By Zach Powers
By Zach Powers
By Zach Powers
According to NASA, approximately 650 million people watched the Apollo 11 Moon landing on TV. That was fifty years ago this month. Half a century. But the images and narratives of the event remain with us today, at least in indirect form. Apollo lasts because cultural memory is at play, by which I mean the type of unspecific memory that makes an event part of a culture without necessarily preserving the details. I suspect that there are many current high schoolers who wouldn’t be able to recall Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin’s names. However, the imagery and influence of the space race continues to thrive, even among people with no firsthand memory of the events. On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, this cultural memory bears examining, as well as how cultural memory works in general.
Last month, D-Day was remembered on its 75th anniversary. The number of living people who were adults, or near-adults, during WWII dwindles daily, but the big events of the war continue to inform Americans’ view of their place in the world order.
Alongside celebrations of the D-Day anniversary, however, I also heard a repeated complaint: D-Day is being forgotten. Kids in school today—not to mention many adults—may know little of the bloody battle being commemorated, if they know it at all. What was one of the most important events of the 20th century is turning into a footnote in an ever-shrinking chapter on WWII.
I don’t consider this type of forgetting to be a problem, though. Time always serves to diminish the importance of historical events. For example, I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the Wars of the Roses, and hardly anyone would fault me for that. Most people don’t deem a very old war to be worthy of detailed remembrance. We can’t remember everything, so we focus on more recent and pressing concerns.
Whether we like it or not, this is where the history of WWII is heading. A child born today could conceivably never meet someone old enough to remember the events of 1945.
What interests me, though, is not this act of forgetting. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way cultural memory persists even when specifics of the history being remembered are lost. I suspect far more people would recognize the photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima than would remember the name of that particular island or details of the Pacific campaign.
These images and narratives were so prominent for so long, they continue to influence people who have no direct connection to them. This indirect, possibly unnoticed influence is what I mean by cultural memory. Even if a child born today might never know D-Day or the names of Allied generals, they’ll have some gut-level understanding of “storming the beach,” or they’ll grapple with America’s self-image, which evolved in the aftermath of WWII.
I first noticed the phenomenon of cultural memory in anime and manga, Japanese animation and comic books. The influence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings regularly turns up in storylines about cities, towns, and villages being obliterated.
In Naruto, a popular and long-running manga/anime about a young ninja, the titular character’s home village faces repeated threats of destruction. This culminates with the villain Pain completely wiping out the village from above, a clear parallel to the detonation of the bomb Little Boy over Hiroshima.
In the classic 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, re-released on Netflix last month, a series of “angels” arrive, each threatening to destroy the city of Tokyo-3.
Not only is the repeated theme of city-wide destruction striking, so too are the visuals. Mushroom clouds abound. Renderings of utter devastation clearly borrow from the nuclear aftermath, as well.
I’ve traced this nuclear narrative in Japanese popular culture back to the original Godzilla (1954), in which a radioactive monster rises from the sea and destroys Tokyo. The monster is the physical incarnation of the nuclear threat. The memory of the tragedy is given a reptilian face to make it more understandable.
Godzilla was created by filmmakers grappling with first-hand memories of nuclear destruction. Naruto’s creator Masashi Kishimoto, however, wasn’t born until 1974, almost 30 years after the bombings. Had he seen Godzilla and had the idea of a city under threat made familiar to him? Did he watch Evangelion when it first aired in the mid-nineties? Was he even aware that his work referred to a vernacular cultural memory of the bombings?
Looking back at the Moon landing, cultural memory has been at play since the moment Eagle landed. Even before. How many astronaut Halloween costumes were there in the 1960s?
In 1981, MTV launched its first broadcast with doctored video from a moon mission (the American flag was replaced with the MTV logo). This video played at the top of every hour on the channel for five years. MTV still gives out “moonman” trophies at the annual Video Music Awards.
If I ask ten people to imagine an astronaut walking on another planet, I suspect all ten would share similar details. Stiff movements, almost as if in slow-motion. Big, bounding steps. That’s how the video from the moon made the astronauts look. But more importantly, that’s how most fictional representation of astronauts in film and TV have depicted astronauts for decades. Even someone who’s never watched a second of video taken on the actual moon would imagine an astronaut’s movement this way.
