- Sue Kwong
This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.
In this week’s contest, the eighth and final bout of round one, Andrea Battleground, formerly books editor of the AV Club, now associate editor at BuzzFeed Entertainment, chooses between The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros’s classic 30-year-old novel-in-stories that’s become a staple of high school classrooms, and The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon’s 2013 collection of autobiographical essays. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.
I began this exercise with some preconceived notions: I knew Sandra Cisneros’s The House On Mango Street is taught in classrooms all over the country, a 30-year-old novel that’s joined the contemporary American literature canon and exemplifies several common themes useful when teaching the form to a teen reader. Aleksandar Hemon’s collection of nonfiction, The Book Of My Lives, is barely two years old. I figured the Cisneros book was a high-school-curriculum reading list book that perhaps wasn’t distinct enough in its Chicagoness. I thought Hemon’s recounting his youth in a prewar Sarajevo, his choice to leave the only place he’s ever belonged to, and his adoption of a new hometown would strike a chord with me as a person who had also fled something of a nightmare scenario (obviously not on a scale with Hemon’s experiences) and made a new home wandering these Chicago streets. All those things are technically true. My ultimate decision, however, ends up tipping the scale in the other direction.
At barely 100 pages, The House On Mango Street almost doesn’t qualify as a novel. It’s a series of stories tied together by one narrator-protagonist, Esperanza Cordero, a young girl coming of age in a vibrant household in a disappointing house on Mango Street, a fictional street in an unnamed neighborhood that’s a bit like Humboldt Park. I suppose it’s a bit too generous to call these brief efforts short stories; some clock in at half a page or a two or three paragraphs. The vignettes have no real through line other than tracking the maturation of Esperanza. Many have a distinct and lovely sense of rhythm that makes them almost-poems, a fact that indicates Cisneros’s training as a poet at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Anyone with a mind to should also pick up her poetry collection, Loose Woman.)
But Esperanza, even in the earliest chapters when she’s youngest, is a fully realized voice. She isn’t particularly precocious. She simply recounts her truth as she sees it, as she’s experiencing it. Sometimes siblings are just a burden to the life you think you should be leading. Sometimes you have to choose which people to make friends with—and Lucy and Rachel just seem more fun than Cathy. Sometimes the way pubescent girls learn about sex is damaging and confusing and yet still so matter-of-fact as to not even warrant discussion.
Are these experiences universal? Perhaps; the growing up, the finding your place, the being of your family but completely foreign to it certainly are. Are these experiences distinctly Chicago? Perhaps; the parochial school overtones, the family making do in this city on the make certainly seem to be. But the more important questions to me are those that would apply to any work of art: How does reading this book make me feel? Shall I experience it again? Should I?
That is not to discount Hemon’s collection of essays. He does a commendable job of describing very singular experiences and how they have affected his conceptualization of “home”—the home he was born into versus the home of his choosing. His discussion of Chicago, though, is more sparse than I was expecting. Chicago represents an “after,” when the whole point of the tale is the “before.” His relationship with the city is certainly a love story, which he touches upon with his “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago.” But there’s also a bit of falling in love with existing Chicago love stories—a phenomenon that will look familiar to any writer.
I was particularly struck by his offhand observation about how it’s nearly impossible to successfully recount his experiences in Bosnia or dealing with his child’s severe illness: how there’s no explanation to encapsulate the heart of the conflict for Americans or the crux of the agony for nonparents. It’s simply too complex. He’s not being dismissive here; he’s keeping it real.
Though placed in roughly life-chronological order, it’s clear without reading the closing “Table of Discontents” that these pieces were published separately and then collected later; there isn’t much of a narrative through line in this work either. Many of these entries might have been more powerful if they’d remained stand-alones, particularly the closing essay, “Aquarium,” which is truly a gut punch. (A cursory Internet search for the book turns up spoilers that interfere with the narrative flow of that work, so I’m glad I went into this read blind.)
It’s ironic that Mango Street, the work of fiction, reads more like a stylized memoir, with the reader becoming more and more invested in young Esperanza’s tentative journey into adulthood (and Cisneros isn’t shy about owning up to the autobiographical elements). Each vignette in My Lives features a main character calling himself Aleksandar Hemon (or Sasha Hemon in his younger incarnations), but the versions presented in each work differ greatly as Hemon ages. He’s a man constantly evolving, just like we all are—or imagine ourselves to be. I found most of these men named Hemon interesting and able to tell a good story, but as I finished this book, I was simply glad I’d read it. I was relieved each person presented found some measure of peace after such horrific chaos. But I felt no compulsion to read it again and again.
I kept thinking about the people of Mango Street and wondering what happened to them after the final page. I’m curious how the book reads to someone in her teens or her 20s or her 30s. With this novel, Cisneros managed to spin a hypnotic yarn about a young girl understanding where she’s from, finding herself, and making her own way. My Lives is a book to read to confirm “Isn’t Chicago lovely?” Mango Street is a book to read to confirm that Chicago prepares people to become anyone they want to be. The latter is more compelling to me.
The House on Mango Street was the overwhelming favorite in this bout. And now . . . bring on round two! Voting begins tomorrow. Stay tuned for the online ballot and announcement of the reader who best predicted the judges’ response in round one.
- Sue Kwong