Suspend Your Disbelief

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Another Kind of Awareness: Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago

Stuart Dybek is often mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Sherwood Andersen—male writers of a certain era who wrote realistic, place-based fiction. And yet when I began reading Dybek, I couldn’t shake the feeing that something different was going on.

coast of chicagoWhen I signed up for Stuart Dybek’s undergraduate fiction seminar at age 21 as an undergrad at Northwestern University, one of my favorite authors was Stephen King. I didn’t like King’s straight-up horror so much as his fantasy and post-apocalyptic books like The Dark Tower series or The Stand—stories in which he built new worlds, weird worlds, places where time and space didn’t always line up neatly or linearly. Even though these books were labeled “fantasy,” they felt more realistic to me than the books I’d had to read for my required American Lit course.

I had avoided studying literature formally because the books I was assigned usually frustrated and bored me. The stories felt cold. I didn’t feel invited in. I couldn’t figure out what objects were supposed to be symbols or what they symbolized and I imagined the celebrated long-dead authors at their massive desks, a key drawn up beside of them of symbols and their meanings. Bird = escape. The red of Hester Pryne’s ‘A’ = shame. Carriage = class.

I took Stuart’s class with the dubious hope that I’d be allowed to tell a story the way King did and not worry about sticking in items that had secret meanings to show readers how clever I was and let them feel clever for discovering them. I desperately wanted to believe that reading and by extension, writing, could still be fun, transcendent, holy—the way it was for me outside of school.

Stuart surprised me when he told us on the first day of class that writing was about memory—making memories matter in the present. Writing, description in particular, was a matter of translating personal obsessions into words. When you write you explore your own mind, a process that is largely intuitive and unconscious. Now this I could buy. At that time, I was getting my degree in cognitive science; basically, trying to figure out how brains work. I was fascinated by how little we knew about the link between mind and brain, about how consciousness arises out of gray matter. I realized, that first day, that I was drawn to reading and writing because it was another way of understanding my own mind. The implication of Stuart’s words was that literature didn’t have to be an exclusive, anal-retentive country club. It could be, instead, a way to plumb the depths of my subconscious, of my memories, of every experience I’d ever had—remembered or not.

Stuart Dybek is often mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Sherwood Andersen—male writers of a certain era who wrote realistic, place-based fiction. And yet, when I began reading Dybek, I couldn’t shake the feeing that something different was going on. His work seemed to transcend Chicago the way a good Italian beef sandwich is more than the sum of its jus and cuts of meat. Dybek uses place as a jumping-off point to the universal, to the internal landscape that each of us inhabits.

The Coast of Chicago (1990), a collection of stories, opens with an epigraph from Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams.” If an epigraph can be read as its central thesis or theme, clearly Dybek is telling his readers that he does not plan to approach his material in the usual light-of-day fashion. And he doesn’t.

The book’s first story, “Farwell,” opens in the tradition of the French flaneurs and Andre Breton with a night walk. Writers of surrealist fiction and poetry seem to love walking at night and, perhaps inevitably, so do their fictional characters. Andre Breton’s Nadja takes place almost entirely after dark. Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is, you might say, aptly named. What is it about the night? It’s as if removing all the distraction of color and daily hustle makes room for another kind of awareness. There’s something revealed in the black and white world, some other way of seeing impossible by sunlight. A street at noon is not the same street at midnight. Night walks are populated by shadows and ghosts and as our eyes adjust to the darkness we become aware in a new way.

Stuart Dybek.

Stuart Dybek

Literature we call metaphysical has the same effect. “Farwell” opens not just with a night walk, but goes a layer deeper to the memory of one. Farwell Street is shrouded, the “streetlights smoldering in the fog.” Snow covers surfaces and obscures the usual street-stuff. The story starts in the dark and ends in the dark—even the pages themselves are gray instead of white, as if a heavy cloud descended at the printer’s—and the few flashes of color description we get stand out like odds bits of memory that seem vivid upon a blurred background: the bronze light coming from the apartment of the narrator’s old professor, the circles of red ink on the old map of Odessa tacked up in his apartment (“good bakeries,” the old man says).

