On the left is an image of the cover art for Cyclorama with a background of yellow, peach, and teal. On the right is a heashot of Adam Langer, a white middle-aged blalding man in a black shirt open at the neck.
Cover art for the hardback edition of Cyclorama; Adam Langer Credit: Cover art courtesy Bloomsbury/photo of Adam Langer by Anthony Collins

Journalist, playwright, screenwriter, theater critic, arts editor, and novelist Adam Langer was born in Chicago, grew up in West Rogers Park, went to school in Evanston, and spent the early part of his career here writing and editing for various Chicago publications, including the Reader, Inside Chicago, Book Magazine, and the alternative music magazine Subnation. (He also served as artistic director for Shattered Globe Theatre for a few years in the early 90s.) But he didn’t begin to write novels about Chicago until he moved to NYC in 2000 to do a journalism fellowship at Columbia University.

“When you’re writing about the past of a city, as I have been to some extent,” Langer tells me, “it’s probably hard to do that right when you’re in the midst of it because you keep on getting your past mixed up with your present, whereas if you leave, it’s a little more frozen in time.”

Langer has had seven novels published, three of them set in Chicago, since he moved away. His first novel, 2004’s Crossing California, is set in the world of Langer’s adolescence—Chicago in the late 70s and early 80s. It chronicles the lives of a handful of teens and their parents in a world where expectations, social status, and life experience depends on whether you live east or west of California.

“West of California were the parks and single-family homes,” Langer writes in Crossing California, “the houses with evergreen bushes, maple trees, and underground sprinklers out front. . . . East of California . . . the red brick apartment buildings and smoke grey bungalows soaked up the sun, and the streets seemed just a bit narrower. East of California, there was precious little greenery or open space.”

When Crossing California was published, it was very well reviewed and received. It continues to be. Just last month it was listed as one of the ten best 21st-century Chicago novels by Chicago magazine.

Cyclorama by Adam Langer
Bloomsbury, hardcover, 352 pp., $27, bloomsbury.com

Langer’s latest, Cyclorama, returns to the world of dysfunctional adults and disaffected youth he chronicled in Crossing California and the 2005 follow-up novel, The Washington Story. Divided in two parts—the first half set in 1982, the second half in the months before and after the election of Donald Trump—Cyclorama concerns the loves and likes of a handful of characters involved in one way or another with a stage adaption of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl being performed at the fictional North Shore Magnet High School, an alternative school located in Evanston, Illinois.

Why set the novel at a fictional high school in Evanston, and not at Langer’s own real high school, Evanston Township High School?

“I knew the territory so well,” Langer tells me, “that there was going to be this constant kind of cognitive dissonance of what’s real and what’s not. And I wanted to also kind of emphasize the universality of it to create this alternative school, which drew not only from Evanston, but also from Lincolnwood and the suburbs all around the North Shore because it was important to me to try and have this kind of fictional world so that the reality of it didn’t intrude too much. And I could kind of take the time to not be worried so much about what’s real and what’s not, and just kind of rely on telling the story. So I looked at the map, I was like, ‘OK, where would there be another high school? What would it be like?’”

And why worry about readers wondering about what’s real and what is not? Maybe it’s because one of the major characters in the book is a charismatic theater teacher who routinely crosses boundaries with his student actors—both mentally and physically. He pushes his actors to deliver strong performances. But he also does things that definitely cross lines, and lead to him being accused of assault. And his story parallels, to some extent, the case of one of the actual theater teachers at ETHS: Bruce Siewerth.

After his retirement from ETHS, Siewerth was accused by several former students of sexual abuse. Lawsuits were filed in 2017, and, as reported in a WTTW news story, the Evanston police investigated “35 separate allegations of sexual misconduct,” and turned the material over to the Cook County state’s attorney. The state’s attorney ultimately declined to file criminal charges because the statute of limitations had passed on the alleged crimes. Nevertheless, in 2019, the Evanston Township High School District 202 Board of Education approved a $100,000 settlement with four of Siewerth’s former students over allegations of sexual abuse.

When asked about this, Langer emphasizes his novel is fiction, not a memoir. “First of all,” Langer explains, “I did not study with [Siewerth]. Obviously I know the case against Bruce Siewerth. I was in a couple of shows he directed both as a kid and in high school. But I think what’s important to me is how widespread these sorts of stories were—and are—and to kind of focus it on one particular individual sort of misses the overall point and the overall theme. In an earlier draft of the novel, I had the word ‘Trump’ in it a lot, and I kind of pulled back from it, because to focus a lot of anger and energy towards one particular individual means you’re kind of missing the overall picture.

“I mean, obviously, if I were writing a memoir or if I were writing a piece of journalism, I would have a lot to say on that subject from what I experienced myself, what I saw firsthand, what happened to me, what happened to friends of mine. But it was important to me not to do that, to write a novel, to write something that’s fiction that uses this phenomenon that I set in the 80s, but I’m sure it could be set in the 70s or 60s or 90s.”

