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Local Lit: Rob Christopher's mix-and-match debut

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"Andy went out drinking with his friends from work one night and they stayed out very late. It was about 4:30 in the morning when he was finally walking up Broadway on his way home. The neighborhood was completely silent. Just north of Aldine, a very cute young guy appeared from a side street. He made eye contact with Andy and said, 'Hey.'

'Hi there,' said Andy.

'Wanna hang out?' he asked.

'No thanks,' said Andy, and he continued walking home."

That's the opening of Rob Christopher's book, 100 Spinning Plates. At least it could be. It could just as easily be the ending--though the laws of probability say it will likely turn up somewhere in between.

"Welcome to the world of Random Literature," beckons the "cover" of 100 Spinning Plates, which is actually a cardboard box. Conceptual kin to those Magnetic Poetry fridge magnets, Christopher's book consists of 100 stories written on 100 cards. Some stories are a solitary line or a single paragraph long; most are several paragraphs; a few mini-epics carry over to the back of the card. "They're all self-contained," Christopher says. "I wanted a book that would be completely nonlinear--like hypertext, but I think it's better to have physical cards. It's a perfect book for someone with a short attention span."

Christopher, who's 28, says he's "always" been writing but didn't get serious about it until he went to college. He moved here from Denver in 1993 to attend the School of the Art Institute, switching to Columbia the following year. He graduated in 1997 with what he calls "a limbo degree--classes toward a concentration in film and writing." Hoping to break into film, he left for LA in June of 1999 to work on an independent documentary called Kosher Messiah, but after six months he returned to Chicago and rededicated himself to the printed word. "It's a lot cheaper than film and a lot more immediately satisfying," he says.

Christopher self-published 100 Spinning Plates in a limited edition of 500, shuffling each set of cards to render it unique before putting it in its numbered box. He says he never considered pitching the project to a conventional press. "Its not being an ordinary book just gave me a gut feeling that it would be hard to explain to a publisher. I was also attracted to the notion of doing it myself, having complete control."

Christopher sees the randomized structure of his book as integral to its meaning. "The main theme, I guess, is the fragmented nature of how we remember the past, how memory works. We don't remember our life in a straight line. An anecdote pops into our head and somehow that makes us think of something else that happened that on the surface seems totally unconnected to the first memory. It's about those tangential connections, this thread that keeps our history tied together."

Though many of the book's vignettes have an autobiographical flavor--Christopher worked as a barista for years, and there are lots of scenes set in coffee shops--he doesn't identify them as fact or fiction. "I think our memories are sort of fictionalized versions of what actually happened," he says. "We fictionalize it to make it more interesting and smoothed out so that it's vivid and easier to remember. So while a lot of the events really happened, some of them didn't, or happened differently. I want to keep the reader guessing. If you're reading the book and constantly asking yourself, 'Did this stuff really happen? Is it supposed to be a memoir or is it fictional?' then it means you're engaged--and hopefully drawn in to the point where you want to read the next card to try to get some answers."

Christopher will read from and sign copies of 100 Spinning Plates at 8 PM on Friday, November 21, at Quimby's, 1854 W. North (773-342-0910). It's free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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