If you’ve read either of my novellas, you might’ve guessed that I love multiverse stories, or any tale about alternate worlds and alternate selves. It’s the essential trope of the LitenVerse books. There’s something so satisfying queer about the multiverse: it takes as a given that the self is fluid and changeable, that we all contain multitudes.
Of course I’m thinking about this today because of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once swept the Oscars* (fuck yes!!!), but also I fell into a black hole of rewatching Stranger Things this winter. Taken together, the stories feel like polar opposite approaches to the same essential idea that there are other worlds, accessible through technology (handwavey) and magic (even more handwavey).
There are two alternate worlds in Stranger Things. The Upside Down is, essentially, a hell dimension, an evil mirror universe Hawkins. Evil things live there, and occasionally break through to the other alternate universe of Stranger Things, which is its oversaturated nostalgic Small 1980s Town.
Yes, I’d argue that nostalgia creates its own alternate universes. It’s a canon divergence of the past. Stranger Things’ appeal hinges on its inarguably charming cast, but also on a wildly reductive view of an objectively sucky decade. ST is a highlight reel of the best-in-hindsight bits of culture as viewed through white, aging, cis-het male Gen-Xers**. If it’s got a message or a theme beyond a vague “stand by your friends” or “the Cold War was…bad? But not as bad as the RUSSIANS,” you gotta sort through a lot of incoherent garbage to find it. The 80s of Stranger Things is vibes, set dressing, and soundtrack.
This kind of nostalgia is a trap, and its one that currently has its teeth fastened in all our necks.
On the one hand, nostalgia is a political project by fascists and autocrats to gain power through what Masha Gessen called “past-oriented politics,” a return to a mystical era of ascendency. Gessen, in this New Yorker interview, talks about nostalgia’s promise to alleviate the anxiety of uncertain futures, and particularly how that relates to political pushback against trans people.
That simplicity—women are women, men are men. There’s social and financial stability. Where relevant, there’s whiteness. There’s a comfortable and predictable future. That’s a message that says, We’re going to return you to a time when things weren’t scary, when things didn’t make you uncomfortable, when you didn’t fear that your kid was going to come home from school and tell you that they’re trans.***
On the other hand, future-sickness and nostalgia are present on the left as well, though it feels a little more toothless: analog horror and vaporwave and the return of Mom Jeans and Heroin Chic (barf), and of course, Stranger Things. Mark Fisher, writing about electronic music in the 00’s, talked about it in terms of “hauntology” — a phrase borrowed from Derrida to talk about this aesthetic, replicating the past because it’s mourning a promised future of prosperity that never arrived: “Nostalgia for all the futures that were lost when culture’s modernist impetus succumbed to the terminal temporality of postmodernity.”
One thing I loved so much about Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is that it presented this kind of nostalgia in sympathetic terms. Evelyn Wang is a failure in nearly everything she attempted to do, so the temptations to abscond to universes where her dreams came true – of being a famous singer, or just being unmarried and childless – are real. In the film, they’re presented in either soft-lit tones or saturated colors: precious or realer-than-real, and both infinitely more pleasing than Evelyn’s crowded apartment or the fluorescent lit scenes of the laundromat and the IRS office.
Our promised futures suck right now; IOUs for bags of flaming dogshit to be hurled directly at your face at some unspecified time. The present is unpleasant, and the future seems unimaginable. Jobu Tupaki, after her mind is fractured by the sheer possibility of the multiverse, puts everything on a bagel that will destroy the universe, because how else are you supposed to deal?
“Everything. All my hopes and dreams, my old report cards, every breed of dog, every last personal ad on craigslist. Sesame. Poppy seed. Salt. And it collapsed in on itself. Because, you see, when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this. The truth. “
“What is the truth?”
“Nothing matters…Feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life, it goes away. Sucked into a bagel.”
I think what I’m circling in this essay is this: that nostalgia and nihilism are inversions of each other. Easy ways to disengage from the present, but the alternatives that they engage with are empty. Stranger Things falls flat for me because every time a group of scrappy teens***** manage to fight back a hell dimension, it’s to return to a status quo that feels fake and irrelevant. It offers no insights about the past; no analysis or wisdom that might inform how we can move forward.
There’s a telling moment in the fourth season where the kids all realize that the Upside Down is stuck in the past, frozen in 1983 despite it now being 1986. Is it used as a moment of self-reflection or meta commentary, a little wink at the camera to say, Weird how hell is an empty place literally stuck in the past, huh?
No. It’s an excuse as to why a teen girl doesn’t have an arsenal in her bedroom, and then we move on.
But Everything Everywhere wades into this contradiction of nostalgia and nihilism, framing it in terms of generational cycles of trauma. And it doesn’t falter or waffle in trying to resolve it, doesn’t erase it. Like with everything else, it embraces ambivalence. All the possibilities of the multiverse don’t exist as an escape from the present, but as a labyrinthine path towards understanding it. And moreover: navigating it. Moving past it. Choosing to love and be kind and break cycles of violence. Embracing chaos and confusion over homogeneity and stillness. Like, yes, it's uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing to be here, confronted with a future full of consequences for our collective shitty choices; a future that feels so much more alienating than a rose-tinted view of the past. But we can't love something if we're not present for it, or not willing to be discomforted by it.
When I choose to see the good side of things, I'm not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It's how I've learned how to survive through everything... I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.
* I’m super side-eyeing Stephanie Hsu’s loss to Jamie Lee Curtis in their shared category. NOT because JLC didn’t put her entire ass into playing her role(s) or perform with anything less than aplomb and majesty, etc. But EEAAO is a Stephanie Hsu vehicle, and JLC wasn’t the one to make me cry until I was a hoarse, snotty mess.
** While I too think that Kate Bush could lead me out of a hell dimension, the pop culture in ST skews incredibly white, with nary a reference to Michael Jackson, Prince, or the entire genre of hiphop to be found. “But it’s Indiana!” some might say. Bitch, I grew up in Vermont, which is either The Whitest or the Second Whitest state in the country, depending on how you count it, and I still knew all the words to “Billie Jean” and “When Doves Cry.”
*** I don’t agree with everything Masha Gessen says in this interview**** but it’s probably a great article to send to people who are like “I wanna support trans people but…” because it breaks down what’s going on in really accessible language.
**** You all know that not all trans people have to agree with all other trans people about everything, right? Okay, moving on.
***** I love Winona Ryder, but I wish for less of her and Toxic-Masculinity-But-It’s-Fine Dad Cop in every season. The adult storylines in ST are so tortured.
There are a ton of other essays about Everything Everywhere All at Once, but here are two that resonated with me:
R.F. Kuang: Everything Everywhere All at Once Is the Non-Diaspora Diaspora Story We’ve Been Waiting For
Linda Codega: On Being Trans and Watching Everything Everywhere All at Once
I read exactly zero essays about Stranger Things while writing this, but if you’ve got good ones, please let me know?
My next Horror Writing Class for Atlas Obscura starts this Saturday. This will be the last class I'm teaching for a couple months, probably, so please sign up if you're interested!
If you're in NYC, I'll be in conversation with Ness Brown at Astoria Bookshop on April 4th, celebrating the release of their debut SF-horror novella The Scourge Between Stars.
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