Recently, I’ve seen NASA-branded t-shirts for sale in H&M and Target and American Eagle. On the t-shirt website Threadless alone, I found over forty space-themed designs. There are NASA backpacks and hats and a line of shoes. It seems many of us still dream of being astronauts when we grow up. At the very least, the memory of that dream persists.
Humanity forgets many things, but cultural memory preserves the largest events, not by sharing the specifics, but by passing on general impressions and broad implications. The Moon landing was one of these large events, and it seems poised to remain part of our active culture through another fifty years.
By then, we’ll have hopefully been to Mars, and it’s anyone’s guess which first step will be better remembered.
I read a lot of books in 2017. These are some of the ones that are still sticking with me.
Amelia Gray has built her literary reputation on endless inventiveness. Her stories are explorations of the weird, and her first novel, Threats, continued that tradition in long-form. So while Isadora is something of a departure from Gray’s established style, it should in no way be surprising that she has found a new way to surprise readers. The titular Isadora is Isaroda Duncan, the woman who pioneered modern dance in the early 20th century. The novel begins with the tragic death of her two young children. This event might have been the climax of the story in the hands of another author. As Gray’s starting point, though, it initiates a series of character studies—of Isadora, her lover and father of one of the children, plus several others—a sort of downward spiral through grief, at least grief as experienced by the iconoclastic Duncan. The novel rewards not through a rigid plot progression, but through a cumulative experience. The petty alongside the profound. Experience as synonymous with mess. I could call the novel existentialist, but that’s not quite right. As always, Gray has created a work that’s going to defy our easy classifications. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of imagination behind the novel. These characters and their worlds are richly researched, yes, but it’s the elements that Gray has created, if not from scratch then from only the barest of recipes, that linger with me even weeks and months after I finished reading.
I’ve always admired Roxane Gay’s ability to get to the heart of a subject. She distills her essays down to concise, efficient arguments. She makes her points as clearly as any other writer I know. So I was interested to read Hunger, if only to see how she would treat her nonfiction in long form. While this book is still recognizably in her style, it also differs from most of her other nonfiction works in a few striking ways. Gay is never an absolutist, but I think her opinions are always stated with the confidence. She’s only going to write about a subject when she feels she understands its nuances. I turn to her when I hope to clarify my own thinking on a subject. There are many moments of this in Hunger, but I also found that she was willing to be more vulnerable as a thinker, willing to cede her authority, to a degree, in order to illustrate her experiences. This might be a simple byproduct of memoir-writing, but it also seems to be a rhetorical tactic, one that works very well in Hunger. I also noted that the memoir tended to be more recursive than Gay’s essays. I find her essays to be streamlined, moving from the introduction of a subject to a conclusion in a more or less straight line. In her memoir, however, she returns to previous subjects frequently. Instead of reading a summary of Gay’s thoughts, we’re experience the thought process along with her. This is perhaps the most intimate part of the memoir, a peek into the inner workings of her mind. Lastly, for a writer who has written so many personal essays, Gay offers another degree of personalness in Hunger. It’s not just that she’s sharing these incredibly intimate details of her life, though. It’s that she’s sharing her story specifically with the hopes that it will reach someone who needs to hear it. Hunger is a sacrifice and Hunger is a gift. And, as always, Roxane Gay’s writing helped me learn new things that I needed to know.
You’d be forgiven if after looking at the yellow and pink cover of Rabbit Cake you failed to assume the novel was all about grief. But grief, in its many permutations, is the main theme running throughout. The cover works, though, because if ever grief could be treated playfully, it is here. The charming child narrator is as concerned with the processes of grief as she is with actual grieving. She copes not in a state of traditional despair but through questioning, searching for an explanation for the inexplicable death of her sleepwalking mother. The titular rabbit cakes, literally rabbit-shaped confections, become the obsession of the narrator’s troubled sister, troubled even before the death of their mother. Their father takes to wearing his deceased wife’s lipstick, and adopts a parrot that somehow speaks in her voice. Dysfunction abounds, to be sure, but it never descends into slapstick. The narrator, and through her the author, is seldom critical. Hartnett seems to love her grieving characters and offers them empathy. The refined prose and off-kilter premise reminded me of Aimee Bender. Hartnett, like Bender, writes in a style that manages to be both breezy and complex, big ideas rendered perfectly with just a few swift strokes of the pen. It’s been a few days since I finished, and the novel is still sticking with me. More than anything else, it’s this memorable quality that makes Rabbit Cake so successful.
