Choose Your Own Adventure. Two Books or Two Books in One?

By Briana Avenia-Tapper

April 7, 2023

Choose Your Own Adventure. Two Books or Two Books in One?

Typical of the Times: Growing Up in the Culture of Spectacle / What Was the Question Again? by Jaime Clarke

In Moscow, where I taught English in 2001, Americans were rare. This meant we enjoyed a certain celebrity. I was often the first American my students met. At least, that’s what they told me. But not Yulia. I was Yulia’s second American. When I explained to her, over a hot bowl of schi in her mother’s kitchen, that I dreamed of being a famous actress someday, she informed me this is exactly what her first American had said. “Do all Americans want to be actors?” she wondered.

At the time, I thought that the confluence of Americanness and desire for fame was a coincidence. But since reading Typical of the Times / What Was the Question? by Jamie Clarke, I’ve been wondering about causal links between my early thespian ambitions and the culture in which I was raised. Maybe there is something about our materialism, individualism, arrogance, and transience that makes us Americans lonely and longing to belong. What if this loneliness and longing to belong makes Americans focused more on fame than their counterparts in other countries? Like most people, we want to be special, to be known, to be loved. Jamie Clarke’s experimental coming-of-age memoir explores this question of notoriety, perhaps unique to American identity.

One cover of this unusual book displays the title Typical of the Times. However, this text peters out into blank space two-thirds of the way through the book. After Typical of the Times concludes, there is a page on Clarke’s biography and praise for several of his previous novels. Then, there’s an announcement that the protagonist of Clarke’s novels is named Charlie Martens. The rest of the book, What Was the Question Again?, about a third, consists of a text that Jamie Clarke has chosen to attribute to Charlie Martens.

Sound confusing? Not if you read it in one direction, turn it over, then read it in the other direction. It’s just not clear which end to begin with. I was asked to review Typical of the Times. So I began with that one and cannot unsee it as the primary story. I can’t shake the sense that What Was the Question Again? is the ending for Typical of the Times. However, I wonder how my understanding and impression of the book as a whole might have changed if the initial order of my reading had been reversed.

Typical of the Times is a story about a boy growing up, about a young man moving from Phoenix, Arizona, to New York City, about a writer learning to write. It is about belonging and becoming in a society that overemphasizes the importance of media, fame, social class, and the connection between our individual and collective unconscious. Clarke begins with his late childhood and teen years. He remembers girlfriends, teachers, jobs, concerts, publications, a brief and ill-fated stint on a fishing boat in Alaska, his low-residency masters in creative writing at Bennington, and his eventual move to New York where he works in publishing, sleeps on friends’ couches, and writes. Typical of the Times ends when Clarke publishes his first novel, and Mr. Rogers—that icon of American childhood—airs his final episodes.

His is not a new story. In fact, it’s a story that constantly references and retells many old and familiar stories. With obsessive repetition, Clarke returns again and again to events from the news of his youth, to famous people, to famous people doing or enduring terrible things. The O.J. Simpson trial, Pee-wee Herman’s arrest for masturbating in a theater, the overdose death of half of Milli Vanilli, Rodney King’s beating, Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress—all this and more appear in the tale of Clarke’s youth. The constant intertwining of events in the narrator’s life with events he learned about on TV underscores Clarke’s point that our individual minds are shaped by our shared, often media-driven narratives.

The book’s epigraph is a quotation from Haruki Murakami: “Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked.” Typical of the Times is an exploration of that idea.

Clarke’s media motif shows how our minds are cultural products. His most compelling use of the motif may be positioning pop culture as a mirror for his emotional reality. For example, when Bloomsbury is poised to make an offer on his first novel, Clarke tells us about the soaring ratings of the reality show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, creating a sense of muted elation, his thrill filtered through pop culture. In that moment, we feel his triumph, but also his separation from it. When he runs out of money in New York and leaves to stay in a friend’s basement in Boston, he tells us about Jeff Buckley drowning and about a judge ruling against Joe Camel ads.

As he goes, we feel Clarke’s sense of loss regarding the city he loves, but not directly. This use of popular media to evoke the experience of that loss creates a sense of dissociation that I found uncomfortable, but also insightful and unique. 

Clarke launches Typical of the Times—its prose simultaneously urgent and meandering—by stressing from the very first page an off-hand reference to the 1984 shooting that killed twenty-one people in a San Diego McDonald’s; then, the widespread fear that Tylenol had been poisoned; then, his family’s move from Rapid City to Phoenix; then, a reflection on the “master-planned” “geometric marvel” of Phoenix’s streets. These ideas, events from his personal life and stories he hears in the news, are strung together in a single, unbroken sentence, an utterance intense and rambling.

When I say “unbroken,” I mean unbroken—there is no ending punctuation anywhere in Typical of the Times. One idea disappears into the next, objects becoming subjects as we read, connections so multifaceted that they cannot be contained within a single declaration or interrogative. For example, about the move to Phoenix, Clarke admonishes himself to

remember all the new names easier to make friends if you seemed like you were always there call out someone’s name make them feel known so that you can be too first calling attention to yourself in some way that wasn’t too obvious was always the next step not like ozzy and the dove or lawn chair larry in montana it was reading the most books and winning lunch with your teacher . . .

