Review of Michael Czyzniejewski’s 'Chicago Stories' by Rachel Hyman

I am a Chicago enthusiast. Evangelist, you could say. This city is my birthplace and I came back for college and it was like finding a new home, really my first true home. I have a special section on my shelf for Chicago-related books, and I’m studying geography because I love cities, but mostly this one. So I picked up Michael Czyzniejewski’s Chicago Stories (Curbside Splendor, 2012) with special interest and high hopes. Chicago Stories is a collection of 40 “dramatic fictions”--flash fiction, you could say--based off of famous and infamous local luminaries like Barack Obama, Dennis Rodman, and Rod Blagojevich. Czyzniejewski doesn’t limit himself to human figures, including pieces inspired by the Water Tower and Italian beef sandwich.

Maybe this is obvious, but this city evades description. Chicago is just teeming. It contains multitudes. And the way I encounter Chicago is intimately mapped to my personal experiences, my associations. Yet there’s some general essence of Chicago, some spirit, that we can maybe draw a fuzzy outline around. Before the fact, I would have expected Chicago Stories to explicitly try to pin down the city’s soul, to capture in its own way how Chicago is “stormy, husky, brawling/City of the Big Shoulders” or the way it’s “an October sort of city even in the spring.” Something in the grand tradition of Sandburg and Algren and Bellow. Man, Chicago goes hard. Yet these touchstone writers portray a Chicago that’s resolutely different than the one we’re living in now, and one that is richly textured but almost two-dimensional at times. It’s a very particular Chicago, but only one Chicago.

Czyzniejewski, on the other hand, delves deeper into the essence of this city, looks at a different one of its many dimensions. He’s concerned more with showing than with explicitly telling of the city’s spirit. And crucially, Czyzniejewski has a wider scope than Algren or Bellow, sweeping from Chicago’s earliest days--Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the city’s earliest settler--to Mrs. O’Leary and Leopold and Loeb, all the way up to Oprah Winfrey. It’s an open question whether his representation is faithful, though, or whether he successfully encapsulates at least some of the many Chicagos.

I’m not sure if the answer to that question is unequivocally yes. Czyzniejewski looks at a different dimension of the city than those famous Chicago authors, but it’s one that anyone who’s familiar with the figures his stories center around could “get.” In my mind, that nod of resonance and gut recognition would be less prevalent in a general audience that’s reading Algren. Like Algren’s speaking a language that rings especially true to Chicagoans, whereas Czyzniejewski can be heard by all. I wonder if this is a byproduct of the fact that by and large each fiction is based off of people, and not so much off the physical form of the city (cue my “As a geographer...”). I was going to write that he doesn’t much focus on my native South Side, but he really doesn’t talk much about the North Side either. The Chicago of Chicago Stories isn’t the “city of neighborhoods.” By and large it’s a city of historical figures and larger-than-life characters.

I don’t mean to say that this is entirely a bad thing. We should show people a Chicago that’s not the industrial hardscrabble one of last century (though I’m sure as heck not discounting that that’s still a part of our heritage). Taken together as a whole, these stories do give a sense of Chicago’s essence that’s distinct from the representation given by Algren and his ilk, yet a cousin to that. Czyzniejewski draws a circle around the city’s soul that relays a broad understanding of it to the reader; someone like Algren breaks your nose with more of a pinpoint representation. They’re just different methods of conveying what Chicago is.

I enjoyed many or most of the dramatic fictions in the book. They seemed to draw a picture of a Chicago that sits comfortably in a dim bar, clearly a regular, elbows back, feet up, gesticulating confidently and passionately about politics and sports. There are a crop of figures, like David Hasselhoff, that should be familiar to non-Chicagoans, making the book more appropriate for a general audience. This is probably good, at least for Czyzniejewski. It’s just a different fictional Chicago than what I had hoped for.

So after all this hand-wringing about faithful representations and the soul of the city, what’s the verdict? Ultimately, I don’t think it’s fair to measure Czyzniejewski against the standards of my Chicago. I should just go write my own stories or poems if I don’t feel he captured the Chicago I know. Because that’s the thing that Czyzniejewski has made me realize, shaking me out of my solipsism--there are infinite Chicagos, and they’re all legitimate. Czyzniejewski puts forth a fresh, creative perspective on my city. I’m glad he didn’t go the Algren route. There’s too much else out there.

 

Rachel Hyman lives in Chicago and edits Banango Lit and Banango Street. She went to poetry camp when she was 13. Find her at www.andserenading.com.