A small town young man with literary aspirations moves to Chicago and soon finds himself locked into a stable but dull corporate career. He marries a woman on whom he is at least partly financially dependent. Meanwhile, he crosses paths with an old girlfriend who truly understands his talent for writing.
This storyline, full of heartache and stifled ambition, plays out twice across alternating chapters in Porter Shreve’s The End of the Book. One story is set just after the 2008 financial crisis, and the other circa 1900. In both periods, the writing life presents moral, financial, and existential dilemmas. Yet in each case, the minute particulars of historical reality subtly shape the characters’ attitudes and decisions.
Shreve, a New York Times Notable Book Author, efficiently conveys the atmosphere of the early 1900s with descriptions of Duryea motor wagons, grips (cable cars), Jane Addams’s Hull House, and a working slaughterhouse. The focus tends to be on well-known downtown spaces. Streets and sites still in use today connect the reader to the past. But while the city looms large and beautiful, it has a dark side as well. Even as it inspires characters with its bold art and architecture, its corporate infrastructure threatens to stymie creative impulses.
The contemporary storyline presents a similar predicament. Amid grand museums, skyscrapers, and expensive restaurants—often with thinly disguised pseudonyms—people enjoy modern luxury and comfort but also long for meaningful work and relationships. Living in fine accommodations and eating at world-class restaurants might be exhilarating, but it is also expensive. Chicago’s workforce is on edge after all, and the main character has put off writing in favor of a steady salary. Meanwhile, his behemoth corporate employer steadily erodes the publishing industry by digitizing books. For those who have used Google Books and Amazon while lamenting the loss of publishing houses and bookstores, this devil’s bargain will hit home.
Though characters from each period struggle with similar situations, their attitudes and choices reflect very different cultural factors. For instance, both want to escape a problematic marriage, but the contemporary character’s relationship is founded on a greater sense of gender equality. This level-headed, sensitive, and socially enlightened young man faces a gentler sort of crisis. Furthermore, both struggle to justify writing, although they do it anyway (in fact The End of the Book reflects the endless impulse to tell stories). However, the contemporary character faces dwindling opportunities to live by his pen in a world of free ebooks.
Shreve’s prose is deliberately plain and direct. He takes his cue from the novelist Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), whose life and fictional characters figure prominently in the narrative. (The reader need not be familiar with Anderson to enjoy the novel.) But similarities between Anderson and Shreve should not be overstated. Anderson’s plainspoken prose is rather more mysterious and poetic. Shreve’s style underwhelms slightly—until it impresses with its control and compelling storyline. On reflection, the reader will appreciate the ingenious framing of Shreve’s two concurrent stories. This dual narrative is seamless enough that one may not notice at first how life and fiction shape and reshape each other vertiginously. The overall effect is impressive.
One might compare The End of the Book to John Williams’s Stoner, which also follows the travails of a poor young man with literary aspirations in the Midwest. But Williams’s narrative sears the heart a bit more with its tragic simplicity. Shreve’s novel fittingly reflects open-ended possibilities. Another point of reference might be Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, in which turn-of-the-century Chicago is described with prodigious verbal skill. For all that, Shreve easily captures the ambience of Chicago with his unpretentious prose while also paying homage to a master storyteller’s craft.
In all, Shreve offers a winning combination of history, clarity of plot, and subtle literary playfulness. Chicago in its most iconic guise appears on nearly every page. For many, The End of the Book will be a strong candidate for the nightstand.
February 2014, Louisiana State University Press/Yellow Shoe Fiction
$22.50, paperback, 232 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton