Barrelhouse Reviews: Rerun Era by Joanna Howard

Review by Mitch Therieau


McSweeney’s / October, 2019 / 176 pp

Rerun Era sketches Joanna Howard’s childhood—along with flashes of adulthood—in rural Oklahoma, a place where sinkholes open up in the middle of the street without warning, the lake on the other side of town holds all the allure of a “secret special world,” and you have to drive to another state to get an ice cream cone. In prose that’s taut and unsentimental, but still charged with wry warmth, Howard prods at family traumas and banalities alike, more often than not leaving it up to the reader to speculate which event counts as which.

It’s a book that, unlike some memoirs, refuses the easy moment of catharsis. A few chapters in, a young Howard dislocates her shoulder during a bout of roughhousing with her dad. Her account of the ensuing trip to the hospital is deadpan, present-tense: “And yes it is all very painful, it must be very very painful, because I scream bloody murder the whole way to Joplin, and continue screaming in the emergency room, and screaming sobbing choking on my own spit in the medical viewing room, and then a doctor comes in.” By the time the ordeal is over, “One feels purged, one feels to be a better person, and one is ready, even, for ice cream”—a callback to Howard’s apathy toward all things sweet and frozen, which we discover earlier in the book. We’ve zoomed out from the individual “I” to the impersonal “one,” from the specific event to the general pattern. Our sense that we might understand the emotional stakes is shaken. As Howard puts it in the title of the chapter that revolves around the episode, all we can do is “enjoy a dislocation.”

Dislocation is more than a theme for Howard—it’s something like an organizing logic. It’s not for nothing that the book’s full title is Rerun Era: Or, The Dislocations. Chapters are asynchronous: in one called “I am born,” which of course comes somewhere near the middle, she explains: “I don’t like anything that goes in order. I just can’t remember what happens when.” This fragmentary structure makes it a hard book to review. To fuse the fragments into some kind of rational shape would defeat the whole purpose. A review that does justice to it would have to be something like a montage—hosts of TV variety shows that may or may not have existed, paths through abandoned fields that lead nowhere in particular, festivals where people dress up in pseudo-historical garb and play at being pioneers. A parade of nonevents: lives following the circuitous rhythms of television programming, a sudden “purge” where all the shows about rural life wink out, to be replaced with stories of young urban professional strivers. Piles of “chat” (residue from the shattering violence of mining), desserts dipped in hard red wax, old-timers chatting the days away at gas stations. Through this thick texture of disconnected images and scenes, we get hints of other, more profound dislocations in Howard’s family. Mental illness, deteriorating health, and marital betrayal all exert some force. But Howard speaks in the voices of her younger selves, so—up to the end of the book—we’re left to experience these things from the inside, with all the flat equanimity of a child accepting something she doesn’t fully grasp.

Like all good memoirs, Rerun Era reflects on how slippery, even duplicitous, the act of remembering itself can be. Howard recounts her memories, and then steps out of frame to recount her process of fact-checking her memories—only to throw up her hands in exasperation at how all this fact-checking seems to get her further from the truth rather than closer to it. “Did he say that?” she asks. “I don’t remember. It is much later, in that time when I am looking everything up, like crazy, because I’m scared I’m losing my memory of this place. I want to look it all up and have it confirmed in my mind. Otherwise, you forget. Then I realize looking it up is what makes you forget. It just erases the memory.” Howard usually reserves this kind of dense double reflection for the pop-culture detritus she documents so carefully. Here, it’s a conversation she had with her brother about a song by folksinger Hoyt Axton.

Fascinating as they are, these excursions into ‘70s and ‘80s kitsch can sometimes feel grafted onto the real story. As the title suggests, Howard seems to want the rerun to be a controlling metaphor (theme? image?) for her memoir. It makes sense on a few levels: reruns seem related to the cyclical time of childhood, where your world is a set of overlapping routines; the act of remembering, replaying old events to refresh them in your mind; and even the structure of the book, where ‘programs’ from different eras are placed side by side on the same ‘channel.’ But when you get to the emotional core of the book, which is only laid bare in the final chapters, it ultimately has little to do with reruns, nostalgia, or kitsch. It has everything to do with the bittersweetness of imagining foreclosed possibilities, the hard and gratifying work of mending relationships that have been strained with time.

Kitsch is sexy; it’s a topic of endless scholarly discussion, and it’s exerted a strangely powerful pull on the literary imagination for generations. The attitude toward kitsch is often the same across these areas. In literature just as much as in the cultural studies classroom, there’s a real drive to redeem kitsch, to claim it as something subversive, outside ideology, a bearer of intimate memories despite its detached universalism; a resource for original, imaginative thinking despite the canned platitudes it offers us. Howard’s engagement with kitsch gives us some patches of smart, self-reflexive writing. But it doesn’t give us any of the transcendent emotional (or political) moments that kitsch’s biggest theoretical champions might hope for. Rerun Era is a brilliant and affecting memoir in spite of, not because of, its detour through kitsch.

Mitch Therieau is a writer and PhD student at Stanford, where he works on material culture and aesthetic theory. He tweets sporadically @mitchtherieau.