A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade

by Kevin Brockmeier

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At age twelve, Kevin Brockmeier is ready to become a different person: not the boy he has always been—the one who cries too easily and laughs too easily, who lives in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes—but someone else altogether.
Over the course of one school year—seventh grade—he sets out in

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At age twelve, Kevin Brockmeier is ready to become a different person: not the boy he has always been—the one who cries too easily and laughs too easily, who lives in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes—but someone else altogether.
Over the course of one school year—seventh grade—he sets out in search of himself. Along the way, he happens into his first kiss at a church party, struggles to understand why his old friends tease him at the lunch table, becomes the talk of the entire school thanks to his Halloween costume, and booby-traps his lunch to deter a thief.
With the same deep feeling and oddly dreamlike precision that are the hallmarks of his fiction, the acclaimed novelist now explores the dream of his own past and recovers the person he used to be.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin Brockmeier's 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, "You 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 magic 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.

A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Following English, just as the bell is releasing everyone to third period, Miss Vincent gives him a greeting card with a drawing of a hippo standing on its hind legs. She hands it across his desk unassumingly, offhandedly, like homework, and no one pays much attention. Though the caption looks handwritten, it isn’t: “When everything really starts to get to you, DON’T DESPAIR! DON’T GIVE UP! Just do what I do,” and on the inside, “Eat.” There beneath the punch line is the blue ink of her cursive, full of circles, like the pattern at the corners of a fancy napkin: “Hope you are feeling better about things today. Things will get better, just be patient. Have a good day! Love— Ms. Vincent.”
The words make a kind of drumbeat in Kevin’s head.
Things, things. Better, better. Love.
Things, things. Better, better. Love.
For nearly an hour he listens to it, opening the card every so often to read the note again, and then geography has ended, and he is surveying the lunchroom. Where should he sit? The Thad table is an impossibility, and so are the girl tables. And the majority of the others are already taken by older students, eighth- and ninth-graders who have known each other for most of a lifetime.
Kevin shoulders up against one of the pillars. Too many people aren’t his friends. He feels as if the sheen of paint on the walls, the fluorescent lamp sputtering above the door, the shadows of the tree branches on the windows are all whispering a secret to him, one he could hear if the rest of the kids would just be quiet, something about time and school and where his life is taking him, but instead there is only the popcorn of everyone’s voices, bursting and bursting and bursting.
He decides to sit with Leigh Cushman and Mike Beaumont. He finds a barnacle of gum on the underside of the table and picks at it with his fingernails. Before long Saul Strong joins them with his sandwich bag and his Ruffles and “Hey there,” he greets them. “It’s the Tough Guys,” which is the name they have given their volleyball team in PE. They’ve even invented a chant:

We’re tough guys! We don’t take no crap
When we deliver our TOUGH RAP!

“How’s it going with y’all?”
How’s it going?” Leigh complains. “I’m totally gonna fail this Bible test, that’s how. Are you gonna fail it? ’Cause I am. All those begats and he-dieds and crap.”
“See, you just don’t remember memory verses. That’s your problem.”
“My point exactly! I only remember things I already know. That’s what they should have: knowing verses.”
“ ‘ ’Cause knowing is half the battle,’ ” Mike says.
“Meep meep,” Kevin adds.
Saul shakes his head. His feathered hair does a little landslide. “Man, that’s the Road Runner, not G.I. Joe.”
“No, no, there’s this episode where Shipwreck kicks a coyote into a canyon, and when it lands, he says meep meep. It’s a Road Runner joke, not a Road Runner mistake.”
“My whole life is a Road Runner joke,” Leigh says.
My whole life is a Road Runner mistake,” Kevin says.
He’s not sure what he means, or if he even means anything at all, but the tone of sad-sack defeat in his voice gets him a laugh.
The result is incontestable. That’s who he is: funny.
The rest of the day passes somehow, and then he is lying on his bedroom floor staring at the blades of the ceiling fan, edged with ruffs of gray dust, and there is only Friday to finish before Christmas break.
He spends most of the evening working on the lyrics of a Christmas song—“Deck the School,” he calls it—the kind of parody he has written by the dozens ever since he started buying Mads and Crackeds from the magazine rack at Kroger. The verses ascend through the school grades, each one landing squarely on a big-name student, a Beau Dawkins or a Bryan Plumlee, a Matthew Connerly or a Doug Odom. The next morning Kevin deposits the page anonymously on Mr. Garland’s desk and waits for him to read it. You never know with Mr. Garland. You just never do. He is half jester and half grouch. Telling a joke in his class is as likely to earn you a demerit as a laugh. But after the bell rings and the quiz begins, when he finally lays his fingers on the page, he chuckles silently with his mouth closed, exercising one side of his face as if he is working the sugar off a jawbreaker.
In chapel, sitting with the rest of the seventh-graders at the far end of the bleachers, Kevin watches him take the microphone and announce, “The kid who wrote this actually included all the fa-la-las, but I’m just going to give you the good stuff.” Mr. Garland delivers the lines like wisecracks, pausing to let the laughter burn down to ashes. The loudest reaction comes from the eighth-graders, for “When we get back, there’ll be no lickin’s / Assuming that there’s no Chris Pickens,” and then from the seniors, for “Can you hear the women screamin’? / There’s mistletoe and (gasp!) Scott Freeman.”
Afterward, in the thick of the applause, a voice shouts out, “Who wrote it?” and Mr. Garland tacks the paper to the stand with his finger. “Sorry, folks. ‘By anonymous.’ ”
Someone once told Kevin that if a hummingbird’s wings stop, its heart will explode.

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