The stories in Walker’s debut collection center on the gay club scene of the early 80s, focusing in particular on various celebrities who either frequented or happened upon the scene’s clubs and parties. Instead of focusing on the grandeur of celebrity life, however, Walker imagines small moments and paints portraits of intimate friendships. These are warming stories, even as the specter of the AIDS crisis looms in the background. Walker’s celebrities are always people first, as knowable as next door neighbors, and their struggles should be entirely familiar to anyone who’s ever endured the warring forces of fitting in and being oneself. At the book’s end, you don’t feel as if you’ve read celebrity gossip so much as you have been introduced to a group of new friends.
This is just a picture of a generic cutting board because Colorado is exactly shaped like one.
As is Wyoming.
Distinctive yet practical. The epitome of state-themed cutting boards.
Handy handle. Bonus points for having the word “cut” in the state name.
Striking minimalist design.
Practical, but anyone who sees it will think it’s just a normal cutting board with a damaged corner.
Cape Cod forms a natural hook for easy storage.
By far the best of the non-rectilinear states.
For that modern rustic look.
Good cutting board on sale “as is.”
Extreme practicality. Pleasantly abstract borders.
Clever interplay between curvy northeast inlet and squared southwest inlet, each useful for different pouring/funneling actions.
Excellent balance between straight and wiggly lines. Probably won’t remember which side is north.
The only cutting board upon which you can identify to others the location of a specific food by pointing to a spot on your upheld hand. Upper Peninsula sold separately.
A bit too long and narrow to be practical for all cutting applications, but instantly recognizable.
I never noticed before that Iowa has a prominent nose. State-shaped cutting board of choice for chopping aromatics.
Easy to saw off the bottom of the state and turn Indiana into a practical cutting surface.
I’m docking Montana points for stealing its entire western third from Idaho, thereby forcing the creation two asymmetrical cutting boards instead of a pair of perfect rectangles.
Rectangularish enough for regular use.
More like Mincesota.
The farther south you go, the less useful it becomes.
Get a version with Long Island attached for a nifty grip.
Perfect for slicing those curvy-style sausages for a stew or something, I guess.
This 8-bit rendering of Georgia (see below) actually leads to a more practical cutting surface than the original.
Parallel lines. Wildly unpredictable lines. Itty bitty nub. Good luck ever cutting straight on this thing.
The Georgia of the Midwest.
The boringest of the plank states.
Sure, yeah, whatever.
Take any random chunk of a flat material and there is a 95% chance that it will be Maine-shaped.
Unwieldy, but offers two distinct cutting areas. Bonus points for being home to the best food in America.
Takes its cues from Louisiana, but offers a vastly inferior northern mass.
As cumbersome as the state itself.
Fine, but dangly bits quite distracting.
Awkward handle. Maybe as a specialty cutting board for baguettes and salamis and such?
This is actually a cheeseboard because Wisconsin.
Only useful if you glue it to a Vermont cutting board.
Puget (structurally un)Sound.
Great cutting area, but the fragilest of peninsulas.
Solid primary cutting surface, but isthmusy part is super breakable.
This is cheating, Hawaii. You cannot be more than one cutting board. Though the island of Niʻihau is the only cutting board designed specifically for single cashews.
This is the cutting board you would get if you smushed all of Hawaii’s islands into a single mass.
And this is the cutting board you would get if you flipped North Carolina over its X-axis.
Lumpy state #3.
It’s like you weren’t even trying to be a cutting board, Delaware.
I’ll see your crappy Delaware cutting board, and I’ll raise you Maryland.
This one has too many poky bits.
While not the least useful cutting board, the shape of New Jersey is wholly unappetizing.
