Tuesday, March 12, 2013

This is a bit older, as I forgot to publish it before.

I Sailed with MagellanI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years back, I had the fortunate opportunity to have lunch with Stewart Dybek (though it's unlikely he'll remember it as much as I did).  He was quite delightful during the meal as we talked about his work, my past delusions of being a creative writer, and my current studies at SIU-C.

So, flash-forward several years, and I finally get around to reading I Sailed with Magellan, his follow-up to Chicago Stories, with which I was more familiar.  Regardless, my brief and pleasant encounter had not prepared me for the deep and profound sadness that threads through this collection of stories (a novel in stories, some would call it, but those people would be idiots).

This collection is more about a place than a person, though a young Polish Chicagoan, Perry, does tend to be in most of the stories, or one of his family members.  What these stories really give the reader is a taste of Chicago at a certain point in history.  More than other authors who use Chicago as the backdrop for their narratives (see: The Time Traveler's Wife, which was terrible), Dybek gets a sense of what Chicago looks like to a native.  There was more than just a parade of tourist locations; this took place in a neighborhood which was at one point filled with various European immigrants, but now has shifted.  This shift, this cultural and ethnic shift, is present in the narrative as much as the change that takes place in the characters.

Chicago, for Dybek, exists now only in memory.  And that, really, is the central point of the book: an exploration of the role of memory in narrative.  Most stories have very little present-day action.  For example, in the final story, Perry's brother Mick stands outside his old house, is asked one question several times, and then runs away (that's not really a spoiler).  The action that is in the present of the narrative is very, very limited.  Most of the story takes place as the narrator seamless drifts from present day observation to long recollection.  Connections are made between how the current situation and what past events lead to it.

It would be easy to label this stream-of-consciousness writing and lump it in with Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but there is something more here.  There is an overarching sadness at not only the events of the characters, but how the city remembers it's citizens.  Throughout the course of the novel, the characters change quite a bit, both internally (their personalities and characterizations) as well as externally (where they live and what they do), but the city remains mostly static.  Buildings seldom change purpose, and instead are left abandoned when emptied.  Houses fall down and never reappear.  It's a horribly sad reflection on how a city is merely a holding vessel for a constantly shifting mass of people who never stop to see it for what it is. In the same way that a glass will give shape to the water within, so to does Chicago give shape to the characters therein.  

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone.  There is just one warning: don't approach it as if it were a short story collection.  Approach it more like a novel about a city told in a varied, shifting perspective.  But not, under any circumstance, a novel-in-stories.

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