Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review: "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade" by Kevin Brockmeier

"He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes."

If I had to pick a memorable year in my life to recount in a memoir, I don't know that I would have picked seventh grade, but for Kevin Brockmeier, that year in 1985 clearly resonated, for good and bad reasons. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Kevin and his fellow seventh graders were sent to a new school, a combined junior high and high school, so suddenly he was thrown into a world with even more uncertainty, even more potential to make him feel more uncertain about himself.

Seventh grade is an interesting year for Kevin. He falls in and out of infatuation with various female classmates, harnesses his ability to make people laugh, discovers his creative talents (which aren't always as appreciated as they should be), experiences his first kiss, and becomes infamous for his speed in getting ready for gym class. It's also the year when two of his childhood best friends turn on him for no reason and mock everything he does, when he is desperate to outsmart the bully who keeps stealing his lunch out of his locker, when he wants more than anything to fit in, to be loved (or at least liked), to not feel like he always needs to wonder if he's on solid footing.

But Kevin doesn't always make it easy for himself. His desperation to fit in leaves him prone to saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time. He's a little more sensitive and tightly wound than he should be. And for some reason, his schemes to make himself popular (such as dressing up like Dolly Parton for Halloween) make him stand out in the wrong way.

"Sometimes his feelings run so hard in him he's sure they must pour from his skin. And sometimes he's surprised that other people notice him at all."

Brockmeier does a great job capturing the anxieties and insecurities of of seventh grade, how in one moment you could go from complete confidence to utter insecurity. Best known for novels that test the limits of reality and creativity, Brockmeier brings some of that same ability to his memoir, but it is layered with strongly felt emotion and nostalgia. I certainly can identify with some of Kevin's feelings, with the desperation to find just the right thing to do or say to fit in, and with wanting both to be visible and invisible simultaneously.

This is a funny, poignant memoir, although an overly long fantastical segment in which Kevin is given the chance to see what his life might be like in the future didn't quite work for me. But in the end, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is exceedingly well-written and surprisingly moving. A very interesting reminiscence of a year that might have shaped us, but one which many of us might not quite remember with vivid clarity.

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