I knew the minute I finished Justin Taylor’s “Creek Theses”, his piece on seminal teen drama Dawson’s Creek that appeared in The Paris Review late last month, that I would need to read Little Boxes. Taylor’s essay is one of twelve in the collection, which aims to explore perhaps the defining element of the 80s and 90s cultural zeitgeist: television. From Twin Peaks to Daria, Little Boxes is filled to the brim with sharp writing that is at once critical and utterly personal, penned by a diverse list of writers.
I looked forward to Danielle Evans’ exploration of Daria and Edan Lepucki’s look at David Lynch’s surreal suburban thriller Twin Peaks, but what I found myself most enthralled by were the essays that touched on shows I had never seen, or even heard of. Because of Elana Passarello’s discussion of Northern Exposure in the book’s first essay, I found myself searching all the streaming sites hoping to find this odd little show about a small town in the pacific northwest with an apparently excellent soundtrack that had been gruesomely butchered, the original songs replaced by generic stand-ins (I was particularly excited to read Passarello’s essay on this, because I too have felt this act of betrayal: they did the same thing when Queer As Folk made the leap to Netflix). T Clutch Fleischmann’s jarring essay on the series of French soft-core sci-fi porn, Emmanuelle, is as fascinating as it is disruptive, the shock of the erotic in an otherwise tame essay collection about beloved soap operas and teen dramas. It is a credit to the collection’s myriad of writers and their styles that I found myself enraptured by words about shows I’d never seen and characters I’d never met. After all, I read and re-read Justin Taylor’s piece without ever having watched a single episode of Dawson’s Creek.
A few other essays shine particularly bright: V. V. Ganeshananthan’s “Lovewatch, Hatewatch” takes The Cosby Show head-on: “It’s impossible now, watching this show, to see it without the invisible but insistent subtitles of my jaded heart. When Cliff Huxtable whirls Clair around, I imagine a chorus of women next to her.” In “Very Special Episodes”, Rumaan Alam’s memory growing up with “very special episodes” as instructive moral tales forced on children masquerading as their favorite television shows is both funny and bleak, remembering Scott Scanlon’s death on Beverly Hills 90210 when he accidentally shot himself, or a child abduction plot on Diff’rent Strokes, Also satisfying were the ways in which the essays – all vastly different in style and subject – tied themselves to one another; at least three of them touch on the “very special episode”, in addition to Alam’s, a phenomenon I admit I never gave much thought.
Little Boxes is a short read (the full book is about 120 pages, with each essay averaging around 10 pages) that feels much bigger, more expansive, because how expertly it contains the worlds it seeks to explore. If, like me, you haven’t revisited Twin Peaks or Lawndale in a few years, Little Boxes will take you back. •
Little Boxes is out from Coffee House Press on 8/29. Pre-order it on Amazon.