Writer Alex Shakar ran into a picket line while on his way to give a reading in New Haven last month. People were protesting against the Atticus bookstore’s recent firing of a woman for wearing nose rings. “Every leather-clad, dreadlocked bohemian in New Haven was there,” says Shakar. “They were carrying signs that said ‘Atticus sells bodies, not books.'” He proposed that the group accompany him into the store. He would say what he thought, they’d get a chance to do the same, and then he would read. The protesters agreed.
“So I went into the bookstore and all these protesters filed in after me. They had their signs on their shoulders, like a troop from some guerrilla army. The manager was standing there. He shook my hand and he was very, very nervous. I said, ‘Look, I brought some friends with me. They want to hear some literature.'” The manager canceled the event, and Shakar and the protesters headed back onto the sidewalk.
“I asked the protesters if they wanted to hear a story. They did, and so I read to them.” He read “A Million Years From Now,” a story about a junk sculptor in New York who gets kicked out of the building in which he was squatting and ends up working outside under a streetlight. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a more captive audience.” Shakar says. “It was an intense experience to look up from my book and see all these faces piled atop of each other. They all had on this amazing face paint. I thought to myself, wow, in a better world, or at least in a more interesting world, it would have been that bland-faced manager that would have gotten fired instead of this visually arresting person.”
Shakar set out to create a more interesting world–if not a better one–in his new collection of stories, City in Love: The New York Metamorphoses. The stories take place in a mythological New York City in the year 1 BC, but the characters, often capable of fantastic feats, are dealing with an urban chaos that’s up-to-date. A pierced protagonist slips through Manhattan nightclubs trying to avoid a man who’s willing to shed his corporate skin to save her, a troubled Queens schoolgirl becomes the city’s most powerful superhero, and a lonely Brooklyn boy raises the sun over the metropolis.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shakar left New York in 1993 for Austin when he was awarded a Michener Fellowship to study writing at the University of Texas. Once he landed in Austin, though, all he could think about was his native New York. “I started dreaming about its architecture.” He began to view the urban jumble as a metaphor for the vast complexity of modern life, with its various, and sometimes competing, influences. “Today’s urban environment is an accretion, a by-product of staggering proportions. No single person or single group of people can hope to understand more than a fraction of what it means.”
Searching for a way to convey this world with both terror and wonder, he went back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, attracted to its stories of mythological, legendary, and historical figures dealing with the struggle between order and chaos. “I saw so much of it was there in the logic of that ancient, sinuous mythology. The people in that world of constant Dionysian chaos were yearning for some permanence, some sort of immortality or solidity. It seemed to me that the way we feel about our urban environment now might be akin to the way the ancients felt about nature.”
Ironically, Shakar found he had to leave New York in order to write about it. “I worked in a literary agency in Manhattan for a while. Always thinking about what would appeal to a mass market can be very demoralizing. I couldn’t write a word when I was working in publishing. And I didn’t find an artistic community either, because New York is very career oriented and everybody works all the time.”
Shakar moved to Chicago in August to teach and study for his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He already feels an affinity with the city. Having won this year’s national fiction competition at Illinois State University in Normal, whose F2 press published City in Love, Shakar says he may have found a home at last. “I feel like the state of Illinois has claimed me by giving me a book and giving me a scholarship of sorts. So I’m pretty happy about being here.”
Shakar will read from City in Love at 7 PM on Thursday, January 9, at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th Street; it’s free. Call 773-684-1300 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.