If so, there would only be one choice: Stuart Dybek, Chicago poet and storyteller. The idea was for a poet to reflect on art, and the art that had influenced him, and its relation to words and language. He writes about a period in his life when he was looking for a job and had countless job interviews. The paintings themselves appeared to throw an internal light the way oaks and maples seem aflame in fall, from the inside out. I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.
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I had avoided studying literature formally because the books I was assigned usually frustrated and bored me. The stories felt cold.
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. 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.
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. Writers of surrealist fiction and poetry seem to love walking at night and, perhaps inevitably, so do their fictional characters.
What is it about the night? 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 Literature we call metaphysical has the same effect. The world itself is unrecognizable, a mirage. 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.
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.
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. I imagine this is what Michael was tapping. Of course, when the lights go back on, the metaphysical moment ends. 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.
When he told me this, I immediately knew why the Japanese were drawn to his work. When he returned, he confirmed my theory. He said reading my stuff was like experiencing a dream of his past life. 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 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. The traveling kiss is not bound by the speed of light or its mass or any other physical property. A feeling. A correspondence. 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.
They are set in memory, and memory is universal. 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. He says he was thinking the exact same thing. A kind of emotional telepathy, the man agrees.
And why should they? They make sense. 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.
The Coast of Chicago
I had avoided studying literature formally because the books I was assigned usually frustrated and bored me. The stories felt cold. 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.
The daughter of the landlady of the building the boy lives in, Marcy, is the first of her family to go to college—the first even to finish high school. But now she is pregnant and making the decision to be done with school. She had been studying music in college and she still practices on the piano now, living at home again. Dzia-Dzia recognizes that sometimes Marcy plays "boogie-woogie" music, and he speculates aloud that the father of her child is black. In fact, they are the first words he speaks weeks after his most recent return.
The Coast of Chicago Discussion Questions
Stuart Dybek Reads Poetry Amongst the Art