Fifteen minutes ago, I found out Ara Parseghian died. The former Notre Dame head football coach was 94, long since retired from both coaching and his second career in broadcasting. He’s described as a class act from almost all corners. He went 2-0 against Bear Bryant.
My dad went to every Notre Dame game, home and away, during his senior year in 1966. Ara and the Irish won the national championship. My late uncle Michael attended Notre Dame during Ara’s 1973 national championship season. The name “Ara” was uttered with something between familial and sacred reverence within my Irish Catholic clan, now three generations deep with Notre Dame alumni.
I didn’t attend the university myself, but if anything, that pushed me deeper into fanhood. Coming out of a small liberal arts college distinctly lacking in spirit and pride, I immersed myself in Notre Dame football with a fervor that surpassed anything else in my life. The Fighting Irish were both family and religion. They were my community as lonely a young man. I knew the players’ names and hometowns and jersey numbers. A loss would send me into a funk that could take days to dispel. Losses to Southern Cal (I hear they don’t like being called that) and Meatchicken (it’s too painful to spell out M*chigan) still haunt me.
For those who know college football, you know that recent Notre Dame history has not been particularly lustrous. Three-and-a-half failed coaches left fans longing for a return to glory, a phrase made popular and then ironic during Tyrone Willingham’s ill-fated tenure in the captain’s chair. Current head coach Brian Kelly enters this season on the hot seat after the Irish went 4-8 last year. Worst of all, a losing season no longer feels shocking. The glory days of Notre Dame football seem so long ago it’s hard to recall exactly what it is we ever hoped to return to.
I think, though, that Ara is the coach who best represents Notre Dame’s glory days. Yes, Knute Rockne holds an immortal place in Fighting Irish and college football lore. Frank Leahy put together a run that would rival present-day Alabama in terms of success. Lou Holtz was the last Irish coach to win a national championship in 1988. But it’s Ara who best embodies on-field excellence paired with personal character. Notre Dame fans are often criticized for thinking they’re better than everyone else. While the fans are likely no better than those of any other team, Ara, at least, represented the best among us. Notre Dame fans want to win national championships and “do it the right way.” I think that standard is carried over from Ara’s tenure. Half a century later, and we’re still looking back to him to guide us.
* * *
Football has reached a crossroads where fans are in dire need of guidance. A recent study has brought to light the potential risk of permanent brain injury due to repeatedly smashing one’s head against the helmet of an opponent. I don’t mean to make light of the problem, but there has been a limited response from fans, and I wonder if that’s partly because the name of the condition in question, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, creates a clinical detachment where the colloquial “bashing in brains” should have long ago sounded an alarm. While the study in question has received legitimate criticism from some corners, the problem isn’t going away. Even a flawed study can draw attention to a topic that needs addressing.
I can’t speak for Ara, but I know that doing it the right way, in light of this study and others on the long-term damage caused by repeated blows to the head, requires addressing the subject.
Every time a sports reporter interviews a football coach and fails to ask about CTE, that reporter has done a disservice to players. The same players whose daily efforts provide the sports reporter with the subject from which they earn their livelihood. Every time a coach, league official, athletic director, general manager, or other representative of the sport gives an interview or press conference and doesn’t bring up CTE, they betray the players they supposedly represent.
Ignoring this subject is betrayal. It is deliberate, knowing, outright betrayal. When a university like Notre Dame fails to honestly address CTE, then it’s clear that doing the right thing is less important to the institution than paying for upgrades to the stadium. The cost of a jumbotron should never be measured in students’ lives.
If we want to call ourselves fans of the sport, then we must honestly ask ourselves where our loyalties lie. Am I loyal to the interlocking ND logo? Or am I loyal to the kids who take the field. If my answer is not the latter, then I’m kind of an asshole. If you’re a fan of the sport and your first loyalty isn’t to the players, then you are a bad person. Period.
Author Steve Almond has addressed the problems of the sport in his book Against Football and in other writings. He’s abandoned his fandom, and I’m not sure I can argue against his conclusions. CTE isn’t the only problem inherent to the sport. But I also doubt that my leaving the sport behind will make a difference. I need to do something, however, and there’s one area in which sports fans excel: making noise.
