Nostalgia Novels

  • Andrew Battershill
    Marry, Bang, Kill. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at
  • Ray Robertson
    1979. Biblioasis (purchase at
Reviewed by Geordie Miller

“Always historicize!” Fredric Jameson’s critical imperative continues to implicate the present period, which remains “an age that has forgotten how to think historically.” But given the current appetite for period dramas like Stranger Things, surely shaking down popular culture for evidence of historical consciousness is unnecessary. The past appears to arrive on demand. What Jameson crucially foregrounds, though, is how intensely such contemporary representations of the past are suffused with nostalgia. For Jameson, nostalgia connotes a lack of feeling for the lived historical experience of whatever past is on display. These two “nostalgia novels” might dull historical perspective, yet they are far from dull.

Marry, Bang, Kill is as unflinching as its title, emphasizing throughout the third verb of the eponymous parlour game. The opening chapter introduces Tommy Marlo, who, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, has a penchant for getting in too deep and, unlike David Simon’s Marlo Stanfield, is too compassionate to do whatever it takes to preserve himself. Tommy robs a teenage girl of her MacBook Pro at knifepoint outside a coffee shop in Victoria, and then robs her father and his murderous biker gang of one hundred dollars from a secret stash point disclosed on the stolen laptop, before escaping to Quadra Island. The opening robbery scene is a microcosm of what follows: witty banter between antagonists—Tommy and the unnamed girl—whose conflict is expressed in generational terms: “‘My dad will cut your feet off and throw them in the ocean. Don’t you read Twitter?’” He doesn’t. Does anyone “read Twitter”? It sounds like something from the mouth of Alan Mouse, a retired Chicago cop who befriends Tommy. Mousey’s baby-boomer generation emerges as the main antagonist, as becomes explicit in his engaging conversations with Greta, the millennial hit woman sent to kill Tommy. “‘Motherfucker, I was born in a Costco,’” Greta chides him. “‘Your nostalgia doesn’t do shit for me.’” Jeff Bezos is a baby boomer too, and Tommy blames Amazon for his switch in robbery tactics—from cash to computers. Greta is adrift with an MA in Art History when killing comes calling. The novel moves as swiftly as today’s path from university to underemployment, with the same biting blend of pathos and bathos.

1979 hardly yearns for the titular year, perched on the precipice of the counter-revolutionary decade to come. The novel conjures the 1970s in ways that demonstrate just how seamlessly historical experience has been ceded to pop. We know it is 1979 because the Ramones’ Leave Home is on the record player and the Iranian Revolution is on the television. Beyond pop-culture pastiche, how do people in the 1970s perceive their historical moment? Our answer must come from Tom Buzby, the novel’s thirteen-year-old paper-boy protagonist. Tom is a superbly imagined guide to his hometown of Chatham, with its “two hockey rinks and one bookstore” and “soon-to-be new mall.” The battle to preserve historic Old City Hall from capital’s mall ambitions is all too familiar. “You’re Chatham’s future, people,” a beloved teacher tells Tom and his classmates in an effort to enlist them to the anti-mall cause. In other words, Mr. Brown believes the children are our future, to paraphrase the opening lyric of a song originally recorded in 1977. If only Tommy could know what the 1980s had in store for his generation. If only he could have been reading Marry, Bang, Kill.

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