It’s an interesting choice, to write a memoir so tightly focused on a single slice of time that it’s not just a coming-of-age story but a turning-fifteen story. In 1982 I was turning 17, finishing high school and starting university in St. John’s, while Jian Ghomeshi was finishing Grade 9 and starting Grade 10, crushing on an unattainable girl, adoring David Bowie, and trying to simultaneously stand out and fit in as an Iranian immigrant in whiter-than-white Thornhill, a Toronto suburb. So, my life experience is in some ways, chronologically at least, very close to his, while in other ways very far removed. This meant that for me 1982 had both the benefits of familiarity, particularly in its multitudinous pop culture references, and also the advantage of giving me a peek into a different life.
I find Jian Ghomeshi as a radio personality to be very polarizing: people either love him or hate him. I have always loved him, way back before he was the host of CBC’s Q to when he was in Moxy Fruvous, one of my favourite bands ever. I do sort of understand why some people don’t like his on-air persona though: much as I like him, there’s a feeling sometimes in both his interviewing and his humour that I can only describe as “trying too hard.” That same factor is on display in 1982 and sometimes kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to. Often, in this book, Ghomeshi is genuinely very funny; other times his humour just felt like he was trying too hard to be ironic or witty. I could have done without the short lists he compiled in virtually every chapter, as they didn’t add anything fresh or funny to what I’d just read.
Despite the occasional times where the humour fell flat (for me anyway), there was a lot to love about this book. Obviously Ghomeshi could have chosen to write a memoir about his whole life thus far, but while I would have loved reading about Moxy Fruvous, I admire the choice he made in focusing on one year. I doubt there are few years in anyone’s life as poignant, painful and full of emotion as the year they finish Grade 9 and start Grade 10, so it’s a perfect choice for a book that is primarily about identity, about the ways we fashion and refashion ourselves, sometimes in the image of our idols (like Bowie, in Ghomeshi’s case) and sometimes just in a desperate attempt to be unique. The hopeless crush, which I assume is part of most people’s adolescent experience and is perfectly depicted here, is really a part of that self-making: the shattering love you feel for the person of your dreams when you’re 14 has almost nothing to do with that actual person, and everything to do with who you aspire to be, how you see yourself, and how you want others to see you.
I said something earlier about pop-culture references but that’s really the wrong term here: this is not a story with pop-culture references scattered through it; it’s a story about a young person complete immersed in and interacting with popular culture. Several chapters take place during a single afternoon at a music festival, with reflections and memories interspersed throughout the sets played by various early ’80s bands. While Jian Ghomeshi’s 1982 musical tastes were considerably more edgy and avant-garde than mine (and, let’s face it, they probably still are), I share his fascination with the way popular music shapes both our identity and our memories. I could easily write a memoir structured around songs I was listening to at any given time in my life, so that aspect of the memoir really appealed to me.
For most of this book I wavered back and forth between thinking it was brilliant and thinking that some parts didn’t come off as well as the author probably hoped they would — although I read it quickly, with great interest and was engaged with the story throughout. What really sold the book for me, though, was the ending. It has, for me, the perfect ending: a moment that captures with crystal clarity the yearning, the hope, the self-absorption and yes, the sheer gut-wrenching stupidity of being fifteen.