourist therapist and a winningly charismatic smile, the result of an old injury sustained in a physical altercation with a high-school rival. Gogol, Gladman’s parrot (named after Levin’s favourite short story writer and noted anti-Semite, Nikolai Gogol), looms as large as the more significant human characters and represents the only emotional connection keeping the protagonist from joining his wife by taking his own life.

All of this could be rather grim and dry, if it weren’t for the dark but incisive humour Levin deploys. This humour might not be for everyone but, personally, Levin had me on board very early on – from the moment he describes watching a puppet on a Sesame Street-type show as a child with his mother. The puppet is chanting Descartes’ ‘cogito’, “I think, therefore I am”. His mother explains: “We’re supposed to pretend that the puppet can think, and that since it knows it thinks, it knows it’s real”. This does not impress the young Levin, who retorts “That’s it? That’s the only way?” and sees little difference between the efficacy of such proof, whether the one reciting it be puppet or person.

Elaborating the metafictional element introduced towards the end of Bubblegum, Levin introduces himself as an authorial character in the opening pages of the book, setting the stage with what appears to be transparent honesty. This preamble depicts Gladman and Apter in terms that frame them as different aspects of the author himself, but also playfully calls into question his own reliability as a narrator when he writes (accurately):

“Among the protagonists of the stories in my story collection, Hot Pink, there’s a young gay man whose father invents a doll that vomits… an octogenarian who insists on discussing analingus with a group of other octogenarians, and a guy in finance who poisons his dog and worships a crack in the wall behind his bed that perennially oozes an opaque gel. People ask me whether my work is autobiographical.”

At this point in literary history, metafiction is no longer perceived as the innovation it once was. The term was coined in 1970 by the great novelist and essayist, William H. Gass. In his book Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gass deploys the term to describe forms of fiction that emphasise the artifice of their own construction. But the form goes back much further, at least to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1605.

Metafictional conceits were most popular during the 1960s, utilized by the likes of John Barth, Robert Coover, Kurt Vonnegut, John Fowles, Thomas Pynchon and, of course, Gass himself. Since such devices are useful tools for considering the relationship between life and art, it is unsurprising that their use continues amongst authors interested in exploring such ideas. It is, however, a kind of authorial manoeuvre that can go disastrously wrong, coming off as unsubtle or worse.

Penning a largely negative review in the Chicago Reader, Dmitry Samarov writes that “Levin inserts offstage commentary, so as to make sure his dumb readers know what they’re reading is fiction, or lies, as he likes to call them. He need not have worried. We know.” In my view, Samarov has fallen for the obfuscating tactics that Levin uses in order to recount what are most likely deeply personal experiences (such as the detailed bad acid trip towards the end of the book), in a way that presents them ‘as if’ they were fiction.

I think Samarov gets it wrong on another count, too. Levin does not think his readers are dumb. Far from it, in fact. Levin credits his readership with a lot of intelligence. But being the provocateur he sometimes is, he can’t resist laying a trap here and there for readers or reviewers who are only capable of conducting superficial readings of his texts.

Whether the more significant personal experiences in the novel are actually true or artful fabrications (perhaps based loosely on autobiographical events), it is impossible to say – and that’s part of the novel’s elusive charm. One thing that that can be said with some certainty, is that no-one can write such convincing accounts of bad acid trips, with the terrifying clarity of those moments and an understanding of how that affects one’s psyche for many months afterwards, without having had such an experience themselves. If we accept that there is at least a kernel of truth in the experiences related by the authorial character and his other inventions in Mount Chicago, then the open and ongoing philosophical and psychological exploration of those events become akin to a kind of transformative therapy, which develops and works through different themes as the novel progresses. This is precisely where the use of metafiction in Mount Chicago represents a unique and fresh approach to the device.

Apter Schutz studies Behaviourism because one of his tutors – a man he experiences a personal connection with – advises him that it is the most successful way of treating patients’ often life-threatening neuroses. He then becomes so good at treating patients as though they were only collections of behaviours acquired through conditioning (as Behaviourism postulates), that he starts losing empathy with them and eventually leaves his girlfriend, who accuses him of “behaving like a robot”. It is only when he quits his job and starts reading lots of fiction again, that he gets his empathy back by realising the value and beauty inherent in the stories of people’s lives.

One of the downsides to Behaviourist theory is that it is considered to disregard human uniqueness, treating people the same as all other animals – which is something some humans don’t like hearing. Levin has a lot of fun with this notion by presenting some chapters from the point of view of Gladman’s parrot, Gogol. In one chapter, the bird wonders when he will grow up big like Gladman, lose his wings and grow arms. This theme also recurs in the joke that Gladman is working on at the book’s beginning about a “duck wearing pants” – a gag which becomes a fully realised anthropomorphic fable concerning society’s efforts to contain sexuality towards the novel’s end.

These are just some of the many themes explored in this bold and inventive novel. Mount Chicago may be lacking in a traditional plot, but it contains far more exploration of what it means to be human, what it means to be a human writing and/or reading fiction, and what it means to give in to or surmount the tragedy in one’s life, than is usually found in such traditional narratives. Reading the book for the first time, it struck me that perhaps Levin had stumbled upon some new form of fiction that blends philosophical inquiry, psychological exploration and autofiction. If that is actually the case, it is most likely that this ‘new form’ has reached its peak with this book. Rather than suggesting a way forward for future books, it presents rather a brilliantly executed formal cul-de-sac. It’s hard to imagine reading another novel like this, or indeed another author writing such a book. This is both Mount Chicago’s blessing and its curse.