By Adam Langer
338 pages. Bloomsbury. $27.
As the old saying goes, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Adam Langer’s new novel, “Cyclorama,” significantly complicates that equation.
Superimposed on a high school’s theatrical production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a somewhat saccharine adaptation of the best-selling book that appeared on Broadway and won a Pulitzer, the novel is structured, like the play, in two acts. takes place in 1982, when Holocaust remembrance was a particular priority of American culture: Many survivors were still alive, a new generation needed to be educated and everyone was still gathering around the same electronic hearth.
The second act jumps to 2016 and — against a backdrop of anti-immigration, neo-Nazism and media atomization — is like one of the more darkly comic class reunions imaginable. darkly comic).
To latchkey children in the ’80s, the occasional sleazy teacher was as familiar as divorce or a TV dinner. Still, someone like Tyrus Densmore, the drama coach directing the play in Langer’s novel, is extra problematic. Densmore, a failed actor in a bad marriage with a deeply troubled son, is a legend at North Shore Magnet in suburban Chicago for his swagger and high standards. Trying to impart “the overpowering stench of reality” to the play, he subjects his cast to an overnight rehearsal during which they have to use thrift-shop cookware as chamber pots. “I am breaking you down, but I will build you back up!” he yells at odd intervals, like the drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Though he served in the Korean War, Ty-Ty, as a few have nicknamed him, is decidedly no gentleman, with disturbing habits like leaving hardcore porn magazines on his desk and inviting male students to his home for private costume fittings, then joking about fellatio while kneeling down to measure their inseams. booking adjacent hotel rooms, drinking liquor and indulging in other activities that no mimeographed permission slip would possibly authorize.
The school’s journalism teacher, told of Densmore’s behavior by two students in the play, shakes her head — “the bastard’s still at it, is he?” — and says they’ll never be able to get anyone on the record about the situation. So the students plot to entrap him in a terrible act at the cast party, a scheme that will backfire harder than a Chevy Camaro.
Langer is as good a prop master as the one for Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” judiciously peppering his pages with relics from the past like Styrofoam containers from McDonald’s, Walkmans, overcooked lamb chops and references to Mariel Hemingway. Though “The Breakfast Club” came a little later, Gen Xers might also flash on that movie’s stereotyped teenagers locked in detention: Here, too, we have a jock, a pretty princess and a few troubled misfits.
Keeping track of who’s who in “Cyclorama,” and who’s playing whom onstage in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” can get a little homework-y. For extra credit, remember that the play, which was first staged in 1955, distorts Frank’s original account somewhat into a hopeful, transcendent vision of human nature rather than a document of history’s horrors.
That the theater department of the high school is called the Annex, like the quarters where the Frank family was in hiding; that the despicable Densmore compels his charges to write intimately in diaries that he’ll seize, both these details seem a trifle on the nose — while the “t” in Margot, the name of Anne’s sister, has been sloppily lopped. And have this year’s novelists have all gotten a memo from their editors to include a scene of police brutality or racism?
But Langer’s flip forward to 2016 is the literary equivalent of a Mary Lou Retton tumbling pass. The rabbi who once encouraged a Torah portion about prostitution is now assuring “safe spaces.” One former classmate, feeling enraged and cheated, is on the verge of voting for Donald J. Trump. Another has died of AIDS, just a looming shadow when the novel begins. One has become, mirabile dictu, a successful actor. One is bitter, and finally trumpeting Densmore’s abuse on Facebook. , is struggling at an alternative weekly-turned-digital news site, working alongside “beaten-down millennials scrolling Twitter.” Can reporting out his own high-school scandal in first person, against everything he’s been taught about journalism, be the click- o-rama that salvages his career?
The word cyclorama refers to the seamless panel at the rear of stage sets, often used to provide the illusion of infinite sky. Though it sounds like the title of an after-school TV program, it’s also the term for a type of art installation, popular in the 19th century before the advent of cinema, that gave the viewer a 360-degree perspective on a different time or place — like an early, analog virtual reality. It’s a well-chosen title, indicating under a scrim of slapstick something far more haunting and serious.