Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where she spent most of her time putting on shows in her parents’ garage, studying TV Guide, devouring Sweet Valley High books, and memorizing every note of every George Michael song. This finally came in handy when she got a job at Entertainment Weekly, where she worked for a decade. She’s now the TV columnist for BBC Culture and also writes for several other publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York‘s Vulture, The Verge, and Dame. She’s the author of the New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything and a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. She now lives in Manhattan.

Recently I asked Armstrong about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m currently reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s long been on my reading list, but I’m sure on some level I’ve been putting it off for years. I didn’t need to be convinced that it’s great. I’ve taught excerpts from it in my creative writing classes, and the writing is beautiful. But my dad is a Vietnam veteran, and part of me always resists anything that documents his experience in a real way. I knew that reading the whole book would put me right in it.

Strangely, I find myself reading this amid the turmoil of releasing a book. A book about a TV show, called Seinfeldia. A “book about nothing,” as many people, including my dad, have joked. They are joking, of course, mostly. They respect what I do, even if what I do is write about TV shows. Still, it feels a lot like nothing up against the real-ish story of a Vietnam veteran’s experience at war. I like that. It’s grounding. It reminds me that I’m not saving lives here. I’m not taking lives here. Maybe I’ll make a life a little more fun for a while. That’s something, but not everything.

Everyone told me how fantastic The Things They Carried is. I believed them, but I wasn’t prepared for the meta-narrative. The book is labeled as a novel, and it’s about the experiences of a soldier in Vietnam … named Tim O’Brien. As the book progresses, he convinces you that it’s definitely about his real experience. Definitely, mostly, sort-of. He writes entire chapters about the unreliability of war narratives. He hits you with a story about a soldier not named Tim O’Brien and his regret over not being able to save a friend’s life; then, in the next chapter, he explains that he combined his friend’s story with his own. He was the one who couldn’t save that friend’s life. He just wasn’t ready to tell it that way yet.

Seinfeld actually played in this territory, too. Almost every episode was based on some little frustration of daily life experienced by one of the writers. An entire season-long arc told the story of Seinfeld’s real-life conception as the characters Jerry and George pitch their own sitcom. The sitcom-within-a-sitcom, however, fails. Seinfeld very much did not.

It turns out that in the end, storytelling is storytelling, and all storytellers are obsessed with storytelling. You could tell real stories about war, or fictionalized stories about a war you experienced. You could tell silly stories about everyday life, making them funnier and crazier and somehow in the process validating Seinfeld viewers’ own experiences with everyday life.

Life is Seinfeld. Life is The Things They Carried. It’s all kind-of nuts when you realize that.
Visit Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's website.

My Book, The Movie: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Seinfeldia.

--Marshal Zeringue