close but no cigar

Recently I was recommended two books from two different cultural timezones by two people, actually, who were each from the time of the other’s recommendation, and–they came close, but not close enough, to my lived experience, and that specific time is still a bit holey. A slot someone needs to fill.

Because, yes, I may get all (or most of) the gaming references in Ready Player One but I was a mere toddler during the period of its (albeit, in its post-apocalyptic, looking-back way) focus, and my knowledge comes from a nerdy mom and a vast library of 1980s computer games–and also, I guess, a lot of professors who talk about it–than from firsthand experience. It’s hard to pin down, because being nostalgic about the eighties has only recently become fashionable (as, I guess, those old enough to remember squandering quarters in arcades start having kids of their own to compare their childhoods to), but there is something about those particular rose-colored glasses that grates on me. Everyone says their own youth was more innocent, sure–that being part of the nostalgia package–but with people singing paeans the 80s it’s more like “yeah, maybe we too were corporatized and only watched mass-produced media and listened to music that had filtered through a vast number of focus-groups first…but it was somehow cleaner and okay back then.” As in, it was fine when we did it but when you do it it’s just wrong. I’m sorry, what? Sometimes the breezy vapidity of the 80s is explained as a necessary prelude to the oh-so-serious-and-stressed-out grunge movement of the 90s, which I know little about and have less interest in, but–give me a break. Don’t excuse the shallowness you condemn in millennials as “necessary,” a quarter-century before, to birth the kneejerk resistance to it that followed. If for no other reason than that you don’t know what comes next.

And then there was Fangirl, somewhat obviously much closer to my time and yet…there are those few years of distance that matter so much, like–and I know this is completely solipsistic; that’s part of the package too–time speeds up, twisting and warping and mattering more in the differences, the closer it gets to matching your own, and so the places where lived experiences don’t line up stick out more. Like, for instance, 9/11. Our Nebraskan heroines were mere third graders during this time and I tensed as soon as they brought up the date, a[n entirely unfair, I know] sneer ready on my lips, thinking “oh go on little Nebraskans, tell me how it mattered to you. Tell me how you in your nowhere town with no one you know burning alive somewhere were just so wrapped up in this tragedy, with everyone you love safe and unbroken. Tell me.” And she actually ends up mentioning it in a way that doesn’t make me gnash my teeth. The girls’ mother–spoilers!–left them on September 11th–The September 11th. (Cath still found this incredibly embarrassing; it was like their mom was so self-centered, she couldn’t be trusted not to desecrate a national tragedy with her own issues.) They describe fleeing outside from their parents’ fight and watching the President’s plane fly overhead, too low, the only plane in the sky, and even as third-graders they know the whole sky is empty all over the country and it terrifies them, this one plane, knowing exactly who’s in it and where it’s going and why.

Thank you, Rainbow Rowell. Thank you.

Still, though, the incongruities bothered me. The things Cath gets to take for granted, coming to fandom as she does maybe a decade after I did, after Web 2.0 has already had its far-reaching effects. She doesn’t remember the internet the way it was–its strengths and its limitations–and so doesn’t bother comparing it; can’t feel the difference and so doesn’t mention it. But it mattered. To exactly the kind of girl Cath is. Sequestered, whether in Bumfuck, USA or in a lonely corner of her own devising, with the only alternative to a.) blind and rather unrealistic going-along-with-the-pom-poms-and-glitter à la Jane in American Beauty or b.) agonizingly over-choreographed resistance à la Jane in Daria (I think? I didn’t watch it?) being this new, still-evolving otherwhere, dependent upon very concrete objects–the hiss of the modem, the stretch of the phone cord–but able to transcend them and bring you into contact with women in Cornwall or Perth or Helsinki or Lyons whose shared interests, hewing as they do so close to your own, is still unbelievable enough to be magical.

Well, they skipped that, because Fangirl happens just a shade too late; its characters are just a shade too young. And that’s setting aside all the usual discrepancies between “oh, I’m such a nervous wreck around people!” and “…yet somehow I’m just the wittiest most charming thing ever when put into these social situations; I don’t know how I do it!” I do, girl. You don’t exist, for starters, and your creator was never the wallflower she’s trying to write about (or for, or to), either, so she can’t quite bring it together, now, can she?

The point is, the people recognizing their own childhoods in Ready Player One have had too long to think about it and to stylize it into something cool (Cline already had a film contract upon first publication!), and the people who recognize themselves in Fangirl haven’t had enough time. They’re chomping at the bit, trying to cash in on this younger-and-younger nostalgia while they can still claim to be first. Well, folks, you forgot my cohort.

Make room.


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