Memory is built from pieces of itself: perfect enough at best, like a glued-together mirror or you or me. This makes the fragmentary personal essays of Tatiana Ryckman’s VHS & Why It’s Hard to Live both a curious and not-so-curious delivery of memoir. The short bursts of recall accurately transcribe the way our minds work, but there’s dissonance and interference that comes from how autobiography is traditionally presented.
The risk of brevity in this digital age is that of being slight or inconsequential or, perhaps worst and most likely of all, just another reverberation. To write micro literature and not ping something that reminds the reader of a tweet or update has become impossible. I’m not condoning books of tweets, but as the limitations of widely-reachable fiction and nonfiction dissolve, it’s important to think of the spaces in which consistent merit can bloom.
The essays in VHS & Why It’s Hard to Live are short enough to roll the dice on having the single turn or flat-line questioning not quite turn enough or not quite ask the right question. Neither “Thanks To Education” nor “First Time” are over one hundred words. If I’d read these fifteen years ago without the influence of social media, before I’d been conditioned to associate concision and wit with something thousands of people prove to me they can do all day every day, would I think of them as more successful? Is this type of writing a product of its time or vice versa?
This isn’t to say that these essays or any of the others in the book aren’t successful. “Thanks to Education” in particular lives in the same sort of mini zen-like territory Amy Hempel at her quickest or Richard Brautigan at his most earnest spent time traversing: self-awareness, guilt, distraction.
The entirety of “Thanks To Education”:
We studied handwriting in a class I took in college, but the only things I remember are that open descend- ers indicate sexual frustration, and writing that slants to the left means an obsession with the past.
You know, just the things that apply to me.
What we end up with is a book of wonderment containing spikes of full-blown investigation. VHS & Why It’s Hard to Live fills what gaps it may have with charm: the charismatic anxiety of worrying about the alienated losers, any alienated losers, in “VHS vs Beta,” the tumble-down innocence of comparing body discovery stories in “Biology Class.”
When Ryckman goes a bit deeper with the space she’s working in, the results are immediately and repeatedly rewarding. “Funeral Song” is a series of disjointed snaps that somehow add up. I get an idea of what Ryckman was trying to do all along, and I get it in a tiny space. The end is beyond clever, a moment of clarity that is so pure I can read it over and over with no diminishing returns.
There’s no formula to how the magic of this book works, though. What seems like a rule regarding length and space in one essay is contradicted by another. My least favorite here, a rambling leapfrog of details and semi-colons called “Virginia Woolf, Ill.” that I’m guessing is meant as homage to the writer in its title, is the longest in the book. Arguably the best essay in this collection, the multi-sectioned “My House Burned Down” that revolves around a central tragedy, is almost the same length. “My Death” is inconsequential babble that resembles a voicemail one might receive from a neurotic friend, but the aforementioned “Funeral Song” is of similar length and a pretty goddamn brilliant piece of realization.
(I have considered that, for all my pondering about Twitter and finite space and word count and on and on, that I like something or don’t, am either in the right headspace to consume a particular piece of art or am not. But that’s not why we read or write reviews, now, is it?)
From “Anne of Green Gables”:
In High School I aspired to be anorexic or bulimic, but the truth is I just wasn’t motivated enough. I would join a sport for a semester, basketball, gymnastics, soccer, track, but I’d quickly lose interest and find myself exactly where I’d begun: lying on the floor with a Smiths album on repeat while thinking about boys. It was the only activity I was able to dedicate myself to. And because my weight was really not the reason boys were not interested in me—it was likely a host of skin and personality flaws—I could safely misdirect my attention without accidentally fixing myself. I didn’t want to do the soul-searching or book-reading that would make me realize the person I really wanted to be, I just wanted to be thin. And then I wanted that to be enough.
As a look into another human’s life, the residual feelings of VHS & Why It’s Hard to Live resemble the terse, fitful structure and content inside it. These essays are travel-sized. They’re commercial breaks. For anyone who exists between a friend and a stranger, there’s maybe no other way to understand them. Thankfully, there are best moments to be had, times when I feel as if we’ve seen the ghost inside us all, together, as it flashes outside my body and yours, if only for an instant.
VHS & Why It’s Hard to Live, by Tatiana Ryckman. Zoo Cake Press. $10.00, paper.
Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays a Gibson Corvus and an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud instrumental rock band called Young Indian. You can find him online at ryanwernerwritesstuff.com and also @YeahWerner on Instagram, where you will be inundated with picture of comic books, indie lit releases/excerpts, professional wrestlers, and 1980s guitar ads.