:: Article

If Monet Wrote a Punk Memoir

By Katharine Coldiron.

Jessica Hopper, Night Moves (University of Texas Press, 2018)

You won’t finish Night Moves with a clear idea of how Jessica Hopper’s life progressed during the years the book covers (2004-2009). You won’t know exactly how many music shows she went to, what she did for a living, or whether she was in a love relationship during that time. What you will get is texture, and impressions, and exceptional one-liners on a multitude of subjects. (“Living in a city of drunk jocks will keep you punk forever.”) You’ll understand the value of partying sober and bicycling everywhere, the special and necessary quality of friendship between people who can happily do nothing together, and the unique passion a person can feel for a city.

Hopper is an experienced writer. She has been writing about music for nearly 30 years, beginning when she was a teenager. She has published two previous books (The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic and The Girls’ Guide to Rocking) and written cover stories for SPIN and the Chicago Reader. She has been an editor at Pitchfork and at MTV News, among other places. Night Moves reflects this extensive experience with breath-taking detail, specificity of objects and noises, and perfectly chosen adjectives. Plus, the language is so sharp, every phrase razored down to maximum efficiency, that it’s clear Hopper has been editing herself for a long, long time: “JR brought some esoteric Turkish disco, I brought a Zep/Metallica CD I burned, and since we roll driver’s choice, my choice prevailed.”

However, this is not a journalistic book, nor is it like most other memoirs on the shelf. It is, rather, strongly reminiscent of Bruja, Wendy C. Ortiz’s 2017 “dreamoir,” which compiles her dreams over the course of a few years. The reader gathers information about Ortiz’s experiences, values, ideas, and imagination through her dreams, but learns almost no ordinary information about her life. As Bruja is an intimate glimpse of Ortiz, Night Moves is an intimate glimpse of Hopper, but both offer that look through a blurred lens—you get the outline of the body and the implication of flesh, but don’t know how tall the person is, how many fingers she has, whether she’s blond or brunette.

We went to Ben and Logan’s dance night at the neighbourhood bar but did not dance… Someone barfed in or around a trash can up front, so we sat in the back, and I wound up in the same booth on the same side that somehow I always get stuck in, the one with the perfect side view of the men’s room urinal. And Miles wonders why I don’t go out.

It’s the middle-to-ass end of the worst part of the winter. The part where you kind of just give up.

Any suggestion that Night Moves is incomplete relies on the assumption that memoir is explication, that one will know as much as possible about a person, or about a specific period or adventure in her life, after reading her book about herself. Yet this simply isn’t true. Memoir comes in many forms, and the genre can be stretched to make room for endless varieties, more than have yet been explored. For her part, Hopper has written an impressionistic memoir, a series of snippets that explore her life in Chicago over the course of about five years. It is still a memoir. Unconventional, but the real thing.

What the reader expects is hardly the point, and Hopper knows it. She presents the book without apology; even in her “this is memory, not perfection, and names may be changed” disclaimer, she makes a joke about drugs. And good for her. Although the book is meant to be taken seriously (as all good writing ought to be, no matter its provenance or subject matter), nothing in it is solemn. It depicts fun without frippery: a number of years of a life spent in pursuit of good experiences.

Sense and feeling are the essence of this book. There’s no arc or plot to Hopper’s recollections; it’s all voice and anecdote, arranged achronologically. She goes to a lot of shows, hangs out with her friends, encounters interesting people in Chicago, and notes down “Missed Connections” columns both existing and hypothetical. And that’s about all. It’s as if she’s telling tales at 3:00 am over beers, or speaking to a near-empty room at an open-mike event. But the writing is so damn good.

Shirtless Wrigleyville bros in wraparound Oakleys yelling like they owned the world; frost ‘n’ tip ladies and dudes in major vehicles were out in surplus numbers. Also, an unnamed emo celebrity driving a black H3. Exiting the Walgreens, a young lady with a skaterbangs mohawk walked past me and smiled a huge giddy smile. Her shirt read “I FUCKED YOUR BOYFRIEND” in Olde English lettering. Sometimes I feel like the world is coarsening faster than I can handle.

I read aloud to my husband an entire two-page section about a weird harassing boy handing out religious tracts who “then, mysteriously, turned and walked into a shoe store that only sells women’s high heels.” I have only ever visited the city, but I’ll take Hopper’s word for it that “Chicago is so Chicago—it’s like getting mashed in the face with a volume of Sandburg poems.” And though my life is comparatively dull and musicless, I totally agree with her when she says that “It’s nice to feel the skilled caress of a DJ who cuts the hit by the bridge and gets you to the next song, better than the last.”

I loved Night Moves. It’s an enlivening, heartening read, wriggling with its own vitality as irresistibly as On the Road. However, it’s not quite clear who the intended audience is. Despite its well-whittled prose, it reads like a diary—that is, recorded for an audience with built-in knowledge of all the friends, locations, and circumstances it regards. It contains the same kind of blurry intimacy frequently seen in published diaries: a personality may unspool completely on the page, but some practical details are bound to go unrecorded. For the most part, the friends Hopper mentions tend not to distinguish themselves. Their personalities are not well-defined because the audience, whoever that may be, does not need that information. This underdevelopment can be assigned, not to Hopper’s lack of experience as a memoirist, but to her keen instinct about what would matter, and what would not, for the book’s overall effect. In the end, Hopper’s friends don’t have to spring to life on the page. What must come to life is Chicago.

In fact, perhaps the audience is Chicago—not the individual literate residents, but the city itself, a creature with its own large sentience. Whatever underlying forces make a city a city, a collective identity that its residents can feel and comprehend, Hopper has invoked in her book. “I am seven kinds of in love with Chicago, a love so powerful it blots out everything else.” (Since I am equally in love with Los Angeles, the city Hopper rejects in this book, I understand.)

Maybe this is punk memoir, immediate and intense and free of hampering traditions. Maybe that’s why Night Moves is so unrecognizable as a genuine memoir, so much more recognizable as feeling and sensation. As if she’s dabbing bits of pigment onto a canvas that can only look beautiful from far away: practical detail set aside in the name of art, and a thousand shades of colour between each dot of paint.


Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator. Full disclosure at kcoldiron.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 17th, 2018.