I’ve spent four hours at a time screaming in Notre Dame Stadium. I’ve shouted profanities at televisions. I’ve bellowed the Victory March in my dad’s front yard at midnight after finally ending a decade-long losing streak to Southern Cal.
So this is what I’ll do as a fan. I’ll lead a cheer. Both for the sport and against its problems. The institutions and coaches and administrators behind football, at all levels of play, must be held accountable. Football must change. And I want it to change now, before another player suffers at the hands of my passion. The sport will one day look different. As hard as that might be to swallow for the purists among us, I would remind them that it’s been almost 50 years since Ara last coached a game, and even he would never have seen a player don a leather helmet. Tradition is not the same thing as the absence of change.
* * *
Ara Parseghian lost three grandchildren to Niemann-Pick Type C Disease. He spent the rest of his life helping to find a cure, with the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation raising more than $45 million. I’ve always looked at this as Ara’s greatest mission, something that transcended all he accomplished on the sidelines. Now, football itself is the disease. I can’t speak for Ara, but I like to think that he would see this problem and lead the fight to rectify it.
My next sports hero will be the first coach who speaks up on CTE. The next legendary sports reporter will be the one asking the hard questions about the welfare of football players. And not just once, but in every interview and press conference. As fans, we should bring up the subject every time we talk about football with friends. Did you see the game? Yes, what are we going to do about CTE? Each moment of our silence is an act of violence against the young athletes we claim to admire.
Being a fan is to love something. To love something is to care for it. Right now, almost all of us fans are failing to care. So make some noise. This is one opponent we should all be able to rally against together.
I recently emailed a few thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s to the reading group at The Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia as they prepared to discuss The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The edited text of my email is below. Thanks to The Book Lady herself, Joni Saxon-Giusti, for asking me to talk about one of my favorite writers.
I think it’s Murakimi’s greatest point of genius that can also make his work difficult to access. His characters act the same way whether they’re exploring magical wells or boiling a pot of spaghetti.
As readers and movie-goers and television watchers, we’re conditioned to expect certain things from our characters. If a ghost emerges from a shadowy corner in the mansion our protagonist recently inherited from an estranged uncle, we expect our hero to run screaming from the house. When Godzilla rises from the ocean depths, we expect the people of Tokyo to flee through the streets. When the wizard performs a feat of magic, we expect onlookers to dismiss it as nothing more than illusion. Murakami’s characters don’t scream, they don’t flee, they don’t doubt. They accept. They take as literal their experiences. Within the context of the book, their experiences, however weird, are quotidian. This is everyday life inside Murakami’s universe.
The scholar Tzvetan Todorov offers this definition of the fantastic: “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event…” This refers to how a muggle would react if they happened to see Harry Potter perform a spell. But if Murakami had written Harry Potter instead of J.K. Rowling, muggles wouldn’t react at all. Instead of being surprised at every new piece of magic he learns, Harry would simply shrug and go make pasta.
Murakami undermines our expectations. He gives equal weight to the supernatural and the mundane. He creates a unique internal logic for his stories, but he never tries to convince the reader to accept that logic. Either a reader accepts it, or they stop reading.
Is it genius? I would say absolutely yes. But I would also say that just because something is genius doesn’t mean you have to like it.
One final comment: There’s value in reading things that challenge the ways we think, the ways we view the world. We tend to seek out confirmation bias in our reading, and Murakami undermines that, because I don’t think anyone has the life experience to be biased in his direction. Conversely, that little nagging voice in our head that tells us to stop reading something is often the voice of cognitive dissonance. In general, we don’t like brand new things. We like new variations on the things we already find familiar. For me, reading Murakami was one of the first steps I took in overcoming these basic human biases. So even if Murakami doesn’t end up being your author of choice, seek out a book that’s a little harder for you to get into. Don’t just fall back on writing that you can easily identify with and categorize. And then ask yourself: Why does this make me uncomfortable? The answer might be surprising.
Seijun Suzuki died last week. It’s ok if you don’t know who he is. Outside Japan, he enjoys cult status at best, his films celebrated by movie nerds but few people beyond that. It took almost ten days for news of his death to make headlines in America.