The world itself is unrecognizable, a mirage. Snow “has obliterated the outlines of sidewalks and curbs and that night the pier looked as if it was a continuation of the street, as if Farwell lengthened out into the lake.” Reality is called into question during this recollection; after all, the emotional truth of the memory is different from the physical reality of an event that happened years ago. One might argue that once an event has occurred it is no longer real at all. It exists only in memory and so takes on a new kind of reality, one that is filtered through a human mind.

In the end, our human minds are poorly equipped to understand reality. We only perceive what evolution has made necessary for our survival and there are plenty of places the conscious mind can’t go—the fourth dimension, the microscopic world where Newtonian physics break down. This isn’t to say these realities are inaccessible to us, only that we must utilize some capacity beyond the five senses to experience them. Dreams and memories are two avenues Dybek uses to soar into other realities. If the stories in this collection are considered realist it is because Chicago is a real place and the themes of poverty, race, politics, and blight are not fanciful. This is not the stuff of dreams as we typically think of it. But we can explore them this way, as Dybek does, just the same.

There are a number of straight-up metaphysical moments in The Coast of Chicago, moments in which characters suddenly transcend their situation or environment and become mystical. In “Chopin in Winter,” a story about Marcy, a young woman who returns home shamed and pregnant, the young narrator, Michael, spends his nights listening to her piano playing through the walls and down the pipes. His wayward great-uncle Dzia-Dzia is also around and he urges the narrator to memorize the names of each Chopin piece Marcy plays, often conducted or playing air-piano himself. One night the playing is so ferocious that the lights go out, casting the characters into Dybek’s favored darkness. By the blue light of the stove burners, Michael practices his penmanship as the “walls and windowpanes shook with gusts of wind and music.” He sharpens his pencil and begins to write, but what springs from his pencil isn’t the usual stuff:

“I spelled new words, words I’d never heard before, yet as soon as I wrote them their meanings were clear, as if they were in another language, one in which words were understood by their sounds, like music.”

This passage reminds me of a dream I often have right before waking in which I am writing a story and the words flow freely and automatically as long as I want. I am always slightly aware of the dream as I dream it, and it’s a great pleasure to create so fluidly. I imagine this is what Michael was tapping. Of course, when the lights go back on, the metaphysical moment ends. Michael can’t remember what the words meant and he throws the paper away.

I’ve kept in touch with Stuart over the years. He encouraged me to follow my instincts after college and do something adventurous, live abroad for a while, which I did, spending three years in Japan. At one point, years after my return, Stuart took a trip there—his first—himself. Apparently his books can’t be printed fast enough in Japan—they love him there, he told me, though he had no idea why.

When he told me this, I immediately knew why the Japanese were drawn to his work. It’s the sense of natsukashii, which might be loosely translated as “nostalgia,” or more literally, “the sweet sadness of memory,” that it evokes. When he returned, he confirmed my theory. In one of the few snail-mail letters we exchanged, he wrote,

“Moto, the translator who is responsible for making a name for me there, said he wanted to translate me because my work gave him a big natuskashii about growing up in an industrial area of Tokyo. He said reading my stuff was like experiencing a dream of his past life.”

It’s this dreamlike quality that, for me, sets Dybek’s work apart from realist writers (whatever that means—it seems to involve the adjective “gritty”). Some stories in The Coast of Chicago, like “Pet Milk,” in which the narrator is sucked into the whirlpool of memory via the swirling dollop of fake cream in his coffee, create filmic images in a reader’s mind. As I read “Pet Milk,” I could actually see the edges of the screen go blurry, then watery, then re-focus in a in the past, at a different restaurant in the Pilsen district, the narrator just out of college, “seeing the same swirling sky in tiny liqueur glasses containing a drink called the King Alphonse.”  Maybe the colors are a little off, like those in an old photograph, but we readers are very much present in this memory. This is what it feels like to live a memory rather than just recall it. At the end of the story, which catalogues an early, doomed romance, the narrator encounters an older version of himself on an El platform—perhaps the one who started the story, drinking his coffee with Pet Milk—as he and his girlfriend make out in the back of a passing train car. For me, the takeaway seems to be that multiple realities and universes exist side-by-side and they sometimes brush up against one another. It is up to us to notice.

