A novelist, writing professor, and covert comedian named Solomon Gladman wakes up one morning in Chicago, sometime in 2022. He and his French-born wife, Daphne Bourbon (would she be named Siobhan Single-Malt were she Scots-Irish?), plan to meet Gladman’s parents and sisters downtown for brunch. But Gladman begs off because of a hemorrhoid flare-up and stays home. Daphne goes by herself and is swallowed up, along with most of downtown, in a sinkhole that kills thousands and causes billions in damage. Gladman lives out the rest of his days eating Xanax and guzzling whiskey, forestalling suicide out of loyalty to his parrot, Gogol. Gladman will eventually off himself, but not before the reader suffers through almost 600 pages of masturbatory meta riffage meant to be funny.
While Gladman is the putative protagonist, there’s also Apter Schutz—a wunderkind marketeer, behaviorist therapist, political consultant, and dabbler in contrarian white power/anti-PC agitprop; Gogol, the parrot; a nameless Chicago mayor, who’s neither Daley, nor Rahm Emanuel, nor Lori Lightfoot, but more an ersatz SNL Da Bears caricature; oh, and also Ari Emanuel, the superagent of Entourage fame. These, plus a half dozen friends, lovers, and hangers-on are slammed into one another to evoke this novel’s sprawling, yet bizarrely tunnel-vision universe. The author, Adam Levin, also 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.
I met Levin in the late 90s in Wicker Park. We were never friends but hung out in a couple of the same coffee shops. He was always writing. What he’d been working on in those years, it turns out, was a thousand-page brick of a book called The Instructions, about a boy who thinks himself the messiah. A short story collection and slightly shorter novel followed over the next decade. Levin taught creative writing at local colleges and married the French-born writer Camille Bordas, eventually leaving Chicago when she got a professorship in Florida. I wouldn’t normally mention any of these extraneous biographical factoids, nor my very tangential connection to this writer, if the grim endless slog of his novel didn’t take so many detours into factual, often very local corners I’m intimately familiar with. The Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village is a recurring setting. I’ve been a regular there for more than 25 years so I feel invested when Levin mentions it. Unfortunately, neither that bar, nor dozens of other Chicago spots, are rendered as anything but generic backdrop for his characters’ machinations. Levin’s idea of poetic license/humor (?) is to have Corona served at the Rainbo. Which, as anyone who ever drank there would know, it isn’t. Hilarious, right?
One would think that a catastrophic event—referred to sometimes as the “terrestrial anomaly” or 11/17, after the day it occurred in 2021—might lend the story some weight. But it comes off as a mere plot point or inciting incident (in creative writing-speak). Emotionally, it feels like the kind of fantasy a child might come up with: what if everyone who loved me was wiped off the face of the earth? What would I do? Who would love me then? The answer, in this case, is an annoying little bird named after a great Russian writer.
Gogol, like Levin’s human stand-ins, is given pages and pages of inner monologue. This parrot has no more or less a distinctive voice than any of the others. Whoever’s talking or thinking in this novel is, with very little pretense, just Adam Levin. The effect is not unlike that horrifying scene in Charlie Kaufman’s 1999 film, Being John Malkovich, where a whole room is filled with dozens of characters, babies included, each bearing the title actor’s impassive physiognomy. There are also multiple references to Woody Allen, Louis C.K., and Philip Roth. Levin does this to name-check his obvious influences but also to align himself with writers and artists who’ve recently been disgraced over personal conduct. Political correctness is skewered often, so Levin casts his lot with what he clearly sees as victims of left-wing overreach. This might be more compelling or thought-provoking if he didn’t content himself with just insulting people whose political or cultural positions differed from his own, rather than exploring why previously celebrated men in positions of power aren’t allowed to do whatever they want these days.
After wandering through the self-loathing wilderness of these pages for over a week, when Gladman finally straps on his suicide mask and has highlights from his miserable life flash before his eyes, it is sweet relief for this reader as well.
In one of several authorial interjections, Levin addresses his real-life wife and his (imaginary) prospective readers, “I wouldn’t want to bore you at all, Camille. Ever. Come to think of it, that goes for all of you, whoever you are. I’ll move on.” Had he heeded his own words, this novel would have remained safely locked away in the proverbial drawer. But we can’t all be so lucky.
Mount Chicago by Adam Levin
Doubleday, hardcover (out 8/9/22), approx. 575 pp., $30, penguinrandomhouse.com