Point Break

Missing Time: Essays BY Ari M. Brostoff. Brooklyn, NY: n+1 Books. 134 pages. $16.
Ari Brostoff. Photo: Amelia Golden

Ari Brostoff’s debut collection of essays, Missing Time, shows one of our very best cultural critics at work. Written between 2016 and 2021, these five essays range from analyses of Bernie Sanders, The X-Files, Sigmund Freud, conspiracy theories, Jewish diaspora, Vivian Gornick, and falling in and out of (and back in) love with communism. What unites them is the curiously roving perspective of Brostoff, whose wisdom lies in understanding how popular culture and ephemera might be as ripe for historizing as social movements and schools of thought. A piercing investigation of the cultural detritus of our very recent past, Missing Time could not be timelier. We spoke recently over Zoom about periodization, “micro literatures,” and the mimetic impulse. 

One of the things I think Missing Time demonstrates so well is the fact that historicizing is impossible to do in the moment. How do you think about history and historicity in writing about contemporary events?

Well, what I hope is interesting about reading these essays together and in chronological order is the “plot” as it were, which I would describe as one writer trying to make sense of some shocking and kind of brain-melting historical events as they’re happening. I was also reflecting on this process in its own right, especially after the rest of the essays were out and I was working on the introduction as Trump was leaving office. In that moment, and particularly after the attempted coup on January 6 of last year, there were bitter debates on the left about the question of whether the Trump years represented a continuity with, or a break from, the past. There was so much bad historicizing going on, these attempts at a kind of pseudo-quantitative analysis: Well actually, what we have here is only 10 percent historical rupture and 90 percent ongoing neoliberalism. Assessments like that are pretty useless, but it was hard not to get pulled in if you were trying to take stock of what was happening. So as I was trying to sum up the aims of the book I found myself asking more open-ended questions about periodization, like, “What about this time is special or exceptional? What’s the deal?” 

In that introduction, you write, “The last three essays in this collection turn increasingly toward Jewish cultural and political questions. I did not anticipate this turn—not because I had never written about Jewishness before, but because I had gotten myself into the habit of avoiding it as much as possible.” Could you tell me more about this realization? 

The reporting jobs I had right out of college were at The Forward and Tablet, which are Jewish publications. Those experiences turned out to be an extremely mixed bag. I think I got a great education in journalism, particularly at The Forward, which is a storied 125-year-old newspaper that started out as a daily socialist Yiddish paper. But Tablet has turned into a right-wing publication, and already was in the early stages of that when I worked there. At both publications, in different ways, there were these sort of constitutive silences around Israel/Palestine and how conservative American Jews had become. There was a real disconnect between that reality and the belief that this was an open-minded community with a commitment to progressive values. Trying to write within the lines of that disconnect was very difficult. At that time, ten or so years ago, there was left Jewish movement-building work that was happening out of the spotlight in real ways, but there wasn’t any kind of consistent space for writing in that vein. I think Jewish Currents, the magazine I work at now, has actually done a lot to help change that. It’s like a cork has been popped and there’s now a whole mess of experiences and ideas that feel newly articulable.

I think “Where the Boys Are,” the essay on Bernie Sanders that appears as the first piece in this collection, is a good example of how things have changed in the past few years. When I wrote that piece in 2016, I was still in this period where I thought, I don’t write about Jewish stuff, but Bernie’s Jewishness nonetheless comes to the fore. Bernie just had such a cultural legibility for me as someone with a lot of love for the tradition of the American Jewish left. And in 2015, 2016, that was not being widely vocalized. There’s a moment in the essay when I talk about some blogger saying there was a “double standard” because Bernie didn’t brush his hair, and Hillary could never get away with that. And I was like, that’s literally just anti-Semitic. That’s what his hair looks like! Or similarly, you know, that’s what his voice sounds like! That’s what he’s like. Those kinds of total non-recognitions in the media were making me a little crazy. Looking back now, it’s cool to see how much things had changed even by 2020. The same people hated Bernie that hated him the first time around, but I think his brand of Jewishness was much more legible. 

I love the moment toward the end of that essay where you write, “Sanders is cool. But why is he cool?” The pieces here are extremely playful and experimental, and they range a lot. I also noticed that within the essays you often deal with other pieces of writing. For example, in the Bernie essay, you discuss “Man—and Woman,” a story he published in a Vermont alternative newspaper in 1972. What attracts you to material like that?

You’re definitely right in picking up that there’s a certain kind of textual inquiry at play here. I’m interested in what I want to call something like “micro literatures,” which is to say a step beyond what literary critics call minor literatures. I don’t know if there’s a word for this material—“ephemera” might be close? It’s whatever bucket would include everything from Bernie’s earnest and cringey attempt at feminist theorizing from the 1970s to, like, my own middle school diaries. Texts that are archival in nature but not necessarily from archives that anyone is thinking to look at are often very compelling for me. 

