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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, October 2

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There are good love songs. There are the ones that are subtle in their lyrics and powerful in their meaning. They are simple, yet they are sublime. They make you stop and breathe for a moment, remembering, wishing and longing. Eric Clapton has "The Way You Look Tonight." Etta James has "At Last." The Beatles have "Here, There, Everywhere." Never overly enthusiastic, they are calm and sure in their adoration. Then there are the other love songs, the poppy, teenager crush songs that are quick to name their desire. They are the Backstreet Boys crooning "As Long As You Love Me" and Mandy Moore with "Candy." Even The Beatles had their follies: If Looped were a love song with you, Chicago, as the object of its affection, then Andrew Winston just wants to hold your hand.

Looped is a novel of broad scope in vision and a wide range of ambitious narratives. The storylines center around seven groups of people, all of whom are connected in some way, as they traverse through their lives in the year 2000. Opening at the dawn of the Millennium and marking its chapters with days and months as the year progresses, we follow these characters through the life-altering events that, in the end, bring them together. There is Alice who deals with Brad, her boyfriend, the band they have together and the losses and successes with both. There is Ellen, a film student whose father insists she support herself after she fails out of school, and Megan, the second half of a turbulent relationship. There is Nathan in his first gay relationship with Robin, a melodramatic chef. Elias runs a diner while coping with an estranged relationship with his daughter and granddaughter. A customer who becomes a friend, Ng, is the beneficiary of Elias's good heart as he tries to make his name in comic art. Another diner regular, Florence, tries to convince her sister-in-law that she is capable of carrying on after her husband's death. The Duchossois family struggles to remain intact as they deal with their homeless daughter's unexpected pregnancy, and Alphonse, who is Florence's mailman, comes to terms with his career-halting mistakes.


It is obvious from the start that there is an eighth character in the story: the city of Chicago. "Viewed looking west at midnight from the forty-third floor of Lakepoint Tower, Chicago unfolds itself from the rumpled downtown through neighborhoods and suburbs, rolling out and out like a smooth old comforter stitched with light," Winston writes in his first few pages. As the characters move throughout the city — going from Bucktown to Logan Square to the Art Institute to Pilsen — the reader is never given the opportunity to forget where this story is taking place.

In some respects this is wonderful, because there is a certain satisfaction in knowing so intimately the ins and outs of a story's setting, but Winston relies so heavily on this knowledge that what should be background information resides steadily in the foreground, detracting from the story itself. That Winston decided to write a novel about Chicago, and then made his characters and story fit into the setting, shows greatly. If I hadn't known the city so well and been in love with it myself, I doubt I would have understood much of the story, much less even cared.

What makes the storylines even more difficult to follow is Winston's decision to jump from one to another in very short spurts. While this does lend the novel a circular, intertwined feeling, as if all of these lives are inherently connected, the snippets of plot and exposition do more to distance the reader from the narrative than to generate interest. With each section of story lasting no more than a few pages — and as little as a couple of paragraphs in some instances — Winston never really gives his readers a chance to become fully invested in his characters. Keeping track of seven distinct storylines, each with its own set of characters, is difficult enough, but when those storylines fly past in constant rotation there isn't much the reader can do but to hold on and hope that at some point it will all mean something. If the reader's not a Chicagoan, I'm not sure what that something will be.

I hate to gripe on a structural point as the downfall of a novel, but when that point prevents the reader from developing any sort of emotional attachment to the story and its characters, it's not something I can let slide by. The seven stories may have been great in their own right — a few hundred pages into the novel I began to care about the fate of Alice and Brad's relationship and how Giselle Duchossois would handle the birth of her twins — but we aren't given a chance to see if that's the case. I fear that a few hundred unfeeling pages may be too many for most to stick around. The poetic nature of Winston's prose is not the issue here, though I found some of his descriptions overly florid and his uncertain use of the present tense distracting. It's not a question whether Looped could have been something great. I wish it were.

I feel awful as I write those words because I so badly wanted to like Looped. The diversity of the characters, their interconnected developments over the course of a singular year, their placement in this city that I love — these are all appealing elements. I'm not sure if they would have fared any better in the hands of a different writer; to construct seven plots and to prominently feature Chicago may be too ambitious for one novel to accomplish. I would have liked to know these characters better. I would've liked to be inside their minds and to have followed their actions more linearly through the year. I would've liked to not be bombarded by Chicago minutiae, to be constantly reminded that the author has lived here — if we Chicagoans are the target audience, there's no need to convince us that our city is awesome. I wanted to have a serious relationship with Looped, but it was only interested in silly love songs.


About the Author(s)

Veronica Bond is a Slowdown editor for Gapers Block. She is attempting to read 52 books in 52 weeks; follow her progress here.

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