If Aristotle was right about catharsis—the idea that fictionalized accounts of suffering somehow purge us of our own—then maybe reading about people struggling through a Chicago winter will make it a little less horrible for you. Of course, a Chicago “winter” can last from Halloween to Memorial Day, subjectively if not meteorologically, but forthis list I’ve only included novels set during the months of January, February, and March.
Office Girl by Joe Meno
A woman coughing at a bus stop. A neon-blue pharmacy sign buzzing. A trumpet player blowing his instrument in the cold. And there, at the corner of Michigan and Oak, he stops and sees a green glove lying in the snow.
You probably know a few Chicagoans like the protagonists in Office Girl. Former art school students living in West Town, biking everywhere, biding their time at entry-level office jobs. Meno’s brief, experimental sixth novel is a bittersweet love story in the vein of (500) Days of Summer, but with more snow.
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
The late winter has been gleefully tormenting the city. The pure snows of January and the spartan colds of February are over, and now the temperatures are falseheartedly rising and maliciously dropping: the venom of arbitrary ice storms, the exhausted bodies desperately hoping for spring, all the clothes stinking of stove smoke.
The novel that put Hemon on the literary map, The Lazarus Project splits its time between Chicago and Eastern Europe, following a writer’s attempt to retrace the steps of Lazarus Aberbuch, a real-life Jewish immigrant shot dead in Lincoln Park by the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908, ostensibly just for knocking on his front door.
Dante’s Dilemma by Lynne Raimondo
Seventh Street Books
The storm that began as freezing rain in the afternoon was now turning into a blizzard. If the Eskimos had dozens of words for snow, I thought I deserved my own special glossary. Sno-Cone, I decided, as I pulled my foot from another pile of slush.
The third novel in Raimondo’s Detective Mark Angelotti series, Dante’s Dilemma features the dead body of a professor on the University of Chicago campus and a blind psychiatrist turned expert legal witness.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Back Bay Books
God it was freezing. We were out of the way of the wind under the bright light of the garage, but Chicago in February, if you’ll allow an homage to Brizz, is colder than a witch’s tit in an icebox. He still called a refrigerator an icebox.
Ferris’s satirical debut novel is like a season of The Office written by George Saunders. Employees of an advertising agency in downtown Chicago must cope with the collapse of the dot-com bubble at the turn of the 21st century. It’s dark, funny, written entirely in the first-person plural (“we”), and made The New York Times’ list of the 10 Best Books of 2007.
Divine Days by Leon Forrest
Forrest’s masterpiece has been called the War and Peace of African-American literature. Featuring a vast library of characters and styles, it follows an aspiring Chicago playwright named Joubert Jones over the course of seven days in February in the mid-1960s as he attempts to capture the life of his friend Sugar-Groove.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.