"He is always amazed by the difference between how he feels and how he appears, the way his single-minded determination can look like the panicky darting motion of a little kid," writes Kevin Brockmeier (The Brief History of the Dead, The Illumination) in his recently released A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade. He's talking about his protagonist, 12-year-old Kevin, who's growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and attending seventh grade in the years of 1985 and 1986. He's talking about himself.
Told in the third person, the events of Radiant Filmstrip unfurl as Brockheimer remembers them (aside from a chapter that veers into sci-fi when his former self is confronted with his future). The narrative mode allowed Brockmeier to "investigate my life the same way I investigate the lives of my fictional characters, with both honesty and compassion," he explained to The Arkansas Times. The resulting book is a meeting of young-adult fiction's sensitive treatment of the emotional lives of young people (a la Louise Fitzhugh and Judy Blume) with the raw honesty and nostalgia we associate with online writing. Radiant Filmstrip is old-fashioned and contemporary at once, relevant because we've been there and we are there.
Brockmeier also told the Arkansas Times, "One of the challenges for me was figuring out whether I would reflect on that time in my life or immerse myself in it. How much distance, I wondered, should I permit myself? None, was my decision, or at least as little as possible."
This makes for a sometimes brutal retelling of the social awkwardness defines the passage into adulthood for so many of us. Kevin is mocked and ostracized for reasons that he can't quite wrap his head around, especially given his good intentions. But it also makes for language that manages to be simultaneously vivid and realistically of a seventh grade mind. The metaphors stay well within a seventh grader's frame of reference, and are stronger for it: Raw dough is "the sickish color of something trapped in a swimming pool filter"; the sky is "the color of oatmeal with lots of milk"; every room "is like a math problem"; the moon "is hole-punching the sky, the stars salting it in little collections of four and five."
Similarly specific are the '80s pop culture references, which makes Radiant Filmstrip's retro elements stand out in our culture of flagrant nostalgia: Night Court, the Columbia House music club, New Edition, Gotcha!, the guy from Puttin' on the Hits who "split himself into Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, painting his face two different shades of black."
Radiant Filmstrip is harrowing in the way it deals with social alienation, but this is because Kevin feels every moment so hard. His response is sometimes physiological ("He feels the satisfaction of cracking the code, a fine warm body-lightness that causes his fingers and toes to tingle"; "How can so glancing a touch feel like a bite?"). This is the beauty of the book because it's the beauty of being young and naive: every moment, no matter how mundane, is a potential thrill. Being young is a nonstop high.
We view Kevin from a remove, but his level of engagement with the world around him—and the people in it—is inspiring. I related to so much of this book. Our fellow humans become more predictable as we age, but they remain variables, often confounding with their behavior and creating opportunities for emotional investment and interpretation. If you're still up for the challenge.