Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Crossing California - Adam Langer

Crossing California is Adam Langer's debut novel, published in 2004, when he was roughly 37 years old. The setting is immediately apparent as one of the primary motives of the novel--1979 - 1981, or more particularly, as explained by Langer in the short afterword, the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, ending on the day of Ronald Reagan's inaugaration. Also, the title of the novel refers to the setting--California Ave. in the Rogers Park section of Chicago. Most of the characters are about 13 when the novel opens in 1979, making them close to the same age as Langer, though he purports that the novel is not autobiographical but merely shares some of the experiences of many of his characters.

At first I did not want to like this novel. I had heard a bit about it from my classmates in a couple writing workshops I took in Chicago. They said it was a great book about Chicago. I was immediately suspicious of it because it had been published recently and I find a huge swathe of contemporary literature to be simple-minded, uncomplicated, boring and troublesome in how seriously and safely it takes itself. This is probably due to the nature of the publishing industry, but Langer was lucky enough to slip through, presenting a manuscript of highly-consistent prose that should engage readers everywhere, but especially in Chicago. There are not enough novels about Chicago! All novels are about New York. Or, at least a ton of them are. I should not start slipping into generalizations. There is one problem with Crossing California and that is, when the paperback edition ends with a "sneak preview" of The Washington Story, I thought it was some sort of bizarre joke. Looking up Crossing California on Amazon, I found apparently this is a real book, and it is a sequel, published shortly after the first one. The first thought that comes to mind is, this is starting to seem like Twilight or Harry Potter but seriously for adults only. I don't think most 13 year olds pass around joints on field trips. Maybe they did in 1979 and well maybe these characters just do.

I did not begin reading this novel totally enthusiastically but after about 15 or 20 pages, I was pretty into it. The writing style is quite engaging. I found the characters engaging, even though I didn't expect them to be. Most of all, however, I found the similarities between this book and my first (attempted) novel to be quite unsettling. Basically, they are very similar novels thematically. They concern a cast of characters, rather than one primary protagonist, going about their daily lives in Chicago. However, Langer's novel got published and mine didn't for two reasons:
1) His came first and I wasn't aware of it until much later so now mine appears to be an imitation of his.
2) His is significantly more devoted towards traditional novel elements such as depth of character, authenticity, and he writes with much more confidence and authority.
My characters are older than his and probably less experienced and more stupid. Also, I write about 7 or 8 days, while he writes about 444.

A book review should not be a mope fest. Crossing California is a great book for the city of Chicago, and all of the characters--Jill Wasserstrom (younger sister), Charlie Wasserstrom (widowed father), Michelle Wasserstrom (older sister), Gail Schiffler-Bass (widower's 2nd wife), Lennie Kidd (Gail's ex-husband, comedian/magician-pseudo "Svengooli" inspired personage), Lana Rovner (younger sister), Larry Rovner (older brother), Ellen & Michael Rovner (ambivalent parents), Muley Wills-Silverman (only child, bi-racial, whiz kid), Deirdre Wills (mother, would-be writer, English teacher), Carl "Slappit" Silverman (ex-husband, record producer), Mel Coleman (public radio assistant, mentor to Muley, aspiring novelist/screenwriter), and "Peachy" Moskowitz-Wills-Silverman (a fictional character Muley creates who becomes a character played by Michelle, which is probably the most "clever" part of the book). And those are just the characters that receive their fair share of primary story-telling space. Among the notable others are Gareth Overgaard, Myra Tuchbaum, Douglas Sternberg, P.C. Pendleton, Steve Ross, Laura Kim, Cheryl Mandell, Hannah Goodman, and others I am too tired to recall. If there is one thing this novel has taught me, it is that publishable work should stress character, character, character. Writing this many different characters must have been a dizzying affair, but Langer juggles them all effectively. Let me be clear: this is not a flawless novel. But I am hard-pressed to point out the flaws in it. Perhaps the characters are overly sexualized and treated with too much cruelty at times by other characters. Perhaps it is a very "gossipy" book. But you can't really criticize a book largely about teenagers for being too "gossipy."

Maybe the best way to answer whether the book is worth reading or not is, would I read The Washington Story? I think so. I think I would like to read it. Langer's third novel is about New York, apparently abandoning this cast of characters. I think having a sequel to a novel could potentially cheapen the impact of the original, but I was a little bit upset when I finished the final paragraph today. In truth there are plot lines to the first that merit continuation, though it just goes to show how difficult writing a book can be. As Italo Calvino states somewhere in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, either the characters die or they live happily ever after. The ending to Crossing California does point towards the latter for at least two of the characters, but as pointed out earlier, there are a ton of characters here, and many of them lack satisfying closure. So yes, I will read the sequel, and I recommend the original, quite highly, though I am suspicious the sequel may end up being too much of a good thing.

No comments: