Adam Levin is a nihilist and a misanthrope. I know this because he told me so, in a masterful memoirish introduction to a masterful novel, an introduction that deliberately blurs (or is it clarifies?) the distinction between fiction and reality. “Mount Chicago,” Levin’s third novel, confronts the largest of large issues, the sores and scabs and disasters that at times question our sense of humanity, or at least our ability to safeguard against cataclysmic change. Levin, and by proxy, perhaps, his characters, believes that people are inherently bad and life meaningless. Doesn’t sound like the makings of a riveting 600-page novel, does it?
Unless we cannot take Adam Levin at his word. And how can we? This novel includes some of the most convincing depictions of love and loyalty—pure human affection and kindness—in contemporary literature. It is one of the funniest books available among all of today’s so-called serious literature. Even the idiotic characters redeem themselves at the most basic levels. The boundaries between reality and fiction are persistently and deliberately sketchy.
Downtown Chicago craters—a mile or so disappears into a sinkhole, everybody and everything in that radius gone, gone, gone. Among the institutions that vanish are the AON building, the Art Institute (and its irreplaceable collection), the Crain Communications Building, the Symphony Center and Millennium Park; among the people who disappear are our protagonist Solomon Gladman’s wife, parents, sisters, nieces and nephew. The whole family, essentially, except Gladman himself and his parrot, Gogol.
But to summarize this novel does it discredit, since that requires a conventional play-by-play: this happens, then that happens, and because of all the previous things that happened, finally this happens. Levin, though, is not a conventional, much less linear writer, nor is he a conventional, much less linear, thinker. The genius of the writing is in the diversions, as when in Gladman’s point of view we hear at length about a bathroom emergency that informs the sequence of life-changing events that occurred during an adolescent acid trip. That scene measures an enormous volume of emotion and intellect and chance as it relates to the formation of Gladman’s identity, maybe even his life trajectory. It’s as though the author or narrator—or that dubious hybrid of the two—instinctively feels that there is SO MUCH you need to know to know ANYTHING. Like Saul Bellow or David Foster Wallace, it all fits—arguably, it’s all essential—but it’s hardly the way most authors would GPS the plot.
Right away, I want to rethink even calling Gladman the protagonist—it’s his story, but it’s also Apter Schutz’s story and maybe also Gogol’s story. Everything is all mixed together, all the stories, the timelines, the points of view; it’s the future and the present and the past, all at once. Essentially, we experience this novel much like we experience life.
Gladman is a successful novelist, but also a stand-up comedian with a cult-like following. He’s seen as eccentric—part of his allure—but also maybe misogynistic and racist, even as concerns his own Jewish people. He’s a polarizing figure, or at least his stage persona is. But this does not seem particularly concerning to him—he’s maybe too overwhelmed with his own mental and physical maladies to be so. In private, he has a tenure-track job, a French wife to whom he is utterly devoted, a parrot he dotes on like a precocious child: generally, a satisfactory life.
Then the 9/11-like event occurs, which for public relations purposes is called “the anomaly.” Then it’s just Gladman and Gogol, and Gladman’s unbearable sadness. Gladman knows he would immediately have killed himself if not for the fact that doing so would ensure many intolerably painful years for Gogol. So he sticks it out, even calculating how long he must refrain from suicide in order to see Gogol through to her end.
That the disaster is called an anomaly is a prime example of how Levin’s story at times banks toward the satirical without ever really becoming satire, as though society itself, and everything that comprises it, exists, at this moment in time, in a semi- satirical state. “Anomaly” is a rhetorical, and somewhat bullying spin (the novel obsesses with language and descriptive precision) that eventually becomes… accepted. It’s a society, including a pop culture and political apparatus, determined, it seems, to dictate the conversation. It’s a society that engages in the ludicrous with no sense of irony.
The novel begins with Gladman puzzling out a joke—his jokes are in the form of long narratives busy with asides or digressions. It ends, more or less, with him delivering the joke. In between, Apter Schutz’s story intersects that of Gladman’s, as it must in order to propel a story in which the incredibly complicated crystallizes into the obvious. Apter’s own story is as rich and hilarious as Gladman’s, and as necessary. Apter is an activist, a writer, an entrepreneur, a therapist, an editor and publisher, a political operative, eventually even a talent agent—he dabbles his way into a large fortune, which affords him the luxury to dabble all the more. Most importantly, though, is Apter’s smile—an almost bewitching facial composition that seduces those who gaze upon it, including Gogol.
This is a novel obsessed with language and details. All novels are obsessed with language and details, but this one very consciously so. The fun in this novel—and I’m sure for me and others, this is enormous fun—is in the way it, and its characters, pinpoint how things work, like in a mesmerizing Paris scene (Gladman’s wife is French) in which Gladman observes—studies—the intricate habits of wild birds, all while he and they attempt to shape each other’s behavior. Or the almost (again, though, not quite) parodies of figures like Ari Emanuel and a Mayor Daley that are and aren’t supposed to be Richard J. or Richard M. or a melding of the two. Or the authorial interludes in which Levin breaks the fourth wall to share insight into the novel-making process, replete with personal emails and pictures that might or might not be actual (it seems like they are).
Gladman’s written comedy routine—ostensibly, the duck joke—is a tour de force, on literal and metaphoric levels. It occupies a murky pond in which identity, free will, luck, and the meaning of life all swim. It serves as a climax that even in its conclusiveness suggests an open-endedness to a kind of human struggle that never really ends.
Adam Levin may or may not be a nihilist and a misanthrope—either way, he’s written a novel that explores the human condition more as hysterically adequate, in the most important ways, then pointless. He’s written a novel that might very well suggest there’s no making sense of it all, but never ceases to try.
By Adam Levin
Doubleday, 592 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.