On March 19, 1982, a group of Argentine scrap metal merchants raised the flag of their nation on the coastal, British-occupied island of South Georgia. In the next two weeks, Argentina invaded the island, and then the Falkland Islands, assuming Britain would retaliate.
By June 14, ten weeks later, Argentina had surrendered to Britain. Argentina had lost 649 military, Britain 255. Three Falkland Island civilians had been killed. This is what Wikipedia tells me. In April 1982, I turned seven years old. I lived on Linwood Avenue, on the second floor of a three-family home, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with my mother, sister, and – for a year or two by this time, I can’t remember – my mother’s new man, whom she would marry in the summer of 1983.
Nineteen-eighty-two. 1982. Nine. Teen. A-D. Too. The tip of the tongue taking a trip. I remember:
Breakdancing with my friends Sergio and José, who lived above me, on the third floor. Their sister Janet’s eyes.
Joan Jett’s eyes.
The Dark Crystal, one of the scariest movies ever made, a Schindler’s List for kids.
Our apartment getting robbed. The way the broken glass looked on the floor of the dark hallway when we got home.
The voice of Stevie Nicks.
“Spitting Nicky,” an older kid from the neighborhood who spit even more than the rest of us. His hairlip; his black, spiky hair.
Atari: Donkey Kong, Dig Dug. Q*bert?
I recently finished a story – which, at 49+ pp., I now consider a novella – set in 1982. My protagonist is Nicholas Mikos, Jr., nine years old. I changed Nick Junior’s age in the story after a few scenes. I made him two years older than I was in 1982 because the story began to reveal itself as, in some way, a story of sexual awakening. And so nine seemed more “believable” than seven. But, to be honest, by which I simply mean to remember, and to trust that memory, I began to come of age sexually at the age of five. And not through abuse, as is the case, perhaps, with Nick Junior. Though, his babysitter, his first great love, is twelve. A girl. A girl who dry-humps then does other things to, with, this boy, who is very very willing if not terrified. Who has never heard of the Falklands.
I could have named the babysitter Donna, but I named her Jennifer. I could have named Sergio and José Robert and Pito, Angel and Jorge, but I gave them their real names.
Ron Carlson recently gave a reading at Northern Arizona University, and during the Q&A he said that in each story he has written he has kept something secret, kept something from the reader. One little cryptic thing, not even essential to the story, a name or a color of a house or the smell of a hand soap, that signaled, only to him, some private knowledge. He related this habit in some way to his years of public speaking, but I’m less interested in that rational, perhaps rehearsed explanation than the sheer compulsion to hide. Childlike, irrational. When I gave Sergio and José their real names, I seemed to do the inverse of Carlson: reveal, rather than conceal. But who, except for me, maybe my wife, would know, reading my novella, that these fictions bore the names of real people? What small detail, in Ron Carlson’s expert Q&A performance, was the one white lie, or one small truth, no one else in the room was aware of?
Questions of memoir vs. fiction are worth asking – for the author, and for the teacher and the student. It’s tempting to say that everything is hybrid – Portrait of the Artist, The Fire Next Time; Swann’s Way, Reality Hunger; Anne Carson’s Nox or Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah – and so what’s the point in talking about it. But it’s the particular intersections of genre, when we try to articulate them, maybe fail to articulate them, that seem most interesting. Not just memoir as poem, or autobiography as novel, or novel in stories, but also manifesto in quotations which themselves are mostly derivative paraphrase and conjecture and rant, a manifesto which ultimately, let’s be honest here, is in the end a snobby and endearing memoir of a life of reading a shit ton of books. Or something like that.
It’s difficult to describe literature, the good stuff anyways. The stuff that asks us to invent new ways of talking about it. I am not hubristic enough to believe my novella, or anything I’ve written, falls into such a lofty category. But, I cannot write anything – poem, story, novella, essay, whatever – that is not in some way aware of itself formally. I admire stories artfully and compellingly rendered, but if the story is not aware of itself as story – if part of the pleasure of reading, and I imagine, writing, the story, is not just the story but how the story is told – I ain’t interested. But really, is there such a thing as “the story”? I don’t think so. As a teacher, I say as much, because I sense that many of my students believe that there is a story, somewhere in the ether, or underground, and all they need to do is somehow retrieve it, transcribe it, then hand it over to us, the readers. It’s a strange faith, kind of beautiful. But I don’t believe it. Do I?
