Kevin Brockmeier’s book A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is, its subtitle announces, “a memoir of seventh grade.” The jaded reader supposes that this can go one of two ways, either in the direction of Judd Apatow comedy or into the dark heart of the child-abuse narrative, full of evil foster parents and redolent of USA Golds and rancid Hamburger Helper. After all, the milder sort of childhood — the one that is unpleasant but far from terrifying — is so hard to make compelling in words that the last time someone had a decent crack at it, the result ended up a permanent fixture of our national curriculum. Well, it so happens the jaded reader is wrong: It is a fairly ordinary unhappy childhood that Brockmeier has rendered with such startling precision and insight.
That said, Kevin, age twelve, is no Holden Caulfield. He wants desperately to be liked, to maintain his toehold in the social system he used to understand. He spends his summers in Mississippi with his father but his school years in Little Rock, Arkansas, with his mother, and just before the start of seventh grade his friends turn on and torment him. For the purposes of library science one could classify this memoir as a book about bullying, but it’s really about the heightened sensitivities and turbulent inner life of an unusual child. The intensity of Kevin’s perceptions and emotions as he negotiates the social battlefield call to mind Max Plowman’s remark about war: “What a strange emotion all objects stir when we look upon them wondering whether we do so for the last time in this life.”
For a certain kind of young teenager, everything truly does feel that life-or-death.
Returning to Little Rock, Kevin is bewildered by the new rules that have been put in place in his absence. The guys are using new put-downs (“gaybait rather than faggot”) and quoting new movies (Beverly Hills Cop is out; Fletch is in). Sticker-collecting is no longer acceptable, nor is abiding by a set household “snack time.” The narcissism of vanishingly small differences leaves young Kevin adrift and hated, a them in a world of us. What makes Brockmeier’s story so singular is that Kevin, rather than descend into rage or self-pity, tries to break the code of his exile. He knows that he’s a weirdo, but he wants to figure out what he’s doing wrong. Chances are the most profound revelation Brockmeier will wring from this is that to be young was very confusing, and not at all heavenly. Still, he illustrates it brilliantly.
The book unfolds as a series of vignettes. As it opens, Kevin and his friends Kenneth, Thad, and Bateman, are scaling a bluff behind a pizzeria. Kevin is peppered with taunting questions about his genitals. Unlike in a friends-forever reminiscence like Stephen King’s “The Body,” the abuse is three-on-one and Kevin never tries to answer in kind. His reaction to finding a dead bird leaking from a broken egg — a “strange lump of Vaseline with a dark net of veins inside it” — is to struggle not to cry. Kenneth’s is to say, “I’m not making fun of you, I’m just curious: Could you fit your dick in that egg?” Later Kevin is shut out from his friends’ cabin at a retreat, and made the butt of gnomic jokes he will waste too much mental energy trying to decipher.
During the school year, we see that Kevin’s attempts to gain fame and approval unerringly invite abuse. With the kind of symmetry that real life rarely affords, he embarrasses himself with two costumes and two performances. On Halloween he goes to school in a Dolly Parton costume and is told, “[Y]ou look too much like a girl when you pretend you’re a girl.” Later, on a spirit day when seventh-graders dress like high school seniors, Kevin obliviously dons a wig and shoe polish in a misguided homage to the school’s only black student.
Having written and directed a corny mystery play, The Case of the Missing Miss Vincent, about his favorite teacher, Kevin “wonders if there is a word for the kind of fame that makes it difficult to tell whether people are making fun of you.” At a talent show, Kevin’s “Hot for Teacher” lip-synch tribute to Miss Vincent is ruined when she angrily confiscates the “sexy” cardboard standee he’s made of her.
These are the book’s mildest and funniest episodes. A nearly twenty-page description of Thad and Kenneth following Kevin across school grounds, mercilessly mocking him while he pretends not to hear, is unremarkable by the standards of childhood but hard for an adult to stomach. It culminates in the bullies’ clearly well-rehearsed imitation of Kevin: “Thad starts blinking with a queer sunburnt expression. . . . This is the big premiere: Kevin About to Cry.” His only friend now is Miss Vincent, and when he goes to her: “The sound of his name. That’s all it takes [to make him cry]. From someone who doesn’t mean it as an insult.”
Brockmeier’s narrative, however low-stakes it may appear to be, builds its tension and suspense along the lines of a horror movie. Kevin’s bosom friends are replaced gradually by pod-people whose desires and motives are all but impossible for him to untangle. From the vantage of adulthood we know it is fairly simple: Children learn to behave in part by learning how to misbehave, to interact in part by experimenting with manipulation. But by inhabiting so completely the consciousness of his younger self, Brockmeier conveys to us how alien and frightening this lesson was to learn.
He accomplishes this primarily through the skillful use of language. Though some of his writing is so poetic we cannot forget it is the work of an adult, he tends to limit himself to thoughts available to his younger self. Light on a river looks like “confetti from a three-hole puncher.” A carnival ride “Spirograph[s] people” around; a friend makes “Pringles lips.” Kids are “layered across [a] landscape like figures in a View-Master reel,” and the “afros of the dandelions explod[e] against his sneakers.” The swirling colors of a sucked-on Gobstopper invite comparison to Jupiter’s atmosphere. This is both vivid writing and a reminder of how necessarily limited are the psychological resources of a child facing unfamiliar, unwelcome quasi-adult experiences.
The part of A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip likeliest to divide Brockmeier’s readers also divides his book, occurring at its midpoint. Kevin, having just narced out his friends to the principal, is lectured in the cafeteria by a strange man. We soon realize that this is a bit of magical realism: Everyone else in the school is frozen in time and space while the man, who has knowledge of Kevin’s past and future, offers him the once-in-his-lifetime opportunity to erase himself from history: “Right now you think the harm is irreparable, and you know what? It is. You’ve changed. From now on, for good or ill, however fractionally, you’re going to be a different person.”
As deus ex machina goes, this is surprisingly well-executed. Still, when Kevin chooses to be sent back to a life he now knows will be difficult but ultimately rewarding, it is hard not to feel that he’s been permitted to cheat. There’s a difference between telling kids that “it gets better” and letting them know precisely how it will get better; the latter feels a bit like some kind of emotional insider trading. It’s also a jarring departure from the book’s scrupulous realism. Nevertheless, it is the only way the book could be as valuable to a miserable child as it is to a wised-up adult. If Emily Bazelon’s 2013 Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy is for adults more or less exclusively, this is its all-ages companion volume.
The “radiant filmstrip” of the title is an oddly specific childhood memory that visits Kevin while at a carnival. At first it seems to serve little purpose but to foreshadow Brockmeier’s adult gift for beautiful imagery. But the “few seconds” of the title insists that childhood, pace Max Plowman, is for most of us the last time that any experience will be so significant and uncanny and even luminous. The fleeting ability to see and feel so deeply is, perhaps, the painful way that childhood teaches us to become human beings.