Wolfgang Amadeus Aleksandr “Aleks” Fa has a lot of baggage. The protagonist of Joe Meno’s new novel Book of Extraordinary Tragedies has that name, after all—which also serves as a clue about what burdens the young man.
Born into a perfectionist but impoverished Bosnian/Croat/Polish family in Evergreen Park on the border with Chicago’s south side, Aleks is a 20-year-old musician who’s abandoned his studies to help take care of his niece. He also works a succession of menial jobs, and is slowly going deaf.
Everyone else in Aleks’s family also faces long odds. His sister, Isobel, a child prodigy in music and math, works as a bank teller, hooks up with a succession of losers, abuses whatever drug is handy, and is diagnosed with cancer. His mother is bedbound and mostly lives out a fantasy life in which Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and George Clooney turn out to be Polish and have complicated romantic entanglements. Brother Daniel is working on an epic history book of tragedies, when not climbing up trees in a stolen Halloween ghost costume to skip school. You get the idea. “Normal” is not within this family’s vocabulary.
Aleks rides around the south side composing what he calls “AMAZING COMPOSITIONS” in his mind without ever touching an instrument or putting a single note down on paper. He imagines symphonies made of street noises and half-heard voices. He tries to connect with his father, who lives in the neighborhood but has left the family and provides no financial or emotional support. Aleks attempts to connect with his grandfather, who, when Aleks begs for money to pay this or that overdue bill, instead relates their family’s snakebitten origins in the former Yugoslavia. A relative who planned to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand but lost his nerve—and became a pariah nevertheless; a succession of musical obsessives who fail for lack of actual talent or a variety of mental problems, when not hamstrung by bad luck.
Riding down 95th, Kedzie, or 103rd, he muses that “everything we think is important or unique about our lives means nothing in the face of history. Even our tragedies are entirely ordinary.” And yet life still has to be lived. As he mops floors in a crumbling rehab center or coaches bored, unathletic kids in tennis after school, Aleks dreams of escape. He’s not the only one. When he asks his 14-year-old brother about the scrapbook of disasters, in which historical captions are either whited-out or rewritten completely, Daniel explains, “I’m tired of our family being from places that are only famous for getting conquered.” Everyone in the Fa family wants a way out but hasn’t a clue how to take the first step.
Outside the family, friends and loved ones are baffled by their intense passions. When Aleks starts dating a beautiful UIC student and shares his favorite orchestral music with her, she comments, “It’s like all this music for rich, sad white people played by poorer, sad white people.” He’s upset by her reaction but can’t find a way to make her feel what he feels and they wind up drifting apart.
Aleks’s travails are engaging in no small part because of Meno’s sure grasp of Chicago geography and the city’s topographic, economic, racial, and ethnic particularities. It’s a rich and underexplored terrain in both literature and pop culture. This is not the Chicago of Ferris Bueller, the Blues Brothers, or Al Capone, but the patchwork, maddeningly contradictory city longtime residents know and grudgingly adore. The neighborhood in which Aleks has memorized every broken piece of sidewalk is far away from the lakefront or any other aspect the city offers up to outsiders and tourists. When he finds himself downtown, he’s tentative and feels undereducated and poorly dressed, as too many lifelong Chicagoans do.
As Aleks scrambles from dead-end job to dead-end job, even the mindless factory work he tries to avoid dries up. More and more of the storefronts he passes on his bike rides are boarded up. It’s as if the neighborhood is becoming as hopeless as Aleks’s sister, brother, and mother. But despite the long odds stacked against his characters, Meno keeps their story buoyant when it could have been a maudlin litany of misery and complaint. These people have hope and keep trying. They’re hopelessly optimistic in their own twisted way.
This book continues a through line that’s clear all the way back to Meno’s celebrated 2004 novel, Hairstyles of the Damned. An overly sensitive young person uses music to both make sense of and escape intractable familial and societal problems with very mixed results. The change of genre from punk in Hairstyles to classical in this new novel is an effective way for Meno to explore ties to, and schisms from, European ancestors who continue to exert undue influence from beyond the grave. What this story gets so right is how so many of us live in the past and the present all at once.
Before passing away, Aleks’s grandfather gives him a pile of notebooks filled with musical notations—his own brother’s attempt to tell their family history, encoded in compositional language. Adapting his dead relative’s work, shows Aleks a way out. “As I ride it’s like the entire block is a symphony, the entire neighborhood, the south side, the city, all the instruments ringing out, everything—even the street signs—having something to say.”
Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno
Akashic Books, hardcover $32.95, paperback $17.95, 352 pp., out 9/6/2022, akashicbooks.com