Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree’s Our Secret Life in the Movies is a book of experimental fiction organized around a selection of films from the Criterion Collection. Each film receives two ambiguously authored passages, which together paint a grim but delicate portrait of 1980s boyhood in working-class America. While billed as a work of fiction, the autobiographical is immediately evident: the nameless narrators grow up, as Tyree and McGriff did, in the hinterlands of Wisconsin and Oregon respectively. The world imagined in these pages is one of lottery tickets and TV dinners, bowling alleys and VFW halls, toxic rivers, and mall parking lots. Early adolescent jobs are tedious and thankless:
Before I could legally work, I got an under-the-table job at the do-it-yourself carwash. I unjammed the machine that ate people’s quarters, kept the soap reservoirs topped off, used Graffiti-Gone on the swastikas, and refilled the Flying Lasso condom dispenser in the bathroom.
Tyree and McGriff’s prose delivers an impressive index of brand names. Cars are not just cars but Pintos, Corvairs, “rusted-out Ford Fiesta[s] with suspect brakes,” ’84 Vanagons and ’85 Jimmys. Cigarettes are Pall Malls and Hedges Light 100s, and everyone smokes them liberally. The authors use these brands to evoke not just a specific decade but a periodized matrix of consumer standards and class anxieties. One narrator, registering the ubiquity of Levi’s denim jackets worn by wealthier peers, removes the Levi’s tag from a pair of jeans and sews it onto a windbreaker in a bid for acceptance.
The book is roughly chronological, and earlier passages are perforated with references to anything a typical child of the American ’80s will recognize and perhaps hold dear, especially boys who existed on the geek spectrum: Carl Sagan, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, NASA paraphernalia. Though the unattributed sections make it impossible to tell the narrators apart, a shared identity emerges: these are brainy loners with military history and/or outer-space fixations, inquisitive and observant dispositions, scant adult supervision, and a sense of alienation that manifests a fraught combo of wariness and yearning. This passage comes after a friendless narrator watches his brother play with a group of boys through a home-built telescope:
I started setting fires, burning little piles of dead leaves, old newspapers, shreds of pornography discovered in an abandoned trailer. A witch with a bulbous shifting face sometimes drifted in the trees outside my bedroom window at night, just watching me. I would aim my telescope past her and watch the surface of the moon, which looked strangely like the skin of a burn victim. The witch didn’t look sinister, but I got the sense that she was a little bit concerned about the way I was growing up.
The strongest writing in the book fuses boredom and disenchantment with hallucinatory departure. Combined with rapid-fire introductions to a rotating cast of weirdo luminaries and deadbeat paranoiacs, the result is a sort of working-class American mysticism, as though angels and demons dwelt in gas stations and strip malls. Daily life is routine, but dread is pervasive and boogeymen are everywhere. Cold War television commentators stoke fears of nuclear annihilation, and hot on their heels come talk jocks speculating on the local presence of satanic cults. The narrators’ relations range in eccentricity: there are fathers who work seasonally in canneries, mothers who serve variations on meatloaf, stepdads prone to violent Vietnam flashbacks, grandfathers with combat tales from the Pacific theater, white-supremacist evangelical youth ministers, girlfriends who are versed in the Gnostic Gospels, neighbors with profound concerns about secret societies, bosses who wear garlic necklaces to ward off vampires, great aunts who black out their farmhouse windows upon widowment. As the narrators grow into adolescence they dabble in sex, punk music, and mom’s morphine, and end up in places as far-flung as homeless squats and college lecture halls. All the while, they navigate a realm both dreary and preternatural: “I was just another latchkey kid in Reagan’s America,” expresses one narrator after a failed attempt at a wildly metaphysical science project, “with too many dimensions over my head.”
As noted, each of these passages is inspired by a film from the Criterion Collection — the 39 titles include works by Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, David Gordon Green, and Agnès Varda. The art-film conceit does little to enhance the actual reading experience, unless maybe you’re a dedicated cinephile. (The exercise also comes across a kind of automatic endorsement of one corporate institution, albeit a culturally vital one.) But what the organizational structure lacks in cohesion with the prose it makes up for in theoretical and critical appeal. Structured as it is, with each passage conceived as a response to a film, Our Secret Life in the Movies imagines the viewing experience to be so saturated with memory that there’s hardly any separating it from a foray into subjective history.
“Films do not ‘make’ people feel,” writes media theorist Greg M. Smith. “A better way to think of filmic emotions is that films extend an invitation to feel in particular ways. Individuals can accept or reject the invitation,” and they can (indeed must) accept in a variety of ways. The way one accepts a film’s invitation to feel is — perhaps not wholly, but significantly — conditional upon cultural background, which both circumscribes our range of experiences and predisposes us towards certain themes, aesthetics and filmic conventions. Cinema doesn’t transmit emotions but rather dialogues with our private and singular histories. Films call up memories, and they also shape them, give them a lattice to grow on; viewing and memory, like lattice and vine, are interwoven. Everyone has a secret life in the movies.
Still, the strength of the book is not its implicit film criticism but its evocation of childhood spent as a neglected member of an anonymous class. The narrators and their acquaintances watch enraptured as the world devolves perpetually into fresh chaos, but the world does not watch them back. As the book progresses and the narrators uproot themselves from their communities of origin, erudite cultivation replaces boyish preoccupation, a classed evolution foretold by the centrality to the project of high art. The prose meanwhile becomes increasingly unmoored from the conventions of short fiction, drifting further into opaque but compelling experimentalism — as though it, too, were departing from its home port. The outcome is an anomalous work of literature, every bit as observant as its unnamed narrators.
Meagan Day is a features editor at Full Stop, the social media and community manager at Aeon Magazine, and a submissions reader for Granta Magazine. Her writing has been published in Full Stop, n+1, The New Inquiry, The Believer, and Salon. meaganday.com & @meaganmday