Book World: Review of 'The Big Rewind' by the Onion's Nathan Rabin

By Daniel Mallory
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 19, 2009


A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture

By Nathan Rabin

Scribner. 342 pp. $25

For more than 20 years, the faux-news syndicate the Onion has satirized geopolitical dilemmas ("Bush on North Korea: 'We Must Invade Iraq' "); civic debates ("New Hampshire Passes Law Forcing Old People to Watch Gays Marry"); po-faced opinion ("Somebody Should Do Something About All the Problems"); and cross-eyed intellectualism ("Study Reveals: Babies Are Stupid"). Its online archives, at, are a storehouse of serrated irony. Its expertly produced video segments, aired on the Onion News Network, are disarmingly authentic. Its arts and entertainment section, the A.V. Club, is a shambles.

It's also the brainchild of Nathan Rabin, whose new memoir, "The Big Rewind," chronicles his febrile love affair with pop culture -- an obsession he regularly indulges in the A.V. Club. Nominally non-satirical, the section aims to commune with Onion readers, who in turn could easily mistake its crueler-than-thou hipster solipsism for parody. A few pop-culture artifacts (the Magnetic Fields, "Arrested Development," those fauxteurs Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson) send the A.V. writers cartwheeling, but for the most part they traffic in snark -- which, as David Denby observes in his book "Snark," "has zero interest in anything except the power to ridicule." Consider the diverse bureaus of the A.V. Club: the Hater blog, devoted to further exposing celebrities it decries as overexposed; I Watched This on Purpose, a masochistic catalogue of crimes against film; the Tolerability Index, which gauges "what we're barely putting up with this week" (exempting, of course, its own tone of entitled contempt). Acrid stuff.

While the parent publication can be provocative -- 10 years on, the 1999 Onion editorial "I'm Totally Psyched About This Abortion!" remains an effective pro-abortion-rights screed -- the paper's bratty stepchild takes cheap shots at marginal material, looking down its nose straight to its navel. As the A.V. Club's head writer -- its snarkitect, if you will -- Nathan Rabin has presided over this sprawl of toxic pith. Alas, the same issues that vex his journalism haunt "The Big Rewind," Rabin's fitfully involving, consistently insufferable "memoir brought to you by pop culture."

Abducted and abandoned at age 2 by his mother, Rabin suffered a grim adolescence fraught with poverty and psychological unease. Pop culture, he believes -- "the dizzying, maddening, wonderful world of entertainment" -- was his flotation device, so each of the book's 22 chapters accordingly cites a book, movie, album, etc., that "helped define the corresponding period of my development or provided a framework for me to better understand myself and the world around me."

A dubious gambit, not least because Rabin in thrall tends to gush: Quentin Tarantino "takes the art and trash he loves and makes it his own"; Pauline Kael "changed the way I viewed . . . art, movies, and music"; "J.D. Salinger," he intones, with all the insight of jacket copy, "understands the teenage psyche." The headline acts, ranging from "Apocalypse Now" to the Ben Folds power ballad "Brick," showcase Rabin's command of the zeitgeist but scarcely illuminate his narrative, which detours into a psychiatric ward, soundstage Hollywood and early Onion offices in Madison, Wis.

A cocksure stylist in the A.V. Club, Rabin second-guesses himself here, lumbering toward punch lines -- in a weak moment, he even transcribes an Arnold Schwarzenegger quip in dialect -- and pinballing between sarcasm and sincerity. "The Big Rewind," as detailed in the superfluous preface, is "my heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity(TM) in book form." That trademark symbol, hovering over "adversity" like a demon on the shoulder, stunts the impact of what precedes it: "As a child and teenager, pop culture was a life-affirming form of escape." Caveat lector -- is the author now in earnest? Or has he hoisted another elbow, angling for our ribs?

As it happens, vulnerability becomes Rabin. His reunion with his vagabond mother, who "seemed interested in me largely, if not exclusively, as an audience," is more profound than his analysis of "Reservoir Dogs." When he reflects on his Jewish identity, concluding that "Judaism will always be there for me even if I'm not always there for Judaism," he ignites a spark that gutters and dies as soon as he invokes the Beastie Boys.

"The Big Rewind," Rabin asserts, "tells my shaky life story through the sturdy prism of pop culture." Right words, wrong order: The story is sturdy; it's the prism that's shaky, blurring the author's vision. Far too much of this failed project is brought to you by pop culture; someday, perhaps, a better book may arrive courtesy of Nathan Rabin.

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.

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