about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Night Moves
A Review of Night Moves
by Jessica Hopper

Spencer Dew

Hopper’s Night Moves is a love letter to a certain idea and experience of Chicago—“Chicago as it is, burnished perfect from years of disrepair”—written in the admitted thrall of Nelson Algren. “I feel like Chicago: City on the Make is representative of the city-soul . . . All that misery under the streetlight halos, real people misfortune, drunk boxers in love with good-luck girls,” Hopper writes. But if Algren’s love of the bruised, gritty nature of the city was shaped by a hardscrabble childhood there, and if it matured into a counter-vision of a society he rejected as unjust and unfair and unfeeling (even fetishizing the downtrodden as part of a broader project of rejecting the world-as-given and imagining an alternative), Hopper’s love of, say, the “old, burnished, and lopsided” aesthetic of Damen Avenue is that of a poor-but-privileged Californian participating in a late wave of gentrification, riding her bicycle around in the lingering evening of adolescence, taking comfort in the idea of living “in a city that doesn’t give a shit and loves you how you are, because it is every bit as marred, bereft, and cocky as you are.” For Algren, the city was a metaphor for the country, its underprivileged and abandoned people—“the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, ‘Isn’t anybody on my side?’” as he famously described the work of literature. Justice—institutional and structural—was Algren’s driving concern, and his aesthetics emerged in concert with that hunger, “[t]he hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.”

Hopper’s book is a reflection of the mid- to late-aughts, where, as part of the vanguard of struggling artists and students (with vast systems of support behind them) moved south from Wicker Park’s already-gentrified heart. The displacement of (minority) peoples is described in quaint or dehumanizing terms: the Mecca Fashions that no longer exist, the “Old man Polish bar” colonized by hipsters, the “industrial corridor” now open for the manifest destiny of whiteness on the prowl.

This is a book about whiteness. That is a statement of fact, not a critique. It is, often, a pleasurable read, especially to someone who knew Chicago during the time described. Whiteness, of course, so often is pleasurable. I like beer, don’t you like beer? as the current poster boy for whiteness recently said in a job interview for the Supreme Court that would have been parodic except that, well, he was white and wealthy and a cis- hetero-guy, puking privilege, so of course he got the job. Screw due process: that’s white rebellion for you! But just as Kavanaugh’s reflections on his own youth are less about the actual beach than the solipsistic frolics of “BEACH WEEK,” so too, when Hopper writes, that the book “is a testimony, of sorts, to my obsession with” Chicago, it is her obsession, not the city itself, her experiences and perceptions of place and its history and myths—her myths, even, prompting her, in one memorable scene, to

stand atop the train bridge facing east and channel the ghost of Sandburg’s bowtie to purge my mortal fears, go rest my face on the cool granite floors of the empty atrium atop Harold Washington Library, kiss a copy of Neon Wilderness three times for luck and ask god what’s next.

Libraries—big-shouldered and struggling institutions of Chicago’s municipal infrastructure—get due treatment here, as places of inspiration and possibility and waiting your turn on a public computer. And the music scene—Hopper’s real strength as a cultural critic—plays out here in specificity and verve, defiant as a beautiful broken nose, Hopper taking Algren’s aesthetic and hearing it echoed in lyrics and performance in broke-down clubs, their exits littered with cigarette butts, that look like something out of a timeless past of lonely nighttime El trains rattling overhead.

But from the Empty Bottle, the Double Door we end up at the Rainbo, a geography of whiteness, where after-shift record store employees congregate, Lindsey looking “very Butterfield 8, with pearl earrings and a terrifically partied-out hotness to her,” white fishnets, pink manicure, garters with little bows. Hopper is a master of Unshakably clever phrases (“...we are celebrating Holy Week by taking the plastic off the windows and trying to pry them open” or “Her chin looked like Richard Dreyfuss’s mashed potato mountain from Close Encounters once he finished with it.”) and what makes Night Moves most compelling is the energy it captures, of a youth where everyone sleeps too much or too little, argue their opinions and drop references capaciously (Frank Capra, Fluxus), and take themselves with such utter earnestness (struggling to burn lists of bad memories at the end of the year, worrying over each other’s blogs). Hopper captures an era where expression (from craft night to stapling zines at Kinko’s) was paramount.

Of course, that’s a politics, and that’s a politics of whiteness, a manifestation of whiteness. “[B]artering and trading” at the record store or seeking oblivion in alcohol or “a Blockbuster night [morphed] into a Blockbuster week,” these are what kids today would call first world problems. The “news” that matters here is Missed Connections ads in the hardcopy of the Reader; “history” is more the inscriptions on used books bought cheap at Myopic and less the palimpsest layers of a city that grows by grinding up its poor. Hopper writes in the period before the last of the Cabrini Green complex was torn down (spectacularly, the sides of the towers smashed away to reveal, from a distance, various and brightly colored chambers). Hopper writes during the period that Governor Ryan was pardoning citizens on death row due to “confessions” extracted by police torture. There’s a poetry slam described, for at-risk youth, young mothers many of them, and here Hopper sounds, in a way, the most like Algren, her own exuberance for the possibilities of life understood as something of a possibility of alternative being for all. After the poetry, there’s a DJ, and

I saw a girl back it up and drop while front-strapped with a babe in her BabyBjörn. She moved smooth like she was floating, with one hand supporting her baby’s head as she dipped towards the floor. It was reverent and defiant at once; it was a beautiful thing to see.

There’s an appreciation of an idea of humanity there, beyond Hopper’s individual experience, that lends the scene, in the context of this book, remarkable strength. It is more powerful than her thoughts on Underdog or Julie Doucet or her ruminations on “coming home” to Chicago, descending over the grid like in a Liz Phair song.

Whiteness can be a weapon, and it can be used as such consciously or not; naivete—which Hopper claims, in relation to her role as a settler colonist for the future of million-dollar condos—is no excuse. But whiteness might also be (and perhaps this is a naivete shared by Algren, who so lovingly imagines those which shattered luck) a way of conceiving not only the present but the future. And while insistence on the attainability of a bright future for us all! might necessarily ignore the depth of reality (and structural entrenchment) of inequality (and might therefore reflect a mode of whiteness even more nefarious, more pernicious, than the raging entitlement of the Kavanaugh class), there is, at the same time, something beautiful about it, a foolish innocence, a wildly unreasonable faith. And Hopper’s book is a testimony less to “Chicago” than to that faith.

Official Jessica Hopper Web Site
Official University of Texas Press Web Site

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