“It Never Happened Again” and Again and Again

by Matthew Derman

28 August 2014

In his book It Never Happened Again, Sam Alden uses two short comicbook stories to offer a slight twist on the old journey-vs.-destination philosophy.

We’re all chasing something. No matter who you are or how accomplished, no matter how full and satisfying your life may be, there’s always another goal to meet, another piece to add, another hole to fill. You get the promotion and immediately start working toward the next one. You have a great first date and begin planning for the second. You finish your novel and start shopping it around, or you sell it to a publisher and have to promote it, or you become a Pulitzer-prize winning, best-selling, unprecedentedly popular author and have to write another whole goddamn book. Life doesn’t stand still, it powers relentlessly forward, and we move with it, Lilly-padding from one achievement to the next, hitting numerous landmarks as we go without stopping to fully appreciate them. Nor do we appreciate the movement in between. People say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and I think that’s true but perhaps not as precise as it could be. Because no destination is really the destination; there’s always another horizon after this one. In his book It Never Happened Again, Sam Alden uses two short comicbook stories to offer a slight twist on this old journey-vs.-destination philosophy, that it’s not the things we actually catch that matter, it’s the way we chase after whatever we want.

The first and shorter of the two tales contained in It Never Happened Again is the possibly autobiographical “Hawaii 1997.” The main character is named Sam, and like Alden he hails from Portland, but it doesn’t really make a difference whether or not this is a true story. Its subject matter is universal, and it is perhaps one of the strongest depictions of the inherent curiosity and magic of childhood I’ve ever seen. Alden draws in un-inked pencils, often smudgy and vague in shape, blurred and chaotic and not always easy to decipher right away. And isn’t that what the entire world feels like when we’re kids? It’s confusing and enormous, too big to fully absorb in all its detail, so we make do with the pieces our child brains can grasp. Or maybe Alden is trying to display what it’s like to try and remember those early years through the filter of adulthood. Memories from that far back are fuzzy at best, impressions of feelings and disconnected sights, sounds, smells, etc. that band together to tell us that, yes, something happened, but maybe not exactly what that something was. Whatever his intention(s), Alden evokes the wonder of being young and the distance between maturity and youth all at once in this story, showing us grown-up’s take on a kid’s take on romance and discovery.

The narrative of “Hawaii 1997” is exceedingly simple, as are the plots of so many childhood adventures. Young, shy, quiet Sam, on vacation in Hawaii with (I assume) his family, sneaks out of the hotel room one night to go exploring on his own. He wanders out onto the beach, and for a long, silent while, we merely watch him soak up the bizarre beauty of his unfamiliar surroundings—the sand, the stars, the water. Then he’s joined by a girl around his age (they’re both like 8-10) who has all the confidence and self-possession he lacks, and the two of them play and explore together for a while. Sam is clearly quite taken with his new companion, gladly letting her lead their games. She chases him, then he chases her, but really it’s him chasing her the entire time, trying to hold onto this strange, enchanting figure for as long as possible. He is as taken with her as he was with the beach before she arrived, maybe more so, since he actually ventured so far as to go into the ocean, but cannot quite find it in himself to ever truly catch up to the girl. So he just keeps chasing her, even after the game is over, after she’s no longer there, perhaps even after the story ends and he grows up and becomes the man who makes the comic about the boy chasing the girl.

It Never Happened Again’s longer second story is titled “Anime,” and it’s a bit more complex than “Hawaii 1997,” but just as relatable. It stars Janet, who prefers to be called Kiki, a twenty-year-old who feels out of place, believing a better life awaits her if she can get out of her hometown. Her restlessness in the face of loneliness is a familiar state, and so is the loneliness stemming from a desire to belong somewhere but seemingly being unable to. To some, including her father, Kiki doesn’t appear to be doing anything about it, spending her time at a dead-end tour guide job (for which she’s not even qualified) and living in her boyfriend’s parent’s basement playing video games and watching anime all night. Underneath her passivity, though, is a powerful ambition, a goal on which she is singularly focused and has been planning and preparing for some time—she is going to go to Japan, and then everything will be better.

This belief is based mostly on Kiki’s connection to her self-assigned namesake, a character from her favorite show. She watches it obsessively, even teaching herself Japanese online so she can enjoy it in its original language. She perceives numerous parallels between her life and that of the character, some superficial, but the most important being that neither of them fit in where they’re from. So Kiki resolves to go to Japan in an attempt to get even closer to her hero, become as much like her as possible. She saves money carefully, budgeting every aspect of the trip: travel, food, accommodation. Her boyfriend, whose name we never learn, is going with her, but that feels incidental right away and never grows any more important. He’s there because he’s not in the way, but he’s also expendable, a half-presence with no name or influence.

And Kiki does go to Japan, but do things get better? It’s hard to say. “Anime” doesn’t promise any solid answers, and therefore doesn’t deliver any. Kiki’s certainly no worse off than before, and even has moments where things look up right until the end of the story, but there’s no instant transition or obvious long-term hope. She decides to stay there, or maybe she knew she’d stay all along, missing her flight home accidentally on purpose. Once she’s in Japan, though, on her own and definitively not going back, the next steps aren’t clear to the reader nor, it seems, to Kiki. She reached her destination, but not necessarily her goal, so what now?

As with “Hawaii 1997,” then, “Anime” is about an unending chase, Kiki’s search for a place where she feels like she fits. There’s something else that binds the two stories, though, beyond the simple fact of the chase. It’s the short-term strategies both protagonists use for their respective pursuits. Sam’s plans extend no further than getting to the beach, at which point he lets the mysterious girl’s moves dictate his own. Kiki just wants to make the trip and see what happens, to discover organically why or how Japan will be a better home for her. They both pick a spot to get to and then let the world push them from there in whatever direction it decides. They acknowledge the endlessness of the chase and give in to it, enjoying it while it lasts without worrying about where it leads or what it gets them.

It Never Happened Again is almost a warning against trying to plan too many steps ahead, insofar as it’s a reverent examination of the opposite approach. There is an impulse in many of us to try and prepare for every possibility, to map out the future and make sure all available routes are secure. But that’s a foolish, futile exercise. You can’t predict everything (like the girl in Hawaii) and there’s always going to be a limit to how far ahead you can think (like Kiki not having anything figured out beyond skipping the plane back home). The best you can hope for is to get to the next checkpoint and then reassess before moving on again. And, whenever possible, to find some pleasure in traveling from one point to the other.

Because worrying about what comes next prevents us from taking in the full awesomeness of whatever is going on now. It Never Happened Again has several sequences that are silent celebrations of the potential beauty of every moment: four pages of the girl’s back running through the woods from Sam’s point of view as he chases her; fifteen panels of what Kiki sees out the plane window as she flies to Japan; Sam looking at the beach and hotel first clearly with his glasses on, then as an ominous white blob through his natural vision. In the course of a lifetime, these are arguably insignificant occurrences, but they don’t have to be, and they shouldn’t. They are the wonderful bits we risk missing while our eyes are set on the future. We worry about things that might not even happen and/or plan for things that are completely out of our control, when we should be soaking up whatever is right in front of us. Because even if it’s dull, mundane, or meaningless, it’s precious and it matters and it’ll never happen again.

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