Is Stuart Dybek one of the greatest-ever Chicago writers?

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paper_lantern.jpg
  • Farrar Straus and Giroux
I don't know how to begin to describe Paper Lantern, Stuart Dybek's new collection of stories. The subtitle describes the collection as "love stories," which I guess is as good a description as any. But a "love story," as opposed to a "romance," cannot be easily summed up, or broken down into neat elements like epiphany or foreshadowing or the three forms of irony like the tidy stories you had to read in ninth-grade English.

The experience of reading Paper Lantern is like entering into a series of dreams full of recurring images—a woman in a black slip, a blindfold, a lonely figure swimming out into Lake Michigan, opera (both the music and people behaving operatically)—overlaid on a background of ordinary Chicago neighborhood life. "Four Deuces," the longest of the stories, is, in its most basic shorthand description, a tale of magical luck and love and revenge, but it all goes down at the old Sportsman's Park in Cicero and in a corner bar on Dybek's home turf, the Polish south side. Dybek describes the fantastical and realistic elements with equal precision. The waking portions sometimes read like personal essays. The dreams are almost unbearably beautiful. Think of them (to perpetuate the opera motif) as recitatives and arias.

Stuart Dybek
It would be wrong to say that nothing happens in these stories. Quite a lot happens. There's plenty of sex. Violence, too. You could say they're "about" love, mostly between men and women. They're also about time and memory; characters frequently realize that their understanding of a situation was completely wrong. Often there's a feeling of foreboding, even when Dybek stops to crack a joke. (Some are quite funny.) The best of them—"Four Deuces," "Seiche," "Waiting," "Oceanic," the title story—compress entire lifetimes into just a few pages. The weaker entries—notably "Blowing Shades"—rely too heavily on symbolism to get their point across. The beauty of Dybek's work, like most great art, is that it can be fully experienced without being completely understood.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the language, which is gorgeous all across the board. Here's a passage from from a page I just opened to at random:

The snow-paved Blockbuster parking lot is empty and Ned leaves the car running, wipers swiping, radio broadcasting a movement called "Catacombae," which echoes the spectral world beneath the streets of Paris. Ghosts seem to swirl across the deserted streets of Ned's city, as well.

It seems it's impossible for Dybek to write a bad sentence—until you remember that it's been ten years since his last collection, I Sailed With Magellan (though it's true he's probably been distracted by teaching at Northwestern, and his publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, is simultaneously releasing the wonderfully titled Ecstatic Cahoots, a book of 50 much shorter stories). Paper Lantern is the product of hard work and care that reads as if it came into the world perfectly and completely formed.

Stuart Dybek will be opening the Printers Row Lit Festival next Saturday, June 7, at 10 AM at the Harold Washington Library.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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