Much of Adam Langer’s finely wrought, raucously funny, and startlingly insightful new novel, Cyclorama, occurs within “The Annex,” an insular and endlessly drama-steeped theatrical enclave of a magnet high school just north of Chicago. True to its title, which refers to a 360-degree canvas in a theatrical rotunda, fashioned to provide a changeable visualization of a scene’s location and to create the illusion of a larger landscape in a limited space, Cyclorama imagines the Annex as both a haven from a fractious world and a microcosm of it. Actors share raunchy and scatological in-jokes, trade knowing pop-culture references, engage in shifting alliances and romantic entanglements, and nurture all-consuming rivalries. The only adult in the mix, theater director Tyrus Densmore, tells the filthiest jokes of all and wields absolute power.
Presented as “A Play in Two Acts,” Cyclorama begins in a high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank in spring 1982, and introduces readers to a cadre of vividly drawn characters vying for the play’s 10 roles. Even the casting of the play that populates the Secret Annex where the Franks and Van Daans hid from Nazi terror makes and breaks personal relationships between the actors, with much of the ensuing conflict manufactured and magnified by the ever-manipulative Densmore.
After a cataclysmic cast party following the play’s final performance, the drama abruptly shifts far into the future, picking up in fall 2016, on the eve of the election of Donald Trump. Langer reveals where life has taken the characters who long ago played Anne and Peter and the other hunted Franks and Van Daans, and raises the curtain on the contentious political and social climate that some of them have had a hand in shaping, and examines the way that climate—along with the enduring events of spring 1982—has formed others. Public accusations brought against Densmore by individual members of the Anne Frank cast set the story’s jarring second act in motion.
With his first published novel since 2013, Cyclorama finds Langer revisiting some familiar territory. The setting of its first act approximates the time and place of Langer’s beloved first two novels, Crossing California and its sequel The Washington Story. As his first “Chicago novel” since The Washington Story, Cyclorama is, indeed, a homecoming of sorts for Langer, although the narrative follows its characters much deeper into their lives, and into considerably darker destinies and times.
I spoke with Langer about 1980s Chicago, art in literature, and kids in theater.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When Crossing California came out in 2004, it was praised for its vivid and precise recreation of Rogers Park and other Chicago neighborhoods at the beginning of the 1980s. You achieve a similar feat in Cyclorama. Much further removed by time and distance, and with some of those neighborhoods having changed considerably in the interim, are those scenes more difficult to recreate now?
I don’t think it’s become any more difficult for me to recreate the scenes that take place in Chicago and the suburbs during the 1970s and ’80s. For me, those places and those times remain as vivid as they always have. I could close my eyes right now and put myself on any of dozens of streets and tell you what was there, who was there, what they were wearing. I don’t have a photographic memory, but I do have what you might call a photographic imagination, which means that I can conjure up very specific images of times and places that are often (but not always) accurate. And when I go back to fact-check, there’s always the question of whether to remain faithful to the actual reality of the past or my memory of it.
In Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s, there was a specificity to that time and that setting that, to my mind, lends itself to the accumulation of detail. If you look at movies shot in Chicago during that time period—like Thief or My Bodyguard—it doesn’t look like any other city. You immediately know where you are. It’s why movies set in Chicago but shot elsewhere, like American Buffalo, immediately ring false. It’s something about the geometry of the place—the way the El cuts through the shimmering grid; the way everything stops at the lake.
What’s different in Cyclorama is the characters and their relation to that setting. For the younger characters in my earlier novels, Chicago is this glittering world of possibility, and the way I try to describe the city reflects that. In Cyclorama, that’s true for some characters when their emotions are heightened. When characters are falling in love or experiencing life-altering trauma, I try to make the setting come alive in great detail. For others, Chicago and the near-north suburbs are places they feel they’re passing through on their way to something else while they seek refuge in interior spaces—like the theater. So, in those instances, I pull back a bit from the specificity.
Writing about Chicago in the present day—or at least in the first years of the Trump administration—presents some challenges. Many of the neighborhoods do remain completely unchanged. If you wanted to shoot a period film in Rogers Park, for example, or Evanston, on many blocks, you wouldn’t have to change anything other than the cars and the clothes people were wearing. You could just set down your camera and shoot. But other areas of the city and the suburbs have lost a little of that specificity and, to me, when I drive through them, they don’t look all that different from certain parts of Cleveland or Brooklyn. Many of the adult characters in Cyclorama are caught up in their own lives and they’re not always as attuned to the physical world in which they live, and the narrative reflects that.
What brought you back to that place and time at this point in your career?
