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by Kate Barrett
I’ve been really into reliving high school memories lately, which is strange because I genuinely hated those years. I felt sure I’d never entertain any sense of nostalgia, and then bam—the ‘90s became a decade. You know what I mean? I feel like up until one or two years ago, the ‘90s still seemed current, like nothing much had changed between now and, say, 1997. Suddenly that’s not the case anymore. Suddenly oversized cardigans and men with long hair parted down the middle make my gut kick.
In just the past two weeks I’ve watched Mean Girls, Empire Records, Can’t Hardly Wait, every episode of Freaks and Geeks, and reread The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I don’t know where this sudden compulsion to consume teen angst came from, but it is so wonderful. For the first time, I think I understand how giddy my mom would get every time an
accurate portrayal of the ‘60s or ‘70s came on TV. “That’s my bike!” she would cry (and still does). “Oh my god, that is the exact bike I had. Look at that.” I used to roll my eyes, but now I know. After a certain point, revisiting adolescence is like walking into a coffee shop and finding a dead family member alive and well and eating a biscuit.
This is exactly the sense I had while rereading Perks. It’s funny—usually when I consider how literature operates in my life, why it gives me such joy, I (like many writers) return to the first books I ever loved, but I didn’t discover Perks of Being a Wallflower until late college. Still, it had much the same effect as my early literary obsessions. That is, it called to mind a familiar alter ego, a recognizable other self.
There’s a scene from the book (and the movie, for that matter) in which Charlie, the main character, piles into a pickup with friends and goes driving through a tunnel. They play music; they stand up in the truck bed. Charlie muses about how being there, with that one song on, in a car full of the people he loves most, is the most immediate, perfect moment in the whole world. That same moment happened to me—the way I’m sure it happened to a lot of kids in high school.
I was 16 or 17 and had at least seven friends I knew from summer camp crammed into my boxy little Honda CRV—three in the backseat, two double buckled in the front, and at least one or possibly two huddled in the hatchback trunk. If we’re being true to the time period, I had either Teddy Geiger or The All-American Rejects on at full blast. (Check out “Thinking Underage” for an embarrassing soundtrack to this memory.) Windows down of course. Lights of Cherry Creek Mall knocking against the dark of the car interior, chorus of my friends’ voices riotous and elated. The thrilling straight and narrow of University Boulevard in Denver proper, as opposed to the wide s-curve roads of my neighborhood in the suburbs. The names of every person in that car with whom I’ve lost touch: Jess Laub, Packy Conklin, Dustin Johnson, Cody Lubchenko, Kye Killian, Lainey Tick, Peter Hartman. I’m not sure what exactly it does to invoke their names now, except that it feels close to what the right words do on a page. Which is to say they knit together then and now, draw a line between two separate selves such that both become familiar, however tenuous the connection, however momentary.
We live many lives. Literature matters because it illuminates each of those lives in turn. I mean the ones we live every day internally—our cruel selves and our best selves, our transcendent selves, our weak selves and our get-out-of-bed-and-get-loving selves—in addition to all our past identities and those we dream of becoming in the future. It’s like an invocation, both prayer and praise for whatever lost corner of myself I’m seeing again, and it makes me that much closer to being whole. I love that I can read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry or Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable and relate to them equally. That’s the magic trick good literature enacts, whether it’s about Cossacks slogging through the mud in revolutionary Russia (Babel) or striving for honorary dykedom (Daum).
Anyone who’s loved a book knows what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter so much what the book was—Kafka or Tina Fey or Denis Johnson, who cares? What matters is that it keeps happening, miraculously, consistently. What matters is that I keep picking up books and finding passages weird or beautiful about people decidedly far from my own consciousness, and still I think, “Hey, that’s me! That’s my bike…”
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Kate Barrett is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Montana in Missoula. She writes short fiction and reads just about everything, time allowing. Her skills include but are not limited to: adventure walking, applying heat to vegetables and calling it cooking, dog ogling, and the awesome power of at-will napping. Follow her on Twitter, as soon as she gets a Twitter account, which will be soon, she swears.