And it is true it would be a misreading of the novel to say it is just about a toxic teacher, who may or may not resemble someone from life. The book is about an ensemble of wounded and wounding people, entangled in the toxic, sexist, homophobic, hypersexualized world of teens in the early 80s. And about the ways that the trauma and abuse of that era continue to reverberate through our world today.

“One of my interests in writing this,” Langer adds, “was my first couple of novels, Crossing California and Washington Story, were very much novels about particular times in the past. And this novel, I feel, even though half of it is set in 1982, is very much a novel about the present moment and how we got there. Because when #MeToo started happening, when Donald Trump was elected president, we were seeing stories about, God knows, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Donald Trump, et cetera—and Brett Kavanaugh.”

Case in point: there is an assault at a wild high school party that echoes the accusations made against Kavanaugh at the time of his Supreme Court confirmation hearings (which were going on while Langer was working on the novel). But again, as Langer repeats, the novel is not just about someone who may have behaved the way Kavanaugh is accused of having behaved in high school in the early 80s.

He recalls that at the time of the Kavanaugh hearings “a lot of the people I grew up with . . .  started sharing stories. Like people were looking at Brett Kavanaugh like this was some kind of anomaly. [But] I remember sitting in a bar in LA with a few friends talking about Kavanaugh and what he was alleged to have done, and we came up with a list of 12, 15—” Langer cuts himself off, and begins again, “It was like we just started listing things that we remembered that were almost carbon copies of [what was alleged to have happened with Kavanaugh].”

One of the dangers, Langer admits, in writing a book about a toxic high school culture, and various ways teens physically and mentally violate each other—and are violated—“is when you focus too much on one particular individual, one particular moment, whether it’s Kavanaugh, whether it’s Trump, you kind of lose sight of what is represented, how many other stories aren’t [being] told.”

By pointing a finger at a few individuals and blaming them, everyone else gets off the hook. Worse still, this blame game leaves plenty of victims unnoticed, unrecognized, and voiceless.

“A few stories get told,” Langer reminds me, “but hundreds more have happened. So my book was kind of an attempt to think, yeah, this moment we’re in, it didn’t come from nowhere. There were signs of this before. There were stories that echoed this before. If you look at some of the stories that we lived through in the early 80s, it’s all utterly predictable and utterly familiar and chilling in a way.”

The book is not a roman à clef. Langer is not stealing a page from Jack Kerouac or Thomas Wolfe and retelling actual stories from his life with the names changed to protect the not-always-innocent.

“It’s funny,” Langer adds, “because when you talk to people from Evanston about this novel, they’re like, ‘Oh, are you writing about this particular individual?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, no, not really.’ But when you talk about it to people who are from different parts of the country, they say, ‘Oh, this reminds me of this thing that happened when I was a kid,’ be it in Saint Louis, be it in Duluth, be it anywhere.”

For all of the darkness in the book, there is a quality in the book that reminds one of John Hughes’s movies. Perhaps it is Cyclorama’s setting—the protected bubble world of mostly white, mostly middle-class and upper middle-class kids, and their adult counterparts, which is also very much the world of Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club.

“Well, the funny thing about growing up as I did in Chicago,” Langer explains, “in the late 70s and having gone to high school in Evanston is our lives were taking place with the backdrop of actual John Hughes movies being filmed where we were. So there were those of us growing up in that period who were into theater who had friends who would just randomly—well, not even randomly—would show up in John Hughes’s movies. But John Hughes obviously captured something. There’s a reason why his movies were as popular as they were, but that didn’t really reflect what we thought was our reality growing up during that time.”

Langer pauses a moment and then adds, “There [are] a lot of creepy undercurrents in those films that kind of get laughed off as throwaway jokes, whether it’s sexual misbehavior, whether there’s a big racist component of the movies.” (Molly Ringwald commented on this in an article in the New Yorker in 2018.)

“The reality is there was some really dark stuff going on back then,” Langer continues, “that I think we were able to cope with as kids through humor. We joked about these things that were happening before our eyes. But when you have a little bit of perspective, as I do now, writing about 1982, you look back and say, ‘Wow, what was really going on there?’” 

Then Langer quips that the world he describes was in a way more like a Harmony Korine film.

So is there a message Langer wants the readers to get from his book?

“I am always kind of leery of writers who say they want the reader to come away with this particular idea or message, because if you do a good enough job of creating a world in three-dimensional characters, you may think you have a specific message. [But] someone may read it and come up with a totally different point of view, and that’s to the good. I think I try not to slant the novel one way or the other. I want the characters to follow trajectories of their own and have the reader come to their own conclusions.”