An Interview With Adam Levin – Chicago Review of Books


Authors have spared few words when writing about the beauty and bruises of Chicago throughout its history as a literary muse. But for every story that leans into nostalgia and earnestness, rarely have we seen fiction that explores the more absurd aspects of the city and those who lead it. Nelson Algren once wrote that “Chicago’s blood was hustler’s blood,” creating a place where common day-to-day work and corruption often run in parallel. In no area is this more pronounced than in our politics—the infamous “machine” of dealings, backroom connections, and broken promises that the city has become known for.

In Mount Chicago, Adam Levin brings his sharp wit and biting critique to the topic of Chicago-style politics. The novel kicks off with a sinkhole that swallows a huge swath of the Loop and proceeds to take readers down a winding, digression-filled, and metafictional story about a Jewish novelist and his number one fan, who also serves as a lead aide to the mayor. Looking to move the city forward following the “terrestrial anomaly” (because rule #1 in the administration: never actually call it a sinkhole), the mayor embarks on a campaign to build a memorial to the disaster victims that is “as moving as Auschwitz” but “less depressing.” 

In his blurb for the book, CHIRBy Award finalist and author of Everywhere You Don’t Belong Gabriel Bump recently wrote that “Yes: he [Levin] is Chicago’s best novelist.” That’s both the highest of high-praise and a grand claim, but it’s true that Mount Chicago captures an important element of the city that rarely has been shown in fiction. And when it comes to taking a big swing on the absurdities of our modern life, no one does it better than Adam Levin. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Michael Welch

Mount Chicago centers on a catastrophic event in which basically a sinkhole (though the mayor’s office is careful not to call it this) opens up and swallows much of downtown Chicago. Why that type of disaster?

Adam Levin

Mostly for wonky practical reasons, I guess. It’s not something that’s ever happened to a megacity center, so that allowed me some freedom to set the terms. I admit I’m being a little vague here for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

Michael Welch

What was it like to write this book—which is so rooted in the Chicago experience—away from the city you’ve called home?

Adam Levin

I think I wrote somewhere between a quarter and a third of the book in Chicago, but the rest—written in Gainesville, Paris, and Almería—got me feeling pretty lonely sometimes. I miss the place, especially my neighborhood. I miss the people. I even miss the weather. For most of my childhood and early teenage years in the suburbs, Chicago’s where I wanted to live, and then, from the end of my adolescence up through the vast majority of my adulthood, it’s where I did live, and in all those years I rarely failed to enjoy the city or appreciate how lucky I was to live there, so at least there’s that, but it doesn’t take much of the sting out of being gone. Maybe even makes it sharper. 

Michael Welch

I’ve read in other interviews you’ve done that Kurt Vonnegut has had a large influence on you and your writing, and I can clearly see it in Mount Chicago. What do you admire about his writing, and were there any specific Vonnegut works that you were thinking about as you wrote?

Adam Levin

His timing and his playfulness, his sense of humor, his seemingly paradoxical capacity to simultaneously riff and stay tight, his casual use of  “metafictional elements.” I was probably thinking most about Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. I mean, I don’t believe I’d be able to shake either of those books even if I wanted to, especially Slaughterhouse-Five, which was the first novel that ever obsessed me. 

Michael Welch

The character of Adam Levin, the author, is stitched throughout the book, providing thoughts on everything from his career to how his “ideas” for a novel are really “a desire to undermine ideas.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach metafiction in your writing and how you see it affecting the way you view the story of the novel?

Adam Levin

First, thanks for calling him “the character of Adam Levin, the author.”

All three of my novels are metafictional inasmuch as they feature a narrator acknowledging a) the existence of the reader, and b) the existence of the book that’s being read by that reader (and written by that narrator). 

Neither I, nor the narrator of any of my novels, ever asks the reader to pretend that the book being read/written is something other than a book being read/written. In the first novel, The Instructions, the narrator claims that his book is a book of holy scripture. The narrator of the second one, Bubblegum, calls his book a memoir. And in Mount Chicago, the narrator, whose name is Adam Levin, calls his book a novel. 

Due to its narrator’s having the same name as the novel’s author, and due to that narrator’s calling that novel a novel, I can see how Mount Chicago might reasonably be adjudged more metafictional to readers than The Instructions or Bubblegum—and that’s something I certainly play around with a bit—but to me it’s second nature to position the narrator and reader as such. In other words, metafiction’s my default mode. 

That’s probably why I’m having such a hard time answering your question!

Michael Welch

A lot of the writing about your work seems to focus a lot on length and page count. Does that repeated line of thinking ever exhaust you? 

Adam Levin

Nah, I don’t mind. That’s not to say I find it especially intriguing. But the length of a novel, to my way of thinking, certainly has more relevance—potentially, at least—to an intelligent conversation about that novel and the experience of reading it than do any number of other matters that people tend to bring up these days when they’re discussing a novel. 

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Michael Welch

The Adam Levin character notes that Apter surprised him in how critical he becomes to the story. Can you talk a bit about the creation of this character and how he developed and grew as you started writing?

Adam Levin

I wasn’t so much surprised that Apter became “critical to the story.” That is: I hope everything in the novel is critical to the story—I do everything I can to cut everything that isn’t. What did surprise me, as I wrote, was Apter’s increasing centrality to the novel. I initially conceived of him as a foil for Gladman, and then, in the course of getting him into position to play that role, I became fascinated with him, and I like to be fascinated (obviously) so I stayed with him  a little longer, and then a little longer than that, and by the time I got him halfway into the position into which I’d originally intended to put him, he had become a co-protagonist. As in: his own story, independent of Gladman’s, had come to matter quite a lot to me. Then, as the man said, I saw it was good.

Michael Welch

The book tackles the topic of Chicago-style politics (and really Neoliberalism in general) with a really wonderful sense of sarcasm and irony. But I think most people familiar with the city would also say that it’s not uncommon for the local politics to slip into the absurd. How did you approach satirizing a topic that already at times seems like a farce? 

Adam Levin

That’s a tough one. Largely because the meaning of “satire” seems to have changed quite a bit since first I learned it, and it seems to be continuing to change….So I’m gonna semi-dodge the question, and go with the following: the charisma and entertainment (deliberate and un-) that both Mayors Daley, brought to any podium at which (or megaphone through which) they ever spoke is fascinating to me, and must have been to many other Chicagoans as well. After all, Chicagoans put them in power and kept them in power for 43 out of the 56 years between 1955 and 2021. A father and son! Any big city politics that can produce results like that allows a lot of space for both comedy and conjecture.

Michael Welch

The Instructions, Bubblegum, and now Mount Chicago are all set in or around Chicago. What about this city continues to inspire you creatively? 

Adam Levin

Inspire’s not a word I’m very comfortable with. I’m not a “writer of place.” And I’m obviously not a sociologist or anthropologist. That said, Chicago appears to be endlessly fertile ground for my imagination, and, I think, endlessly fertile ground for many readers’ imaginations. Maybe because it’s a giant, diverse, world-class American city whose citizens don’t have to convince themselves that they’re living in the capital of the universe in order to love it. And being a Chicagoan outside of Chicago gives you (or, potentially, any fictional character) the rare, perhaps even unique, advantage of being from the provinces and the center at the very same time. Which can really scare the shit out of people who care about that stuff. And those are the people who are most fun to scare. 

FICTION
Mount Chicago
By Adam Levin
Doubleday Books
Published August 9, 2022



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