David Gilbert on John Hughes and Being Seventeen – The New Yorker

Posted: August 22, 2020 at 2:55 am

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Photograph by Tim Knox / eyevine / Redux

Your story in this weeks magazine, Cicadia, follows three seventeen-year-olds on their way to a party in suburban Cincinnati, in 1986Best friends cruising together. On the cusp of senior year. When did you first start thinking about these boys and that party? How important is the eighties setting?

O.K., so on December 11, 2015, I was watching Last Year at Marienbadyeah, yeah, I was in a moodand halfway through the film the oblique nature of the narrative sort of opened up to me, and I decided I was watching this profound cinematic experiment in repetition, in terms of the acting and the roles played, right down to the looping character of projected film, of life captured but then remaining forever static, the built-in essence of this drama. Like I said, I was in a mood. So I wrote myself this e-mail (verbatim):

A story of a performance, done 10,000,000 times. The dialogue forced, insisted upon them, for this performance. All the players aware of the hell they are in.

Told from multiple point of views. All the action and dialogue the same, fated, but the voices inside their head aware and conscious of whats going on.

Kind of like Groundhog Day with theater being the metaphor. All stuck in the same role.

This was the beginning of Cicadia. But I could never figure out how to crack the code. The minute attempts at communication within the closed system. The budding of meaning, which, budding endlessly, would become meaningless. The basic mechanism of the multitrack plot. It was like geometry, and Im horrible at geometry. So four years passed, my thoughts occasionally flexing around the idea, until I was watching Ferris Buellers Day Off, probably for the fiftieth time, and I wondered, Hmm, what it would be like for Ferris if he was forced to relive this day every time someone pushed play. Like his soul had been captured in Panavision and he only existed for an hour and forty-three minutes of run-time. That was his life. Maybe he was confused. Maybe he was lonely. Feeling trapped. Maybe he wondered if the same was true for Cameron, for Sloane, for Jeanie, for Mr. Rooney, if they were all stuck, unable to acknowledge their shared predicament. Thats interesting, I thought. And complicated. I might be bad at geometry, but I love problem-solving in writing. So I set out to create my own version of a John Hughes movie and to try to convey, under the surface, the psychology of this setup.

Are you confused? Because I am.

And for a while, that was the problem with the story. It was confusing and too attached to its oblique cleverness.

Enter Nietzsche and the concept of the eternal return and my grad-school philosophy class with Fred McGlynn, at the University of Montana. This was back in 1994. Fred is easily one of the best teachers I ever had. Fred constantly smoking in the classroom. Freds distinctive rasp. Freds enthusiasm and sense of humor and massive brain, displayed in clouds of chalk dust and smoke. I ended up taking three courses with himI hope youre well, Fredand I always sparked to Nietzsches idea of eternal return, and I thought maybe I could mix memory and recurrence into the story, and create a more universal impression of how we experience the past and how it operates on the present and the future. Were all caught in our loops. And were always coming of age. Or at least I am.

We see events unfold through the point of view of one of the boys, Max. Hes always prided himself on his B-minus persona, but hes much smarter than that. The story captures him at a point where hes thinking about whether to leave that old persona behind. How aware is Max of what he might lose?

I dont think Max is really aware of the bigger picture, only the big picture within this small world. Hes stuck in his head. But he is acutely aware of the micro-losses. The repercussions of his casual disdain. The misunderstandings. The missed connections. The mistaken assumptions. The inevitable betrayals. He has a desire for meaning thats bigger than himself but also contains himself, a.k.a. the adolescent urge. But, unlike in Groundhog Day, theres no possible liberating version of the day, no sloughing of ego, just the deep understanding of imperfection, along with a bit of hope, of course, in the form of change, which happens via profound noticing. In this endless present, Max needs to see something fresh every day. And theres always something fresh to notice and to feel.

The story takes place as a seventeen-year brood of cicadas is hatching. Were the cicadasand the titlean integral part of the story from the outset? Or did the idea of metamorphoses come as you were writing?

There was a small cicada hatch last summer, and my daughters loved searching for the exoskeletons left behind on the trees, almost like Easter but, instead of hunting for eggs, they hunted for the terrestrial remnants of cicadas. Theyd pick the husks from the trees, their lingering grip on the bark always a surprise. And the anatomical detail was amazing. A perfect cicada sculpt. And I was calling them cicadias, and my daughters were always correcting me. Cicada, Dad! Cicada, Dad! But I kept on messing up, because my brain is weird that way, and I thought of arcadia, and these cicadas dropped into the Last Year at Marienbad/Ferris Buellers Day Off idea like a match into a puddle of gasolineI often need a third thing to trigger thingsand I was, like, Yes, yes, of course, the story should happen during a cicada brood, and then I recalled going to a high-school-graduation party thrown by Holly Brown, in Cincinnati, in 1986, during one of those massive seventeen-year broods, and the cicadas were everywhere, a freaky plaguelike marvel, and I thought, Ill use Cincinnati and that memory.

Cicadia unspools over one night in 1986, yet theres a sense in which its the story of a night thats being told over and overit could be a night thats about to happen or a night thats already happened. How important is that sense of a shifting perspective?*

Like I said above, really, really important. But I wanted it to operate on both planes. Those are my favorite kinds of stories. I wanted Max to be cynical and optimistic, not only because of the hellish circumstances and his own coping methods but also because of the nature of teen-agers when it comes to the present and the future. They havent yet discovered the blurring past. Or it can seem that way. By the end, Max is humbled by time. Like we all are.

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David Gilbert on John Hughes and Being Seventeen - The New Yorker

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August 22nd, 2020 at 2:55 am

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