5 Terrific Modern Chicago Novels

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

It’s only natural to be drawn to novels set in the city in which you live. Thankfully for me, Chicago has a rich tradition as a literary setting — from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March to Richard Wright’s Native Son to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To The End.

But a more current crop of Chicago novels — published in the last five years or so, and set in modern Chicago — has really lent some literary cred to the Windy City. Let’s take a look at five of the best.

5. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — This thousand-page masterpiece follows 10-year-old maybe-Messiah Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee through four days in his Chicago middle school. Gurion is an “Israelite, Chicago born” (mimicking the opening line of Augie March) — and his story oozes with Chicago landmarks and lore. Levin even quotes Chicago’s own Smashing Pumpkins (Starla).

4. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale — The main character — an ape who learns to talk — is born in Chicago’s LIncoln Park Zoo. But he soon is forced to leave Chicago to seek his fortune.

3. The Middlesteins, by Jamie Attenberg — The Middlesteins, a couple on the brink of divorce after nearly 40 years of marriage, actually live in Buffalo Grove, a northern suburb of Chicago. But their daughter Robin lives in Andersonville, a super-cool neighborhood on the North Side. And this story about what can make or break a family is quintessential Midwestern lit.

2. Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers — This fiction about science (which is Powers’ schtick) is about a Chicago college student named Thassa Amzwar who has a “mental health condition” in which she can’t not be happy. Russell Stone is a mid-30s magazine editor, who teaches a part-time class at what appears to be a fictional version of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Stone has Thassa in a class and is overwhelmingly intrigued by her “affliction.” This is a fascinating novel that asks its readers to consider a lot of moral and ethical questions.

1. Office Girl, by Joe Meno — One of favorite — and most underrated — novels of last year, Meno’s story follows two early 20s hipsters as they ride their bikes around mid-winter Chicago, just trying to make their ways in the world. It’s a sparse novel, but one that sticks with you. (Meno’s terrific dysfunctional family novel, The Great Perhaps, is also set in Chicago.)

(If you’re interested in a more comprehensive list of Chicago-set novels, check out this Top 40, from Chicago Magazine.)


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