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Like many anthologies, Bring the Noise— compiled by editors of D.C.-based literary magazine Barrelhouse—is all over the place. But on one important point it’s consistent: It insists that we no longer live in an era when critical authority comes from presuming to speak for an entire culture. Today, a critic’s power comes from an ability to fully integrate one’s own experience with the movie or record or TV show at hand. The essays in a book like 1979’s Stranded, whose spirit Bring the Noise evokes, used the “desert island discs” concept to project a critic’s impressions outward; the collection celebrated the personal essay that spoke for everybody. Bring the Noise’s essays invert this notion. Its writers reshape cultural touchstones until they take the form of exactly one person, the author.
As Matt Sailor puts it in his essay on the 1985 film Return to Oz, “greatness must be measured not by technique, deep focus, and the meticulous placement of the camera, but by the extent to which a story becomes a part of your dreams.” Don’t buy it? Me neither, at least not always. Steve Kistulentz’s touching essay about his father, “Home From the War,” isn’t improved for conjoining his family’s history with the Tom Selleck action series Magnum, P.I. Kistulentz’s efforts to find poignancy in the show’s plotting only make the series look more contrived when set against his own life. Pop culture has its limits as sources of self-revelation; serious writing about the facts of life likely won’t persuasively integrate The Facts of Life.
Yet Bring the Noise’s essayists successfully bridge the personal and the cultural more often than not, and in some remarkable ways. In “Irish on Both Sides,” Tom Williams describes discovering how Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott was biracial just like him, and what follows is a kind of hero’s journey into finding his identity—ironically, through a rock star who obscured it. Similarly, W. Todd Kaneko’s “Babyfaces” artfully merges his childhood obsession with pro wrestling with his Asian-American background. Watching a Samoan tag-team amble through a stadium crowd, he’s both contemptuous of the bad-news stereotype they represent and awed by their power. The piece is formatted like an essay outline, which stresses the notion that identity keeps shifting—Kaneko, like a wrestling story arc, is forever a work in progress.
In Leslie Jill Patterson’s “We Know the Drill,” this genre of writing has a masterpiece, a study of sitcom-husband tropes that interweaves personal stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, cannily exposing TV’s failures at cultural instruction where it’s most necessary. “Drill” is emblematic of the most expert pieces in this collection, which foreground the personal without being narcissistic. That’s a liberating idea for the cultural essay—criticism that makes art its starting point but not its destination. So when you wind up on that desert island, you won’t need to worry about electricity and lugging around devices. All you have to bring is you.