The book also includes an essay about Philip Roth, whose novels have obviously been written about endlessly. But something it took me a while to realize, coming from an academic background, is that when I read a Philip Roth novel, the thing that it makes me want to write is not necessarily criticism, it’s a weird essay or even, in my fantasies, a novel. In other words, that reading experience sets off a mimetic impulse for me that I think a lot of scholarly training is meant to kind of repress or redirect. So in that light, looking at texts that nobody else would ever care about feels like a real sweet spot for me, because I really do like the scholarly work of taking a text apart—but I almost need it to be small enough to feel like I can really write around it, possibly just out of pure narcissism.

That makes me think of the X-Files fan fiction you wrote when you were growing up, which you mention in the essay “Missing Time.” What were those stories like? 

Yes, fanfic is a perfect example of that mimetic impulse! Oh my god, the stories were so wacky. My middle school friend who I call S. in the piece was so good at writing them. Our stories were these fantasias—kind of like mash-ups with characters from The X-Files and people from our own lives, plus other fandoms we were into. In the story I talk about in the essay, Mulder and Scully are at the secret restaurant at Disneyland, and Exene Cervenka of the LA punk band X is playing. It would all come together on one plane.

I wrote “LOL” in the margins next to the line: “It was, as we said at the time, very random.” That was something we said all the time at things that weren’t random at all . . .

I still say it sometimes. I think it’s important to keep it alive.

There’s so much about the 1990s in that essay—the idea that everyone had brain worms or, you know, no one knew what was happening, what was going on. It was the end of history! And you describe how the show becomes a kind of time capsule for reality glitching at that cultural moment. What is it about that show that lets you read so much into it?

The X-Files was really doing a kind of cultural criticism—it’s anthropological or even forensic in how it looks at the detritus of contemporary life for objects that can be read and interpreted. Fox Mulder, David Duchovny’s character, is constantly reading tabloids or watching trash television looking for tips about paranormal activity—he takes trash very seriously. Duchovny brought a lot of himself to his character, and he started out as a literature grad student before he dropped out and became an actor. He was working on a dissertation about contemporary writers like Thomas Pynchon called “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry”—very much the same preoccupations you wind up seeing on the show. I think Mulder, and the show, actually modeled for me the way you could study the kind of micro literatures I was talking about earlier, this method of looking at artifacts that seem like they might be dead or meaningless, and trying to find the spark of life in them, asking, you know, “Why did the person who made this make it? Why does this thing exist?”

As you mentioned, there are also more relatively straightforward pieces of literary criticism in this book—I’m thinking of your essay on Philip Roth, and the one on Vivian Gornick. What drew you to these texts?

In a funny way, Operation Shylock, the weird Roth novel that I write about in the fourth essay, and The Romance of American Communism, Vivian Gornick’s auto-ethnographic book that I write about in the final essay, have a lot in common. They’re both books by late twentieth-century Jewish writers who are very interested in politics and are almost teasing the reader in some way about where their own politics lie. In Operation Shylock, this happens in an extremely literal and convoluted way. Roth is writing as a writer named Philip Roth who finds himself facing off with a mysterious figure who seems to be appropriating his identity to push an anti-Zionist, diasporist political program, and Roth Number One must orient himself in relation to this second guy. That’s a move that almost begs the reader to ask: Where does Roth, the author of Operation Shylock, actually fall? Which of the novel’s Roths is the real Roth? And I think Gornick is trying to answer similar questions in a less formally experimental way in The Romance of American Communism. What are her politics, and where does she stand? I’m not sure she ever answers the question, but she undertakes an investigation in which she talks to people from her parents’ generation and the Communist Party to try and understand her family, and by extension, try to figure out who she is as a political subject.

So I think we could say that in both books, despite their differences in genre, the writer is tempting the reader with the possibility of figuring out the writer’s own political subject position—and creating one in the process. That’s something I hope I’m sometimes doing in my own writing as well. 

In your introduction, you write about wanting a “break from time” so you could work on your dissertation. What has allowed you to write or kept you from it?

That’s a great question, and it’s really something I’ve been thinking about. I found the period in which I wrote these essays—the moment in American politics from the runup to the 2016 election to the end of the Trump administration—to be very enabling as a writer. So much of this book is about trying to make sense of temporal ruptures, historical ruptures—which are themselves always a reading, an interpretation, of things going on. There’s something about this perception of things being fundamentally changed that for me—and of course this is true for many writers and artists and collectives—is extremely generative. The way I figure out anything I know is by comparing what I used to think to what I think now. Or how I used to see things versus how I see them now. And so there was something about the sense of freefall, the collapse of expectations in American political life in those years, that really lent itself to that method. 

It’s bizarre to be talking about that periodizing aspect of the book right now, at a moment when it’s possible that the events of this week—Russia invading Ukraine—will turn out to be more definitive even than Trump or COVID in how people understand this era. And the acceleration of global calamity we’ve been seeing doesn’t seem likely to slow any time soon. It seems like the Trump years provoked certain kinds of creativity because that rupture felt new in some ways to some people. Now that sense of rupture has become the texture of everyday life, which requires its own reorientation.

Jane Hu is a writer living in Oakland.