'The Nineties: A Book' by Chuck Klosterman
'The past is a mental junkyard, filled with memories no one remembers.'—Review #186
The 1990s began 32 years ago, and it makes me sick thinking about it. It was the decade of my youth, when I went to high school and college. High school started three decades ago; God, it’s terrible. I want to walk into the ocean, but instead I will tell you about ‘The Nineties’ by Chuck Klosterman, a recently released overview of the decade. Donna gave me the book as a birthday gift and presented it as a fun walk down memory lane, which it is, but it’s also a disturbing reminder that time is relentless, that my formative years were complex and bizarre, and that I am getting old.
Here’s the cover:
Everyone who lived through the ’90s has their personal touchstones and memorable events. Klosterman aims to define the through line by focusing his chapters, and shorter interludes between them, on major themes from music to movies to technology to politics. He expounds upon: Nirvana changed music, AOL CDs used to come in the mail, Oprah Winfrey started a book club, selling out was something people were against, people cared about Napster, drank Zima, watched ‘Seinfeld,’ Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield, slackers upset Boomers, the O.J. Simpson trial also upset Boomers, rotary phones are weird, Ross Perot was also weird, and Ralph Nader voters were bad, among many other things. There are fun factoids throughout, like how Coca-Cola launched Tab Clear to sabotage Crystal Pepsi and sink the clear-beverages market, and how Quentin Tarantino’s acting coach played Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ Klosterman’s aim seems to be equally explanatory and revanchist: to make sense of a complicated and problematic decade with legacy that torments us still while also defending and reclaiming it from Millennial and Gen Z moral revisionism. I detected this anxious energy:
I applaud Klosterman’s effort, but I have difficulties with the book. For one thing, as the cover design indicates, it’s very white and very male (that phone is phallic, I’m sorry). It feels lazy and incomplete to discuss ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ and not, say, ‘Martin.’ Ditto for lauding Tarantino as the period’s great indie director without giving similar space to Spike Lee or John Singleton, or to the many female directors denied the opportunity to make daring work like Tarantino. Sure, living authentically and not selling out was a major ’90s concern, but Public Enemy was more engaged in the issue than the characters of ‘Reality Bites.’ Sure, David Foster Wallace wrote the very large book ‘Infinite Jest,’ but Toni Morrison also published books in the 90s, and so did Donna Tartt. Sure, Nirvana was a big band that doomed Mötley Crüe, but I don’t remember dancing in the streets of Manhattan to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ like we did to:
Klosterman acknowledges his view of the decade is skewed. Whose wouldn’t be? But acknowledgement of the issue isn’t the same thing as addressing it. His pages are packed—they flit from this thing to this thing to this thing to this thing—but tonnage doesn’t create balance. Instead of going so wide, Klosterman should have drilled deeper. Too often, when explaining something truly inscrutable, like the stardom of Pauly Shore, his analysis concludes with, ‘well, you had to be there to get it.’ That doesn’t help me. If there’s nothing to say about Pauly Shore, then it’s OK to cut him. I want more insight on things that were big in the ’90s that we’re dealing with today, like school shootings after Columbine, domestic terrorism after Oklahoma City, book banning and ‘cancel culture’ after political correctness, and how to live an authentic life while being undermined by social media. There is:
A few years ago, I read Klosterman’s ‘Fargo Rock City’ and really enjoyed it. There’s a lot to like in ‘The Nineties’ as well, whether you lived through the decade or not, despite my frustrations. The book dredged up a lot of memories, some good and some not so good, and has given me things to chew on. But I wanted more.
How it begins:
The Nineties began on January 1 of 1990, except for the fact that of course they did not. Decades are about cultural perception, and culture can’t read a clock. The 1950s started in the 1940s. The sixties began when John Kennedy demanded we go to the moon in ’62 and ended with the shootings at Kent State in May of 1970. The seventies were conceived the morning after Altamont in 1969 and expired during the opening credits of American Gigolo, which means there were five months when the sixties and the seventies were happening at the same time. It felt like the eighties might live forever when the Berlin Wall fell in November of ’89, but that was actually the onset of the euthanasia (though it took another two years for the patient to die).
When writing about recent history, the inclination is to claim whatever we think about the past is secretly backward. “Most Americans regard the Seventies as an eminently forgettable decade,” historian Bruce J. Schulman writes in his book, The Seventies. “This impression could hardly be more wrong.” In the opening sentence of The Fifties, journalist David Halberstam notes how the 1950s are inevitably recalled as a series of black-and-white photographs, in contrast to how the sixties were captured as moving images in living color. This, he argued, perpetuates the illusionary memory of the fifties being “slower, almost languid.” There’s always a disconnect between the world we seem to remember and the world that actually was. What’s complicated about the 1990s is that the central illusion is memory itself.
‘The Nineties: A Book’ by Chuck Klosterman was published by Penguin Press in 2022. 370 pages, including source notes and index. $26.04 at Bookshop.org.
Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #185
Read this: ‘115 LGBTQ Authors Share the Books that Changed Their Lives’ on Oprah Daily was last updated a year ago, but I saw it circulating on Twitter this week with the start of Pride Month. It’s been fun and fascinating to scroll through this slideshow to see books that had such an influence on people, from ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ by Katherine Paterson to ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin. So many books to add to the TBR here!
Do this: Our friend and newsletter colleague Elizabeth, writer of the always excellent ‘What to Read If,’ is organizing a Summer Reading Bingo game. All sorts of fun literary prizes are up for grabs, including one from Books on GIF. Check it out!
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,