Passé Imperfect


In the last 30 years, hipsters on both sides of the Atlantic have dubbed all things passé as “retro,” blending the distinctive styles of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s with a unique dash of irony and cachet to construct a whole new aesthetic. Inspired by cultural critic Marshall McLuhan’s belief that we “look at the present through a rearview mirror,” English editor and writer Amy Prior has put together Retro Retro, an anthology that purports to explore why we cleave to the past to contend with our uncertain present.

More often than not, however, the 16 original stories read like creative-writing assignments gone awry. Many of the writers mistake place for time, as in Emily Perkins’s “Let’s Go,” which follows three twentysomethings as they drink and club their way through Václav Havel’s Prague; and “A Taste of the East” by Bidisha, about an Indian woman whose white friends install “complicated structures printed with photographic images of Shiva” in their living rooms, as if immersing oneself in all that is South Asian provides access to antiquity. The inclusion of these two stories in a collection about retrospective culture implies that nations which are not fully Westernized are somehow evocative of a postmodern juxtaposition of present and past.

Several works do succeed in realizing Prior’s objective, such as Nicholas Royle’s “Empty Boxes,” a quirky portrait of a film buff who collects empty video boxes to preserve the air of his moviegoing experiences; and Brett Ellen Block’s “Future Tense,” about a homeless man in a Newark bus station imagining himself as the Sundance Kid to make it through the icy winter night.

In a few instances—too few—the contributors have both taken their own creative liberties and heeded their editor’s intent, crafting the most indelible fictional flashbacks included here. Joyce Carol Oates offers a beguiling vignette about two young women held in awe as they watch Marilyn Monroe shop for poetry one winter night in “Strand Used Books 1956,” while Christopher Kenworthy’s protagonist in “The Death of Blonde” discovers why a love relationship failed by tracing his emotional progression through a strand of his own hair. “If I strive for something,” explains Janelle, the blond of Kenworthy’s tale, “it gets away from me.” Sadly, this articulate admission extends to Retro Retro‘s own shortcomings.