I have a great respect for collectors. Hoarders even. There’s something reverential about taxonomies (boxes, toys, little glass dachshunds, paper clips)—a mesmeric quality to so much like with like. Like walking through a cemetery.
Memoirists are similar. Like collectors, they acknowledge that before something can be remembered it has to be dismembered, de-limbed, cut off or separated from—so as to remember—itself. It is in such a spirit of re-collection that Sea Monkeys, the new ‘memory book’ from cult novelist, Kris Saknussemm (Zanesville, Enigmatic Pilot), proceeds.
Loosely linear, cut and pasted from Kodak moments, dreams, newspaper clippings (another collection) and family legends (that even the narrator admits, ‘don’t tell stories, they almost tell stories,’) Sea Monkeys takes the California dream and tears it apart, only to reassemble it into a dangerous patchwork totem, where the taboo and the sacred jostle for space, and hilarity chases tragedy down the labyrinthine corners of the mind.
From an exuberantly under-supervised Berkeley childhood (Hell-icopter parenting not even a highball twinkle in the eye) with a music teacher mother, alcoholic preacher father and big-dreamer sister, through to a misspent youth on the mean streets of Oakland and Hollywood (highlights are a trippy gig as a DJ near Seaside California, getting inked by a man who looks like a ‘skinhead version of Richard Chamberlain’) to the inevitable sexual misdemeanors at the University of Washington, there is in Saknussemm’s memoir a gap-toothed quality, a feeling of something slithering beneath the floorboards. In so many of the pictures the narrator revisits, there is a figure just-out of frame, who can’t be known, can’t be explained, a shadow on the snow.
Like a shoebox of secrets kept under the bed, Sea Monkey’s chapters are unnumbered. The result is a compulsive, propulsive collection of found memories blurred by amnesia and sharpened by desire.
Some incidents, like getting drunk with a collector (another one) of Wanted posters are mere vignettes, more poetry than prose (‘Everclear’); others extend over pages, seemingly conventional odes to coming-of-age, but searing none the less. Like ‘Independence Night’, a piece about launching dozens of inflatable pool ponies above an unsuspecting Forth of July crowd. Lots of pranks, lots of booze, drugs, dogs and guns. Lots of girls.
For at the heart of Saknussemm’s memory book is a boomer’s ambivalent lament. There was, after all, after all, no precedent in the ‘60s and ‘70s for the divorces and dead-beat dads, the flood of available sex and contraband and random acts of violence and betrayal that occurred on a national—and thus psychic—scale. The myth of American ingenuity, experimentation and adventures becomes an increasingly distant and Benzedrine-addled memory.
When in doubt, the poet calls for either a shoring up, or a shelling of the ruins, and possibly both. Praise the lord and pass the Cheese Spread.
Because over this memoir, like over the American century that it farewells, there’s that shadow, that thing always out of frame. The bogey (or is that boogie) man, who breathes down the narrator’s neck (‘Don’t Get a Gun, Get a Big Dog’), and who bites too (‘The Gift of Evil’), a dis-membering that acts on the psyche like a phantom limb, a re-membering that can be either destructive or creative or a transformative mix of both. So pictures tell a thousand lies.
‘Holding up fish, the narrator writes, seems to be a family theme’ but big sisters are the ones that get away, brothers check out without saying good-bye, fathers too. And little boys in cowboy hats grow up to drop acid and spin platters and fall off camels far from home. If the boogie man doesn’t get them first.
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