I came to Suzuki by way of Tokyo Drifter, the 1966 film that, along with his next film (Branded to Kill), got him fired from Nikkatsu, the Japanese studio for which he made yakuza flicks in the 1950s and 60s. The studio had asked for simple gangster pulp, but Suzuki delivered the avant-garde.
With Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki took a canned script and crafted the unforgivingly theatrical, intentionally artificial world of Tetsuya ‘Phoenix Tetsu’ Hondo, a mid-level gangster caught up in the machinations of his yakuza bosses. There’s no point in discussing the plot beyond that because the plot’s not the point. Instead, Suzuki banked on style.
It was 1999. New Orleans. Sophomore year of college. I’d bought the Criterion Collection DVD of Tokyo Drifter sight unseen on the recommendation of my late pal Kirk Lawrence. I know you’d know Kirk’s name if he’d lived a little longer. He was a walking filmic encyclopedia, destined to make John Carpenter-style cult classics. Kirk knew I’d like the movie. He understood my stylistic leanings before I did.
I still have that Tokyo Drifter DVD even though I bought the Blu-ray version the day it released. Why hang onto the DVD when I’ll never put into a player again? Nostalgia, for sure, but also because it summons the memory of that first viewing. I describe very few of my experiences as revelatory, but discovering Seijun Suzuki was just that.
Tokyo Drifter doesn’t always make sense. Why is the main character whistling his own theme song? How did he end up in this random shootout? Why does the final scene take place in a minimalist representation of a jazz club? That it doesn’t make sense doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s captivating. It’s beautiful. It’s good.
I learned from Suzuki the value of throwing your shit out there with style and letting it speak for itself. Style becomes substance. The people who are supposed to get will get it. Don’t let the explanations get in the way of your art. Make the good thing that only you can make.
Here’s to you, Mr. Suzuki, for my earliest lessons in artistic confidence. And here’s hoping I don’t have to get fired to live up to your example.
From 2006 through 2008, I worked on close to a thousand local television commercials, hastily produced ads for lawyers, gift shops, restaurants, politicians, radio stations, nonprofits, and furniture stores. During that period, I edited probably two-thirds of the commercials broadcast in Savannah, Georgia.
The most infamous of these were for a Ford dealership. The frumpy owner would stand between two cars on his lot, accompanied by his young son, and explain, in monotone, the latest deal on a Mustang or F-150. Following a hurried “thank you very much,” his son chirped out a prepubescent “and may God bless America.” But that wasn’t the end. One final element remained, and it was this tag that made the commercials’ badness legendary. So legendary, in fact, that they were once voted as the best commercials in Savannah by the readers of the local alt weekly magazine. The commercials crossed the threshold where bad becomes, if not good, then at least memorable.
This car dealer insisted that at the end of every commercial we include a brief video clip of a goat over which was superimposed a comics-style speech bubble. He provided the monthly messages contained therein, ranging from the absurd to the unintelligible, produced, as best we could tell, by whim or by Ouija board. Just the mention of this dealer’s name provokes a headshake, part shameful pride, part straight shame, from anyone who was ever associated with producing his commercials.
Years later, that same video clip of a goat remains, stubbornly standard definition in an HD world. The son, though, disappeared from the public eye as soon as his voice turned, leaving to his father the iconic line: “and may God bless America.”
In newer editions, at the hands of other video producers, the commercials are filmed at the dealer’s desk, upon which sits miniature stuffed goat. Not a toy, but some sort of taxidermied pigmy animal. A cast-off from a carnival sideshow. Why, where even a son’s love for his father could not, did the goat endure? What is the source of this man’s hircine fascination? Wherefore, goat?
The rumor is—and this is the story I share whenever I’m asked, which happens in a city the size of Savannah more often than you might think—that it has something to do with the phrase “I got your goat,” a jibe directed at the owner of another Ford dealership, who claimed that the hero of our commercials would never succeed in an admittedly less prime location. Is this apocryphal? More than likely. But we’ll never know for sure. Unlike the goat, the dealer isn’t talking.
