Norman Mailer once said that the novel will be at your funeral. He’s right and he'll always be right. It’s not a controversial point but it bears repeating.
Even as the printed page dwindles in appeal, even as screens become the permanent address of our eyeballs and attention spans, the landing zones of our pleasure- and edification- seeking impulses, the novel, as a format and form, endures.
But that’s not enough for some people, who just don’t read. Fine. In this section of the Internet, we’ll do the reading for you. We’ll go through the most essential books entering the cultural whirlpool and distil our labour into the best quips you can use to weaponise any conversation. Get ready to be the most culturally forward person at any date/dinner party/drinks sesh.
This time, we take in Chuck Klosterman’s new tome The Nineties: A Book, which, in the space of cultural commentary, is this year’s toast of the town, for all the right reasons.
The Nineties is an essayistic approach to cultural critique from one of the best at it. Klosterman is a ninja in this space. Whether fleshing deeper points or adorning them with rhetorical filigree, his prose is always deft and graceful. It makes reading whatever he trains his lens on – historical esoterica, pop cultural phenomena, celebrity profiles – readable as good entertainment and illuminating as a genuine education.
Split across 12 essays, each of which is devoted to how a particular phenomenon has come to define the ‘90s – “a period when the world was starting to go crazy, but not so crazy that it was unmanageable or irreparable” – as a decade worthy of analysis, the book, is thoroughly researched and immaculately realised. The information presented about a vast slew of ‘90s cultural tropes, both mainstream and arcane, is copious yet digestible, for the simple reason that Klosterman’s journalism is as effective as it is distinctly stylish.
THE FINER POINTS
Idiosyncrasy and insight – Klosterman alchemises both into an absolutely infectious, attention-commanding formula. It gives his investigative probing and the jocularity of his presentation an extra punch with which to land.
Here’s a selection of the most potent one-liners about each of the topics foregrounded in the 12 essays:
The ‘90s as a whole: “The boilerplate portrait of the American nineties makes the whole era look like a low-risk grunge cartoon”.
The ‘90s as a moment in popular culture: “The line between what was mainstream and what was underground was extraordinarily clear, as was the line between high and low culture”.
Generation X: “The enforced ennui and alienation of Gen X had one social upside: Self-righteous outrage was not considered cool, in an era when coolness was everything”.
Grunge: “Grunge had the media-age advantage of easy information; for the first time, a rock scene being exploited could fully understand what was happening”.
Tupac Shakur: “Shakur changed who he was to fit the artistic character he’d created because the art didn’t work if the image wasn’t real”.
The Gulf War: “The Gulf War was a triumph of public relations”. And: “Like a CGI action movie with no character development, the plot vapourised as it combusted”.
Political correctness: “The alarm over political correctness was grounded in the fear that people were losing control over what they could casually say in public, and there was some truth in that”.
Alanis Morissette: “She was successful because of her honesty, but anyone that successful had to be lying”.
The impact of the VHS format: “No movie or director influenced ‘90s film culture as much as the advent and everywhere-ness of the video store”.
The Internet: “Most critically, it recontextualised every fragment of data that moved through its sphere, which eventually encompassed all data available”.
Streaming: “Once consumers experienced free music, they came to view music as something that was supposed to be free”.
Dolly the Sheep: “The creation of Dolly the sheep was the single biggest intellectual jump of the nineties”.
Capitalism: “Capitalism is connected to every extension of American life, so it can be cited as the source for almost any social ill: Wealth disparity, the legacy of slavery, housing shortages, monopsony, clinical depression, the tyranny of choice, superhero movie franchises”.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic: “There was also this idea – impossible to prove or disprove – that the perception of the character DiCaprio played and the perception of the person he actually was had morphed into a singular entity, and that the consumption of Titanic was simply the means for consuming its main actor”.
The theses, the research, the jokes, all of it – and the book, itself – ends on a note of brutality: “The flights were hijacked, the planes crashed into buildings, 2977 people died, and the nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers”.
Throughout its 300+ pages, The Nineties foregrounds its titular decade as having happened. On its own, the past tense is already a degree of separation, one that Klosterman deepens with the ironic distance of his humour. The reader then gets to enjoy and recontexualise the decade from a jokey remove. But 9/11 is sacrosanct as history and an on-going reality. That’s when geopolitics became personal. That’s when the world arrived at the page of a newly harrowing and course-altering reality.
That's where this book ends.
The Nineties: A Book is available at Kinokuniya and Amazon.