My wife is reading Jennifer Egan’s book Look at Me, which, unlike almost the entirety of world literature, is set in Rockford, Illinois, the place I have to travel to in order to buy stuff (like, say, books, cars, clothes, and anything not marked up for the sake of its convenience). I’ve never lived in Rockford, but I’ve lived near it most of my life, and the duration of my life has not been a good period in Rockford history — factories shut down, corporations moved out, jobless rates and crime rates climbed, and Rockford frequently competes with places like Flint and Detroit, Michigan, for the highest rankings on “most miserable cities” lists. (Of course, the same list linked above put Chicago at #4 most-miserable, which doesn’t quite give credibility to the list. Chicago’s got problems, but people still actually want to live there, or near there. Literally millions of people crowd into Chicago and its suburbs rather than commuting from Rockford, which would require driving, because there’s no way to take a train for the 90-some miles from Rockford to Chicago. The “Was Metra an option today?” signs condescending to drivers on I-90 are simply mocking those of us who live near Rockford.)
By the way, I didn’t set out to live near misery — my family came to Rockford decades ago, when it was a more-prosperous community. And once our roots were established, it wasn’t always easy to notice just how bad things were getting.
But, living here, taking in what passes for local media (the poorly managed, shrinking newspaper and the farm-team broadcasters–#134 biggest!), we tend to hear a lot of empty boosterism about Rockford, such as this:
Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen said he disregards the Forbes ranking because it fails to recognize the positives the city has going for it.
Among those positives, he notes growth in the city’s aerospace industry and a “world class” airport, improvement in education, Woodward’s decision to expand locally, and the Rockford Park District being named the best in the country.
“Clearly, we have our challenges, but let’s offset that with some of the positives,” Christiansen said. “Unfortunately, the negatives sell magazines.”
All this is the background info that will help convey why my wife and I are appreciating Jennifer Egan’s novel’s characterizations of Rockford:
Even as a child, riding home with my mother and Grace after a Saturday in Chicago, new dresses and Frango mints from Marshall Field’s packed carefully in our trunk, lunch at the Walnut Room still alive in our minds—even then, when the drive between Rockford and Chicago had encompassed the entire trajectory of my known world, arriving at State Street’s outer reaches, at that point practically rural, had roused in me not the lilt of home but a flat dead drone inside my head. Even then, I experienced my return to Rockford as a submersion, a forfeiture of the oxygen of life. And with every subsequent return there had been a flattening, an incursion of dreariness, as I remembered what I had come from and faced it again.
…room at the Sweden House’s faux-alpine façade, its little flags bearing generic coats of arms. I breathed smells of carpeting and Lysol and old cigarettes and braced myself for the familiar sensation of entombment. The Rockford thud.
I was alone in the middle of nowhere—worse than nowhere: the place that had made me. And now the depression, the Rockford thud whose arrival I had awaited from the moment Irene and I first drove into the city, blanketed me in its crushing, airless weight.