Crossing California and The Washington Story were set in this very specific time. In Cyclorama, I wanted to be able to view characters over a long stretch to see not just who they were, but who they became. So in a way, it’s going back to the ’80s, but in a way it’s writing a sequel without having to write a sequel.
I think of writers who do that from time to time, like Edna O’Brien in her Country Girls trilogy, which views a friendship over a long period of time; or Elena Ferrante with her Neapolitan trilogy. But I wanted to do the whole thing in one book to see how something that happened in somebody’s youth goes on to affect them later in life. And while I was writing the book, it was during the middle of the Trump era. I was looking around and seeing people in the news who I recognized, whether because I knew them or because I recognized the type and thought, “Where did Brett Kavanaugh come from?” Or I looked at the people who I grew up with who became fairly influential in various walks of life—whether it be working for the Bush administration, or developing health policy under Obama, or becoming very successful in entertainment—and I wanted to see, what was it that brought them to this point? So it was a matter of going back and seeing where the seeds were planted for who these people became. And in some cases, it was totally predictable, and in some cases, I couldn’t have imagined it in a thousand years.
Another thing that interests me in writing is the idea of taking something really small—whether in Crossing California, it’s people just meeting on street corner one night, or in Ellington Boulevard, someone going into their apartment and seeing someone they don’t recognize in there—and seeing what sort of reverberations it has.
In the early ’80s I first read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, which always seemed to me like the story of four lives whose trajectories were changed by the throwing of the snowball. There was the person who threw it, the person who got out of the way, the person who was hit by it, and the person who was born early as a result of it. And that concept always really interested me: These incidents go on to have reverberations throughout people’s lives that you couldn’t have anticipated when they happened.
How did you settle on The Diary of Anne Frank as a sort of frame for this story?
I have always been interested in literature that shows how a piece of art goes on to affect the lives of people who are in it, like the characters in George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I wanted to do something from the perspective of each character in a play, and as I developed the story, The Diary of Anne Frank seemed to make a whole lot of sense.
One thing that I find interesting about The Diary of Anne Frank is, the set was originally designed by the famous Broadway set designer, Boris Aronson. It was a cut-out of the Gies’ attic, the Secret Annex, but there was a cyclorama of Amsterdam behind it. So, it was both a very specific life and it was something much more universal at the same time. And what I wanted to do was something similar: a very specific story happening in a very specific time, but behind it, something much more universal going on.
The Annex at North Shore Magnet School is almost a character unto itself, a haven for these kids with very specific interests and abilities and expectations for their lives. But it’s also the fiefdom of Tyrus Densmore, who on the one hand is their ticket to what they want to achieve in life, but who also has this sinister side where he exploits that and tries to mask his bad intentions by incessantly joking about them. Are these dynamics that you personally observed or experienced in your time in theater?
I’m sorry to say, yes. I spent a lot of time as a kid in theater, and you find that with theater kids, there’s often something going on in your house that you’re trying to escape in theater. It doesn’t have to be theater. It could be a sports team. It could be a religious group. And you go there seeking people who understand you, people who see the world the way that you do. And in some ways that can be a really powerful and beautiful experience. But because of that, there are individuals who try to take advantage of that to take advantage of kids.
When I was younger than the characters in this novel, I was in a summer theater program in the northern suburbs of Chicago. There was one summer where I thought I had found my people, my group, and there was this theater director who was really a wonderful person I am still friends with even today, who made this into a haven. It was this warm, loving community where everyone—even though we were only 11 or 12—was really supportive of each other.
And then the next year, for whatever reason, the first director was gone and they were replaced by a very cynical and dark sort of person with a very different approach who shouldn’t have been brought anywhere near kids. They took that trust and used it to their own advantage. I saw not only how that affected me, but how it infected the entire environment. Now there were dark jokes. Now there were drugs. Now there was bad behavior of all kinds. And it was all in some ways attributable to that change of authority figure. When you’re young, that person has that kind of power and they can use it for good or for ill.
What interested me about exploring this dynamic was, it’s not only true when you were a kid. You can see its resonance in America as well. Like when you have an individual come to power, as happened in 2016, 2017, and they have the same kind of darkness in them that I saw in this little theater company in the north suburbs of Chicago when I was a kid. The country can change just as a little theater company can change. Not that I want to do a one-to-one correspondence, but it really seemed that with a certain sort of leader, whether it’s kids in a theater company or people coming to Washington on January 6th, it can really change trajectories. It can change lives. It can change moods. It can change people’s views of themselves. And those are the parallels I saw myself exploring as I went about writing the novel.
By Adam Langer
Published August 2, 2022
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and magazine and book editor based in Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in New York Journal of Books, Paste Magazine, Chicago Review of Books, First of the Month, Virtual Ireland, and First Look Books.