Interview: A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin

A&E gets psychological with the pop-culture memoirist

PHOTO COURTESY SCRIBNER

Ashley Goetz

PHOTO COURTESY SCRIBNER

Author Nathan Rabin doesnâÄôt write for the satirical section of The Onion , but that doesnâÄôt mean the head writer of the publication’s A.V. Club isnâÄôt funny. In his new memoir, âÄúThe Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture ,âÄù he writes, âÄúIâÄôve not only trademarked the phrase âÄòheartwarming tale of triumph over adversityâÑ¢âÄô; IâÄôve also trademarked the concept of triumphing over adversity in a heartwarming fashion.âÄù He does so while snickering at earning the nickname âÄúRude BoyâÄù and feeling oddly accomplished by being labeled âÄúThe Angriest Guy in the mental hospital circuit.âÄù His teen angst, unlike the faux Nirvana fans discussed in his book, was brought on by real life hardships, including broken homes, abortions and name brand snack cherishing poverty. But RabinâÄôs rare talent for self-distance combined with his culture junky knack for detail make him one of the only writers whose description of an admittedly false suicide attempt makes sure to point out that icy grape Kool-Aid was involved. RabinâÄôs chapters each describe a period in his life by relating it to its reflection in pop culture. The first chapter connects his Jewish upbringing to the entertainment industry by not so subtly suggesting Jews âÄúfamously run the media,âÄù using Hasidic rapper Matisyahu as the phenomenonâÄôs bizarro precipitation point. Sometimes it works, sometimes coming back to the pop object in question in the last sentence of a chapter starts to feel a bit canned. RabinâÄôs prose is anything but minimalistic. Packing pop culture references into the corners of as many clauses as possible and a âÄúSimpsonsâÄù reference into every chapter, anyone who has grown up in America or just plain known someone crazy will find something in which to relate. A&E chatted with Rabin in eager hopes of bonding over pop culture journalism nerddom. Do you get called âÄúthe next Chuck Klosterman âÄù a lot? My editor is Chuck KlostermanâÄôs editor and my agent is Chuck KlostermanâÄôs agent and my publisher is Chuck KlostermanâÄôs publisher. There is a definite connection there. I think people wanted to read this [his memoir] because Klosterman proved there was a market for this kind of book; he created a niche, the pop culture memoir. Pop culture is a very communal thing and a common language people share and a way of bonding and affirming your identity and finding like minded souls. I don’t think itâÄôd be fair to call me the next Klosterman though. Mr. Klosterman is still relevant himself. I think if heâÄôs the low-culture pioneer, your story has taken that to the next level. Your whole story, in a way, symbolizes that the high-culture low-culture divide is a thing of the past. I think a lot of it has to do with technology and the fact that DVDs make everything available on the internet. It creates a culture where everything is on similar footing. When I was writing this I was a little, âÄòYeah itâÄôs a pop culture memoir and people are expecting half cultural criticism, half memoir.âÄô ItâÄôs a context and a framework, a jumping off point. My education was going to movies and working at a video store. There was not this delineation between high art and low art. How did you transform from âÄúthe angriest man in the mental hospital circuitâÄù into the âÄúmoderately likeable gay everymanâÄù [his description by focus groups]? When I was in the mental hospital, I was so angry there came a point where my spirit was broken. I thought, âÄúI need to get out of this place and if that entails following rules and being part of the system, IâÄôm willing to make that sacrifice.âÄù I thought of it as the compromise of adulthood, that you swallow your anger and swallow your rage. I grew up very poor, with nothing. I never had the luxury of being a dick or an asshole after a certain point. Also, I had a certain amount of success and I felt comfortable and safe and secure. There was a passage when I was talking about the mental hospital and I wrote that I was thinking very vividly when showering and crying, âÄúAnything that I accomplish from this point on will mean more because it came from this personal abyss, this nadir.âÄù You seem to describe a lot of people in your life with an absence of judgment, like Noah, the kid who âÄúboffed the wallâÄù at night. Do you think writing helps you find empathy for people? Totally. The memoirs that IâÄôve read when people hold grudges or theyâÄôre bitter, it seems like it diminishes the writer more than the person theyâÄôre writing about. When theyâÄôre writing mockingly and belittlingly and about a co-worker, I just start empathizing with the co-worker. I think a lot of it is IâÄôm worried that people will judge me and a lot of people do. IâÄôm a big believer in forgiving and empathizing. The older I get, the more I understand where people are coming from. I love all the people I write about âÄî Noah, we were all fucked up kids and we had all these traumas. We did these creepy acting out sorts of things. Did you invent the word âÄúromasochist?âÄù I did. ThatâÄôs another thing, when I was writing this book I didnâÄôt know if IâÄôd have an opportunity to write another, so I wanted to put everything in there. I erred on the side of excessive with length and got a little cutesy sometimes. Yeah, a lot of people have that idea that theyâÄôre going to come through on the other side but it ends badly. But you have this hope and this sense of romanticism and masochism. As a film critic, do you ever think that the majority of films have simply become impossible to criticize, just because they take so few chances? I find something really interesting about every film I see, even if itâÄôs formulaic. I think formulas and clichés are interesting in themselves. There was a great Onion article a while back where a studio sadistically threatens to make âÄúCoyote Ugly 2,âÄù âÄúWeâÄôre going to put a dump truck of money in, until you canâÄôt say no.âÄù Why did The OnionâÄôs Decider websites suddenly get re-branded as A.V. Club? Was the Decider name not working out? It is hard to launch a new product in this market, which is terrible. I guess eight or nine years ago there was an effort to establish The Onion and A.V. Club as separate brands. I remember thinking at the time, âÄúThatâÄôs [expletive] insane. WeâÄôre going to try and distance ourselves?âÄù It reminded me of 2000, when Al Gore was like, âÄúI donâÄôt want to be associated with Bill Clinton .âÄù It backfired and he lost. They realized we have something strong with the A.V. Club and we were separating ourselves from that to launch something at a scary time. For more film and literary talk with Rabin, check out the A&E blog.