A Brief History of the Dead describes a limbo inhabited by souls still remembered by the living. Only when the deceased have been completely forgotten do they pass to the next stage of the afterlife. In “The Ceiling,” a story in Things That Fall From the Sky, a marriage unravels as the sky lowers, inexorably, to the ground. In The Illumination, pain is visible. It radiates from its victims for all to see.
Kevin Brockmeier’s novels and stories are powered by brilliant, magical ideas. Some of them read as emotional allegories––preserving the memory of a lost loved one is a lot like keeping her spirit alive on an ethereal plane, and a sky that is literally falling is a pretty direct metaphor for a failing marriage’s claustrophobic despair. Others are more mysterious. In the title story in Things That Fall From the Sky, a slightly out-of-touch librarian returns the friendly gestures of a stranger who tells her wild, impossible stories. Blood, live frogs, and fish raining from the sky. “Real wrath of God type stuff,” as Ray Stantz says in Ghostbusters.
So you might approach A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, Brockmeier’s memoir of his seventh-grade year in Little Rock, Arkansas, wondering how he will handle a story from so-called real life. In Little Rock, people don’t speak to each other exclusively in song (as they do in “A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets”), nor has the town (as far as we know) been blanketed by intermittent silences (“The Year of Silence”). What happens to a Kevin Brockmeier story when you set it in the real world, instead of the enchanted one next door?
The answer is it becomes less magical, but not by much. Even in the realm of nonfiction, life for Kevin Brockmeier is a vivid and occasionally surreal dream. Like Brockmeier’s other work, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is infused with wonder, recited in a gentle voice, and threaded with a trace of sadness.
We meet Kevin in the first weeks of his first year at Central Arkansas Christian junior and senior high. He is feeling like a different person and wondering why so much has to change. He doesn’t quite know who he is, and yet he knows who he is becoming, even if he doesn’t know he knows.
“Kevin is good with stories and always has been,” Brockmeier writes. “[H]e likes to write mystery stories with himself as the detective and his classmates as the kidnap victims… or superhero stories that mingle the Marvel Universe together with the DC Universe, or science fiction stories about a motorcyclist named Ace who leads two separate lives, walking into one the instant he falls asleep in the other…”
A flashback at a traveling amusement park serves as a premonition of self-discovery. In it, Kevin is standing over a busy street, watching an orange peel teeter on a sunlit concrete ledge as he holds the tail of someone’s shirt.
“For the rest of the day,” Brockmeier writes, “he feels as if he is on the verge of understanding something momentous, something he knew long ago, knew to his bones and then forgot, a hundred years before he was alive.”
What is the thing? In the course of its discovery, Kevin winds his way through seventh grade, trying to make sense of the ch-ch-ch-changes. Sarah Bell likes him, but he isn’t sure how to handle her interest. He cross-dresses for Halloween, with mixed results. His talent for storytelling finds a natural outlet, and he endures the fallout from a moment of grade-school triumph. Like so many bookish students before him, he learns that, sadly, he has no future in high-school wrestling. Seventh grade comes and goes in a fast 190 pages. Just as in real life, it’s over before you know it.
What makes Radiant Filmstrip succeed, though, is not so much Kevin’s story as its telling.
I once heard Darin Strauss say that the key to writing a decent memoir is to treat yourself the way a novelist would treat a character. Brockmeier takes that advice literally by telling his memoir in limited third person point of view. This is a tricky narrative strategy that doesn’t always work. When Salman Rushdie gave himself the novelistic treatment in Joseph Anton, his memoir about life under a fatwa, it drained the tension from his story. You don’t want someone who lived as a literary fugitive telling you about it as if it happened to someone else.
Brockmeier, in contrast, is well served by his semi-distant point of view. Radiant Filmstrip is about the fleeting innocence of childhood and the journey into the unmarked territory of adolescence. The third-person point of view nicely casts Kevin’s story in the glow of childhood memory. As his title suggests, Brockmeier’s remembrance of things past is meant to be a bit nostalgic.
Brockmeier complements this point of view choice with a liberal dose of magic, which seeps into every corner of Kevin’s seventh-grade world. We think of the realm of fantasy as imaginary, but Brockmeier makes a convincing case that the world of the fantastical permeates and guides our own. He even drops, seamlessly into the middle of his memoir, a drawn-out fantasy that could easily reside in his next collection.
Finally, Brockmeier offers his readers a powerful display of narrative skill. It’s amazing to me that he has, so many years later, written such a perceptive and detailed account of his seventh-grade year. How did he do it? Extensive interviews? Does he have a photographic memory? Was he keeping an encyclopedic journal? I would love to know. However Brockmeier recovered and shaped the story, Radiant Filmstrip presents a captivating reincarnation of his vanishing childhood.
The only critical point I can offer is that readers may find Brockmeier’s style too sentimental, as Christian Lorentzen does. It is true that other writers are publishing magical fiction with a darker and more comic edge. Haruki Murakami, Helen Oyeyemi, and Steven Millhauser come to mind. Still, if Brockmeier writes with a magical innocence, in this book he’s found a subject that is perfect for his style. I closed Radiant Filmstrip feeling that my own childhood had been briefly returned to me. I think it would be hard to read it without sharing that experience.
Brockmeier’s memoir closes almost where it began, with Kevin seeing yet another version of himself at the start of his roller-coaster year. In its last lines, he offers that younger self a benediction, a touching declaration to tie up the story he has fixed in words and images and made his own.