The stream-of-consciousness style evokes the author swimming in a swirling vat of ideas or, perhaps, floundering in our cultural milieu.

Reading his prose reminds me of conversations with a child, in which the needs and prior knowledge of the interlocutor are often irrelevant to the speaker. My young daughter begins talking to me after several utterances have already been made inside her head, speaking as though I, too, have heard the beginning. In these interactions, I am left scrambling to put the bits together to make enough sense that I can respond. I attribute this behavior to the narcissism of youth, the way children are still learning that others cannot see inside their head. Clarke’s choice to forgo ending punctuation, combined with his purposefully linking multiple ideas together into chaotic, looping reflections, evokes this kind of youthful narcissism. The text made me feel as though I was inside a child’s brain.

Sentences are exclamations (Hurray!), commands (Go away!), declarations (I want to be famous.), or interrogatives (Why do people hurt each other?) To make these commands, declarations, and inquiries implies a positionality, the sense that the speaker or writer has a place to stand, a starting point from which he or she can assert his belief about the world or question someone else’s. Complete declarative sentences bounded by the finality of ending punctuation suggest a narrator who is grown and whole enough to plant both feet and make a claim.

In this way, Typical of the Times is a text whose narrator has not yet found solid ground; he seems to be floating on the edges of his life. For a substantial section of the story, he lives with no rental lease or his own bed. Again, he is a child who was “a new kid yet again after being new again and again and again memories in boxes.” The story morphs into one about a teen who feels “like a fish out of water,” living a “surface life,” and about a young adult who relates to a sense of “being on the outside looking in.”

In addition to the stream-of-consciousness, punctuation-less style, Clarke uses the second person throughout Typical of the Times. The second person is usually employed to make a story feel immediate, to create the sense that the reader is experiencing the events described in the text. However, in Typical of the Times, Clarke combines the second person with a distinct lack of embodied experience and with the aforementioned narcissism. In this context, the second person becomes alienating. Because most scenes lack immersive sensory detail, the frequent use of “you” is distancing, holding the reader at arm’s length.

As I say, Typical of the Times takes up two-thirds of the whole. What Was the Question?, the other book, features the fictional narrator Charlie Martens, perhaps a faux Clarke, who is funnier than Clarke. Martens’s voice also feels older—which is good and bad. His story and its style are more conventional than Clarke’s in Typical of the Times. The prose in the latter is more constrained by literary precedent, less experimental, and, as a result, easier to read.

One amusing tic is Martens’s distaste for people he calls “Magnolias.” The narrator manages to turn, effortlessly and endearingly, Magnolias into a shorthand for “the annoyingly pretentious,” using this insult to disparage groups of people repeatedly.

There are links between the two texts. Both revolve around similar themes—fame in particular, the connection between our individual and collective consciousness, but also social class, writing, legacy, mortality. Both explore urban environments, Phoenix, Arizona, and New York City. Both narrators are shaped by early experiences, which, common for novelists and their protagonists, may be a commentary on the hazy line between truth and fiction. After Clarke describes a childhood of moving time and again, Martens shows himself as someone who has “lost the sinuous connection to the everyday human condition that binds people together.”

The two texts use different tenses. The majority of Typical of the Times is written in the present while What Was the Question Again? is written in the past. The novelist Ann Beattie writes that the use of present tense can make writing “cinematic, like a camera,” and this effect is illustrated nicely in Typical of the Times. Its cinematic quality accentuates the sense of being outside looking in and serves as a link between his experimental form and its other-focused content. Reading it feels like watching action unfold on a screen while the text also repeatedly explores different ways our lives are intertwined with and constructed from what we watch on screens.

What Was the Question Again? does important work of its own for the book as a whole, however, because Martens’ adult perspective emphasizes deep interiority and for emphatic statements and pointed questions. The themes and arguments wandering through Typical of the Times become more explicit and easier to chew on than those in What Was the Question Again? It is Martens who ultimately names the functions of Clarke’s obsession with celebrity violence and death. That author describes his society as one where “we have to overlook a lot of stuff to merely function.”

We get spooked when tragedy befalls those who lead quote-unquote charmed lives. It confirms our vulnerability, that we’re out here on our own, without the advantage of wealth or pedigree, and that more likely than not we won’t escape tragedy.

Typical of the Times / What Was the Question Again? is a book composed of two complementary stories that tackle similar themes, both exploring the idea that our individual experience is shaped by the media we consume. Both texts are stories about alienated narrators who grew up in an alienating society. Putting the two texts together like this feels especially intentional.


Typical of the Times: Growing Up in the Culture of Spectacle / What Was the Question Again? by Jaime Clarke
Roundabout Press
$15.95 Paperback | Buy Now


Briana Avenia-Tapper serves as a profiles editor at Literary Mama and creative nonfiction reader at Longleaf Review. Her work is published or forthcoming in Tahoma Literary ReviewBarrelhouse, Pigeon PagesChicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is currently revising her first memoir, Carrying Heavy Things: Babies, Backpacks, and Bolsheviks, a book about birth, control, and birth control.

Keywords: book review
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