There is a play called Our Town by Thornton Wilder. I’ve never seen it, but you can find a speech from it in two other great works of art. Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake and Season 3 Episode 5 of The Wonder Years, On the Spot. Emily, the main character has died in child birth but she comes back to look at the town as it lives on without her.
” Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every,every minute?”
For both Vonnegut and Kevin Arnold, the speech provides a moment of intense and meaningful reflection. As Kevin puts it “I learnt something that night. Something about courage and maybe even love.” This text brings these two seemingly disparate world views together, revealing just how much Kevin and Kurt have in common.
The Wonder Years is a show that almost collapses under the weight of nostalgia. And as we get further away from the original air date, the show only gathers more layers of memory and association. But its smarter than just schmaltz. Like my other favourite American on America, Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Arnold’s central narration treads the line between aggrandizing and undermining the American Dream. The picket fence, and small town bike ride, the high school dance, the best friend and girl next door. None of these factors are represented simply and in the depiction of Kevin’s journey to adulthood the very concept of America’s recent past is questioned just as it is celebrated.
Of course Vonnegut is much more forthright in his constant questioning, in his deconstruction of the America, and indeed the world that he lives in. But he too succumbs, in Timequake at least to an element of nostalgia. Dispersed throughout the book are descriptions of his own Grover’s Corner, “the first seven years of my life, before the shit hit the fan.” An America before the war, before atomic weapons and television when he was surrounded by his extended family.
Vonnegut’s books have an interesting relationship to time. He rarely uses simple narrative plot, often jumping from place to place. And within this form he often questions the teleological march of time with “science fiction” style tools such as the time travelling Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5. In Timequake the Universe has a momentary lapse in confidence and time jumps backwards 10 years, forcing all the inhabitants of Earth to rerun their last 10 years, exactly as the were before, surrendering free will to the inevitability of a past that’s already happened. But within this complex and perhaps unorthodox representation of time, in Timequake there is still a very real sense of the loss of the past. The loss that came with television and cars, the loss of family, the loss of simplicity. The same loss that gives The Wonder Years its melancholic atmosphere.
But both works address more than the nostalgia at the heart of Wilder’s speech. They also address the art that is at the center of appreciating life. In The Wonder Years Kevin’s main love interest, girl next door Winnie Cooper auditions for the part of Emily in the play. He is initially negative about it and in usual Kevin Arnold style he’s unable to understand why someone he knows would voluntarily put themselves through the ordeal of acting in a play. But through the episode he realises the importance of courage. He learns, from watching Winnie, what it is to stand up in front of others, to be scared, to trust yourself and to show vulnerability. And we see the response Winnie’s bravery provokes in Kevin and in her parents. She generates love through courage. That is the art at the centre of this speech.
Timequake had similar things to say about the role of art in the world. “I say in speeches that the role of art is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.” That’s what Vonnegut and Our Town and Winnie Cooper do. But loving life and helping each other through it isn’t about nostalgia. These works do more than dream of the old America. Because that’s not what art is. The art they create, which is present and timeless contains and transcends nostalgia. The reason Vonnegut is so powerful is that his fiction is so present. Unlike Brautigan and Pynchon and all those other post-modern writers his writing hasn’t, in my opinion, aged a day. It is so present, so angry and funny and vital. Whereas The Wonder Years was dated the moment it came out; but the progression of Kevin from child to adult, is on this ultimate loop. Not that its present, but that like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5, time isn’t sequential its just all always happening at the same time so The Wonder Years becomes not about nostalgia or lost time, but about the always present past. About time being looped and chopped in memory and fiction and hearts.
The way we deal with our past is crucial to our present moment. To bearing up under the weight of every second of life, the beauty and the horror of it. And that’s what Vonnegut and The Wonder Years have in common. They tackle the past to help us with our present.
So it goes.