338 pages. Bloomsbury. $27.
As the old saying goes, comedy is tragedy plus time. Adam Langer’s new novel Cyclorama complicates that equation considerably.
Superimposed on a high school play, The Diary of Anne Frank, a somewhat saccharine adaptation of the Broadway and Pulitzer Prize-winning best-selling book, the novel is, like the play, in two acts. The first took place in his 1982, when Holocaust remembrance was a special priority in American culture. Many survivors were still alive, new generations needed to be educated, and everyone was still gathering around the same electronic furnace.
Act Two takes us back in time to 2016, and against a backdrop of anti-immigration, neo-Nazis, and the atomization of the media, it’s like an unimaginably dark reunion. (His PSA for those who’ve never been: they’re all dark comics).
For locked-up kids in the ’80s, sometimes sleazy teachers were as familiar as divorce and TV dinners. Still, figures like Tyrus Densmore, the drama coach who directs plays in Langer’s novels, are even more problematic. A suburban North Shore magnet, he’s become a legend for his bragging rights and high standards. “I’m breaking you, but I’ll put you back together!” shout.
Although he served in the Korean War, Ty-Ty is clearly not a gentleman, leaving hardcore pornographic magazines on his desk, inviting male students to his home to try on plain clothes, Has disturbing habits such as joking. He kneels down and gives a blowjob while measuring his crotch. Most astonishingly, each year he chooses a sympathetic and vulnerable mentee to accompany him on a trip to see a show in New York. Other activities that may not occur.
The school’s journalism teacher shook his head when two students in the play told him about Densmore’s actions. —and they’ll never be able to document anyone about the situation, so the students plot to involve him in a horrific deed at a cast-his party.
Langer is as good a prop master as the prop master in Netflix’s Stranger Things, judiciously tackling relics from the past like McDonald’s Styrofoam containers, Walkmans, overcooked lamb chops, and references to Mariel Hemingway. inlaid on the page. “The Breakfast Club” came out a little later, but Generation X might flinch at his teens trapped in that movie’s stereotypes.
Keeping track of who is who in “Cyclorama” and who is playing who on stage in “Anne Frank’s Diary” is like homework. As extra credit, we recall that the play, first performed in 1955, skews Frank’s original account into a hopeful, transcendent vision of humanity rather than a chronicle of history’s horrors. please.
That the high school drama club is called the annex, like the lodgings where the Frank family hid. Despicable Densmore coerces his accusation into writing intimately in a diary he seizes. Did you receive the memo?
But Langer’s flip-forward to 2016 is the literary equivalent of Mary Lou Retton’s tumbling pass. The rabbis who once encouraged the Torah’s part on prostitution now have a “safe place.” Furious and feeling cheated, one former classmate is on the verge of voting for Donald J. Trump. Another died of AIDS, but is only a looming shadow as the novel begins. Some miraculously became successful actors. One is bitter and ultimately fueling his Densmore exploits on Facebook. Another investigative reporter is struggling with another news site that has gone digital from the weekly, working with “broken millennials scrolling through Twitter.” Contrary to everything we’ve been taught about journalism, can reporting his own high school scandal in first person be the click-o-rama that saves his career?
The term cyclorama refers to the seamless panel at the back of the stage set, often used to give the illusion of an infinite sky. It sounds like the title of an after-school TV show, but it was popular in his 19th century, before cinema came along, and sent viewers to a different time or place — much like early analogue virtual reality. It’s a well-chosen title that reveals something far more hauntingly serious under the slapstick scrim.