A section of the story “Nighthawks” centers on an all-night diner to which insomniacs and sleepwalkers inevitably find their way. In summer it’s the quality of light that draws them in “like moths” and in winter they “cross the trampled intersections until they come upon snowy footprints that perfectly fit their shoes and lead them there.” A woman stops outside the diner to touch up her reflection in the window. The patrons watch her fix her hair and makeup before she moves on and leaves “the reflection of a kiss” on the glass.

Obviously, a reflection is not a lasting object; it is tied to its referent, but in the story we feel its presence and the presence of this woman’s mouth lingering as if it is real. And then the kiss disappears, reappearing on a phone booth blocks away where Choco, an AWOL soldier who appears in a number of stories in the book and at different ages, fails to notice it, though some force spurs him to start “beating the booth like a conga drum.” The kiss then rides the subway, a cab. A few sections later it returns, crossing the city on a streetcar, revolving through a lobby door, going back into the subway where it encounters Choco and his bongo again. The kiss becomes that of his dead lover.

An invisible thing that’s not even a thing—the reflection of a woman’s lips—has connected the city’s inhabitants in a metaphysical web. Dybek uses this kiss to demonstrate the everywhere-at-onceness of a city’s existence. The traveling kiss is not bound by the speed of light or its mass or any other physical property. It is not even a thing; it’s an idea. A feeling. A correspondence.

There’s that famous Faulkner line, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” It comes to mind often when I think about Dybek’s work. It’s as if all the events of the past are layered or stacked atop one another, connected by something other than linear time. In the diner, the couple who witnessed the woman fix her makeup and unknowingly create “the kiss,” sit at the counter waiting for something or nothing. He’s smoking. And she “dreamily studies a matchbook from some other place where they sat like this together killing time.” It’s as if that previous moment is pressing right up to the present—in fact, in some ways, it is the present, because it is occupying the woman’s consciousness. The guy behind the counter goes home every morning and tries to sleep but he can’t; he “tries to dream, but succeeds only in remembering.” The distinction between dream and memory is an important one for Dybek. A dream means letting go completely, surrendering to the subconscious mind and perhaps to the entire universe. Memory cannot be altered. It is a prison both glorious and excruciating.

While Dybek’s Chicago is imbued with such a strong sense of place that the stories, taken literally, could not be set anywhere else, this intense specificity ends up lending the stories a universal appeal. They reminded Dybek’s Japanese translator of his childhood in Tokyo, a city six thousand miles away. I think this is because the stories aren’t set in Chicago at all, at least not on the level that matters. They are set in memory, and memory is universal. In a conversation about the landscape of emotion versus real physical places, Stuart once told me, “Sometimes I forget that there’s a real Chicago.”

Which makes sense. When you try to describe a place you’ve been, unless you have a photographic memory, your brain is full of bias. Description always brings the writer closely in touch with her subconscious. In order to describe a place, a writer must return to obsessive images of it, the ones that haunt her mind for reasons that may or may not be accessible to her. The images that arise connect the writer to deep levels of herself.

In one of the later sections in “Nighthawks,” a couple wakes simultaneously at dawn. The woman tells the man she’s not sure if meeting him is the luckiest or unluckiest thing that’s ever happened to her. He says he was thinking the exact same thing. Maybe it’s fate, then, the woman reasons. A kind of emotional telepathy, the man agrees. But the woman says no: “’Emotional’ makes it sound too glandular…I’m not talking about something in the glands; I’m talking about something in the stars.”

The protagonists of the stories in The Coast of Chicago are almost always children. Boys. They believe in saints and angels and ghosts and legends even when they pretend they don’t. Children don’t question legends or magic, or worry or whether these things are “real” or not. And why should they? They make sense.

Chekov said, “The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.” And Stuart Dybek knows this well. Even his name seems fated, a correspondence handed down through the ages: his surname comes from the Yiddish word for a possessing spirit, or conjurer—dybbuk. In The Coast of Chicago, Dybek conjures a reality beyond reality the way one finds a dim constellation by not looking right at it, but a little off to the side. There, in the periphery, it’s perfectly clear. As the “Nighthawks” woman said, it’s not in the glands—it’s in the stars.

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