The goat interests me because of how it has taken position in Savannah’s cultural memory. Everyone knows the goat without knowing why the goat exists, and I doubt even that first poor sap—the original video editor who had to look the dealer in the eye and ask “You want what?”—knew the truth behind the baaaa. The cultural memory of this goat, then, has grown well beyond any meaning the goat might have had for the parties originally involved.
I’m not currently working on anything about the goat in particular, but I am working on two projects that have a lot to do with cultural memory. I’ve recently completed the final draft of a novel set in a highly fictionalized version of the Soviet space program, and I’ve started taking notes for another novel in which the bombed-out portion of Hiroshima appears in the middle of present-day Ohio.
In many ways, I’ve moved on from my days of editing goat videos, but in some ways I never will. It’s that phenomenon, the persistence of influence, that’s behind my two big writing projects at the moment. I wonder in what ways cultural memories linger long after the eyewitnesses of events have left us. What am I remembering on their behalf?
Thanks for your time, “and may God bless America.”
The book from 2016 that I can't stop talking about.
I can offer no higher compliment than saying that if Manuel Gonzales wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction, I would read all of it. This book borrows from a number of pop cultural sources, Buffy included, and turns that material into high art. Gonzales writes movie-style action that reads like ballet. He writes robotic arms that rival in beauty the best memoirist's recollection of Paris at night. He writes superpowered women who, even while locked in life-or-death battle, struggle even more with their pasts, their humanity, and the prospect of their futures. For all the cleverness of the novel's conceit, for all the fun Gonzales obviously has in crafting his scenes, the Regional Office is a stage he uses to explore our fundamental humanness in a way that wouldn't have been possible without magic and a sense of adventure. This book belongs with the best of fantastical literature.
Time travel. Rock shows. Time traveling to rock shows. Two They Might Be Giants references in the first 50 pages. Love. Things like love that probably aren't. Things like love that might just be love. Every Anxious Wave seems to form out of author Mo Daviau's pet passions, including science fiction and the music of the 80s and 90s, all tied together with a literary bow. It's Dr. Who meets Murakami meets Aimee Bender, with a firmly feminist message hidden beneath our male narrator's sometimes cluelessness. In a novel that upends preconceptions from the very first word, perhaps Daviau's greatest feat is that she managed to surprise me with her take on that oldest of topics, love. So often love is presented as the universe's most powerful force, de facto, but here love makes allowances, and the novel's initial love, damaged and beautiful in its own way, is not celebrated as the ultimate triumph. Instead, it's a cleaner, fixed version of this love, still imperfect but less traumatized, that wins in the end. Love here and now, or in the post-apocalyptic future (oh yeah, did I not mention that part yet?), isn't the absolute. The absolute form of love is actually the flawed form, the one that fosters pining and allows abuse. Instead, a tempered love, one that knows the possibility of improvement, that doesn't tolerate the tragedies inflicted in its name, is the real human goal, a goal that we maybe have to go a couple decades into the future to find.
Four girls named Guinevere abandoned by their parents to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Four comatose soldiers returned from the War and cared for by the Sisters. These two conceits drive the plot of The Guineveres, as the titular girls discover—and lose—themselves within the cloistered life of the orphanage. Narrated by the Guinevere who goes by Vere, but usually in the plural "we," each girl's story starts with loss and seems to be compounded at every turn by further losses. But the core message is one of faith. Not necessarily religious faith. For the Guineveres, faith is the expectation of a better future, one that isn't constrained by the Sisters' rules or boxed in by the orphanage walls. It is faith sprung from hope, and in the end I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one. No rapturous moment awaits them, no divine passion. Patience is they key virtue, at least for Vere, and its opposite might be the flaw that undoes the close-braided group of Guineveres. Tragic and touching and most importantly a story that rings true.
