Don’t Look Back

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A memoir by a critic for The Onion views a troubled youth through the lens of popular culture

When a memoirist is not a major political or cultural figure, it’s both easy and human to ask why readers should care. At times, our lives seem to fall into narrative lines, to rise and fall in crisis and resolution, to have themes, motifs, and dominant metaphors; other times, the chaos, boredom, or apparent meaninglessness compel us to find and build the story. The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You By Pop Culture, written by Nathan Rabin, film critic of The Onion‘s pop culture arm, The A.V. Club, takes both approaches.

In discussing the relationship between movies, television shows, and pop music, and the struggles of family, education, growing up, relationships, and jobs, The Big Rewind covers events both bright and bleak—Rabin’s work for The Onion, his appearance on an AMC film review show, juxtaposed with his experiences as a foster child, in group homes, in failed relationships—told mostly in comic tones of self-deprecation. At times the memoir seems to move from humiliation to humiliation. But Rabin is not trying to tell an Oprah-worthy story of overcoming adversity—only to make us laugh, understand, and maybe reflect on Ghostface Killah and Godard.

Rabin insists that what has kept him going through the difficult parts of his life is popular culture. Each chapter title is matched with a pop-culture reference—”The Chronic,” “Weekend,” “Don’t Look Back“—and reflects on the relationship between that reference and Rabin’s experiences. The chapter that opens with a reflection on The Chronic, for example, is about Rabin’s experience at Winchester House, a Jewish Children’s Bureau group home where he arrives after his mother’s disappearance, his father’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, and his own suicidal gesture. The residents of the house all have their own stories, and Rabin characterizes his comrades in their own strange, anarchic glory, ending with a paean to their love of hip-hop:

Albums like The Chronic presented a seductive new kind of Horatio Alger story where getting high and uncorking your anger to a dope beat was enough to propel your meteoric rise from ashy to classy. Though the MCs we idolized were blacker, cooler, and more talented than us, we felt like they were expressing our every tangled, ugly emotion.

Though Rabin expertly critiques pop culture for The Onion, here he bends it to the needs of the personal narrative; rather than play disinterested arbiter, he appropriates cultural references in a somewhat circular relation to his life story. He idolizes critics as diverse as Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and Roger Ebert, but in The Big Rewind he seems less a critic than a typical American consumer, identifying with pop culture as it is designed to be identified with: to become popular and generate sales.

Ghostface Killah

Ghostface Killah

Reading Rabin’s memoir, I felt a triple sadness. First, that these boys should be forced to live out their adolescence with little sense of family except in each other, subject to the restraints of the child welfare system. Second, that their primary comfort should have been found in buying, with their limited money, a disc’s worth of commodified suffering from another culture thousands of miles away. Third, that the writer did not find a way to comment on this problematic dynamic or analyze the complex personal and cultural forces at work.

Rabin seems desperate that readers understand his life, but unsure of the larger meaning that can be drawn from it. When he does reach for big ideas, he can fall back on cliché. After he gets his girlfriend pregnant, she has an abortion and slips into a depression. The facts are moving and unfair, especially given what both people have been through; however, the words Rabin uses to conclude this episode detract from the power of the story:

I woke up every morning knowing I’d done something I could never undo. I smoked pot every night hoping it would help me forget. It never did. All it did was numb the pain. The abortion united and divided us. We had blood on our hands. We could never go back to where we were before… We could never be kids again.

Sections like these are too abundant—and it’s too bad, because Rabin is capable of funny, crisp, and touching writing; it tends to come in throw-off lines and smaller moments. In an unsentimental chapter in which he visits his biological mother, who has been absent his entire life, Rabin also reconnects with his half-brother Mario: “We eventually headed back to Mario’s place, where he sacked out for an hour. I was left to contemplate the sole piece of literature in his apartment: an old copy of High Times.” Each of these frankly narrated details is filled with a pathos and dark humor that comes naturally to Rabin. The fact that his half-brother takes a nap after reconnecting with his long absent sibling expresses the gulf between them as undeniably as the intellectual marker of their reading material.

Nathan Rabin and I were born within two years of each other and we have had similar pop cultural experiences—he has one of his film-love epiphanies during Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I also watched on video at least twelve times. I started reading The Onion while living in Madison, WI, where it started; I even rented movies from a video store where Rabin worked (and from which he was fired). I enjoy his pieces in The Onion A.V. Club, especially “My Year of Flops,” in which he re-reviews commercial and critical failures (a forthcoming book will collect these essays). Still, as close as I might be to his target audience, to me Rabin seems trapped here in a form he can’t use or renew to bring his story to life. The subjective material is limited by cliché; the objective criticism and analysis of pop culture does not go deep enough.

Colin Mort's fiction has appeared in literary journals, online and in print, and he is currently completing a novel. He also writes about cycling and teaches writing. More from this author →