Sean was the kind of kid that life happened to: alone, quiet, but determined. High school changed him, college broke him, and love saved him. A thought-provoking story set in equal parts of learning and life, Amnesic Nostalgia is unlike anything else you’ll find. We’re not traditional; it only makes sense that our novels aren’t, either.
Amnesic Nostalgia is the brilliant debut novel by Zea Miller that challenges accepted notions of the relevancy of our memories and our past in shaping our identity. Mr. Miller writes this story with such eloquence, intelligence and wisdom that it is unbelievable to me that this is his first published work. The story itself is a simple and quiet one, yet his writing of it is so intricate and rich that the words dance.
The central premise of this novel is the notion that nostalgia itself is a condition of amnesia, that it is a passive action of remembrance of a better or different past than what actually was. Admittedly inspired, in part, by Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), a novel that examines involuntary memory, Miller explains on his web page that in writing this story he “wanted to connect memory with identity, particularly with forgetting and revisionism. Since we are defined by our ‘remembrance of things past,’ identity is fluid …” and that “… The past is subject to memories you never had yet, remember all the same, or amnesic nostalgia.”
Amnesic Nostalgia follows the life and experiences of Sean Gates, a gay teenager living in rural Michigan over the span of a number of years from high school, to college in Flint, Michigan, and then to Paris as a young adult. The novel is divided into three parts demarcating Sean’s journey, starting with “Beginnings No Longer Matter” (high school), “To Those Who Have Been Different” (college) and “For We Never Are Alone” (Paris).
Sean’s story is not necessarily a unique one in the sense that he encounters many of the things, both good and bad, that a young gay man will likely experience in his life. What is unique about this story is the level of relevance that Sean ascribes to some of these experiences in allowing them to define who and what he is. It is not that Sean is unaffected by the events of his life, he is. But he does not afford them and the past an important enough place in his life to allow them to dictate his identity, his belief in himself and his place in the world. Sean doesn’t merely persevere the negative experiences of his life, nor does he necessarily fall victim to them. He simply does not allow his past to hinder his future. In this sense, the character of Sean and his interaction with and reaction to the people and events around him, offer the reader an alternative way of thinking and being, a liberation of sorts, as Sean looks forward and not back. In Sean, Miller has written an incredibly compassionate and intelligent character that is not readily forgettable.
The author both tells Sean’s story, his feelings, actions and reactions and at the same time takes the writing to an altogether different level of critical thinking. In this respect, Amnesic Nostalgia was both an emotional and cerebral reading experience for me. I raged against the hatred, violence and injustices inflicted upon Sean and rejoiced in his courage, irreverence and resilience in response to the homophobia surrounding him. Equally, I found myself stepping away from these emotional responses to critically debate within myself the question of the relevancy, or irrelevancy, of our memories and past in defining us.
In terms of quality, Miller’s writing whether in respect of prose, narration, characterization, dialogue or symbolism, is exceptional and with an outstanding command of the English language his writing offers possibilities for a conceptual paradigm shift in gay literature, and by extension a new conceptual language to go with it. I offer two of my favorite passages in the book. The first is the opening passage of the Prologue in which Miller introduces the symbol of the closet and one that he revisits throughout the book to detail Sean’s evolving relationship with (his) homosexuality. The latter is the opening passage to “For We Never Are Alone” in which I feel Miller best encapsulates the central theme in Amnesic Nostalgia and the irrelevance of our past in shaping our identity and therefore our future.
“Children are instinctually afraid of closets in the dark of night, a portent of evil lurking in the background of shadows. It isn’t an irrational fear, for monsters come from closets. It’s not something easily forgotten, or a fate yet known. As young adults, some of them venture into their closets, some come out. Sean danced with his.”
“Points of embarkation have always been scarier than the actual leaving of them, for destinations hold a measure of resolute acceptance in their finality, or an impatience in their transience. We’re not afraid of the journey – we’re afraid of leaving, because life once left behind is never the same, return or not. We’re not afraid of the future a new destination offers – we’re afraid of outliving our past. In time, our memory doesn’t betray us, our past does, for it changes as we do. We can no more accurately remember our past than we can see our future. Our embrace of a false past than a true one blindingly binds us to the unknown, for when our memories are changed, so too is their import, offering us chances anew.”
This is an absolutely phenomenal novel and easily among the best of the best of books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite a while. There aren’t enough stars in the Rainbow Reviews rating system to rate this book and five stars certainly fall short. I not only highly recommend Amnesic Nostalgia by Zea Miller, but truly believe that it should be mandatory reading for all: male and female, young and old, queer and straight. And if Mr. Miller is correct in his observations of a generation denied, then said generation is no longer starved of voice.
Amnesic Nostalgia by Zea Miller is available at Amazon.
NOTE: This review was originally published online by Rainbow Reviews.