In writing my novella/autobiography/pop-song-playlist/top-twenty-movies-of-1982 (except Chariots of Fire, which is wonderful but not a movie Nick Junior had seen), I conducted more research than I ever had, except for the academic articles I wrote on Yeats and Shakespeare during doctoral studies. However, I have never conducted research for a work I labeled memoir or literary essay. In these works, it’s not that I trust my memories, my thoughts – I usually don’t. And that is probably the main reason I have begun to write literary nonfiction. Not to relay, or expose. But to explore, to essay – to find new ways of being wrong about the world. To give it a shot. And another shot. Isn’t that what writing does? In literary writing I am much less interested in factual accuracy than are, say, the crybabies who sued James Frey. Or Maureen Dowd, who, after Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, were shamed on Oprah, conflated Frey’s literary exaggerations with the Swift Boat campaign. In other words, a literary memoir was held to the same standards as journalism. Why? I agree that journalism should be held to very high standards of factual accuracy. But changing the number of days one spent in jail, or the color of Charles Bronson’s eyes, will not cause a country to be illegally invaded.
In conducting research for my novella, I was not looking for facts. I was looking for colors, smells, sounds; sneaker styles, slang; the smiles in cigarette ads. I wanted to re-inhabit, to some degree, some strong degree, what it felt like to be a young boy in 1982 America. I was hoping a whiff, a kind of Proustian magic, might send me back to that distant, indelible year.
My wife and I watched over twenty movies from 1982, every or every other night, depending on how fast Netflix could ship them to us. Death Wish II. Rocky III. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Sophie’s Choice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The morning after I would write a section of the novella, subtitled after the movie from the night before. I made a 1982 pop-song playlist on Spotify, which I listened to – even the shitty songs, like “Centerfold” by J. Geils Band, and “Physical” by Olivia Newton John – throughout the day, and even, sometimes (gulp) during writing the scenes in which those songs are played. I watched dozens of 1982 music videos on YouTube. I bought issues of People magazine from 1982 off eBay. I sat, and closed my eyes. And I did feel transported, partially, as I do in all my writing – one foot in and one foot out – and I listened, which is what we writers tell ourselves we do as we move our pens around and hit the keyboard keys, scarring our beloved heroes for life.
What is writing – poetry, memoir, literary essay, story, novel, novella, or most likely some combination of these – but an invention of self? Or, maybe, a shredding of any notion of a “self.” In either case, even the most obscure writer is like the celebrity. Fact and fiction commingle – in language, in music, in big-screen gesture. What is said needs what is not said. The sliver of memory needs the black hole surrounding it. The mask needs the face. The lie kneads the mother. The sinner is the song.
Here is the poet Ai, the last lines of her poem “Intercourse,” a persona poem in the voice of John F. Kennedy:
There fact and fiction lie
one atop the other fucking furiously,
when one surrenders unconditionally,
the other dies.
Jennifer Jason Leigh lies down shirtless, E.T. reaches out a finger glowing like a lightning bug, the deep-belly bass line of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” tugs at you, tugs at your heart, and it is 1982. Nicholas Mikos, Jr., has left his home, his city, for another, the suburbs, learned new words like rad and gaywad and totally and blowjob. And one night, Christmas night, 1982, he watches The Dark Crystal, the fifth or sixth time he’s seen it that year, but now through the basement window of Jennifer, who he calls Jenny, before something very bad happens to her.
In a few days it will be 1983. Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson, the holy trinity of American pop music, will explode. Mr. T will become Mr. T. People will buy computers, bring them into their homes. My mother will marry George Sandor, and we will move, not to the suburbs, but 3.8 miles away (so says Google Maps), to a new home, in the same city.
But first Nick Junior needs to do something, something he has never done, something he will keep secret for the rest of his life – because he has to, he has to, I tell myself – so that the story can be over.