Molly Brodak’s exceptional new memoir, Bandit, is framed by the story of her father, whose many mistakes culminate with an infamous bank robbing spree in Michigan. While her father’s story could easily take up a book of its own, the real reason Bandit succeeds is because Brodak keeps the story close to herself. It’s a memoir, after all. Still, her father takes up his fair share of the text. He’s an outsized figure in almost every way. I would argue, however, that the memoir is Brodak’s attempt to make the man life-sized. It’s this quest for understanding, the attempt to make sense of what was a senseless past, that makes the memoir unique. She has researched not just her childhood and her father and her family, but also the psychology behind gambling addiction and the history of the now-derelict Detroit neighborhood where her father first lived when he came to America as a small child. She confesses her own phase of shoplifting. She visits her father, and writes him, and maintains some small connection to him even while all the rest of their family has necessarily cut him off. This memoir is a search, and the reward for the reader comes from being invited to take part in it. Brodak won’t offer you any solid answers, except to illustrate that when it comes to her father’s life—and his is an extreme example of life in general—no answer will ever be satisfactory. And that, in the end, is OK.
December 20, 2015
In December 2015, I was one of several local writers asked to give a short reading on what Savannah means to me. Thanks to Emergent Savannah for the invitation!
Tonight, I’m going to talk about my dead best friend. He fell off a cliff. There is, of course, more to that story, but that’s all I’m going to tell for now. We were friends long before he fell. It would have been hard to become friends after.
I’ve never written about Mullins before. That’s his name: Jeremy Mullins. He drew comics and taught at SCAD. He wore a three-piece suit whenever he taught. He wasn’t my first friend in Savannah, but he was my first Savannah friend.
In 2003, I was both a native of Savannah and a transplant. It had been more than a decade since I last lived here full-time, and while my extended family was still around, I had no connections to any of my former peers. If the word “peers” can be used to describe eleven-year-olds. So while I had been baptized here and played tee-ball here and had my first crush on a girl name Kristen in the sixth grade at St. James Catholic School, I was a local by blood only. Savannah was my heritage, not my present.
After college, after a failed search for work in my adopted hometown of Atlanta, after it became clear that a degree in jazz studies prepared you for exactly no forms of employment, I started a part-time, minimum wage job at WTOC-TV. I started going to Gallery Espresso to read and write every evening on the break between newscasts. This was the old Gallery location on Liberty Street, now The Book Lady Bookstore. I’m writing this right now in the new Gallery, where I’ve written almost every morning for years. Still, I miss the old space. I miss the feeling of descent, of taking the two steps down into a space somehow alternative to the street-level just outside. I’d vie there every evening with the other regulars for the one well-lit table in the back left corner.
Mullins was one of the other regulars. I don’t remember how we met. I don’t know who spoke to who first, though I’m pretty sure at that point in my life it wasn’t me. Loneliness is a thing that can starve you, weakening you too much to make a friend even when the opportunity presents itself.
Gallery Espresso moved to its current location. Mullins and I spent so much time there together that I’m sure not a few people thought we were a couple. We’d sit at the counter overlooking the rest of the coffee shop. We’d talk about ideas we had for creative projects, what I was writing and what he was drawing. He introduced me to comic books. “Funny books,” he called them. When a woman came in who met the very particular prerequisites of Mullins’ fancy, he’d make a noise like “ooohhhhnnnnnhhh.” We were knuckleheads, for sure. That was Mullins’ word. I like to think I’m not so much of a knucklehead now, but I think I’m better off for having been one.
I can see that old counter across the room right now. It was actually part of the counter at the previous Gallery location. I still sit there sometimes in the evenings. I still think of the stool on the left as “Mullins’ seat.”
I wouldn’t still be in Savannah if Mullins hadn’t reached out to me a decade ago. I tried for years to move away. Fortunately, those were the years when I was basically unemployable. I realize now that Mullins, a south Florida transplant, was more of a Savannahian than me, a native. We call ourselves the hostess city, but that’s just for tourists. For the locals, Savannah is one big public space. It’s this right here. It’s gathering at coffee shops or bars or art galleries or book readings. It’s a good party. And a good party is more than just fun. A good part means something.
I wonder what Mullins thought when he first saw me, a kid hogging the table with the good light in the corner. Now that I’m on the other side of the table, so to speak, I remember what Mullins did for me. How typical of Savannah it was. To say a simple hello. To make a new friend. I wonder what Mullins would think if he saw me on this stage right now.
What I learned from Mullins, though, is that while it’s simple, it also needs to be deliberate. Effort needs be made. When you see someone worth knowing, goddammit get to know them. This isn’t some suburb. This is Savannah. And we’re all friends here.