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edge staff writer


I love ‘The Nineties’

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Chuck Klosterman is arguably the preeminent writer of pop culture commentary of the past 20 years. I say “arguably” only for the sake of others – to my mind, it’s him and then everyone else. No one else has come close to putting together his combination of wry observation, pop expertise, humor and sheer flat-out writing ability.

So to say that I was enthusiastic to get my hands on a book where Klosterman deconstructs the 1990s – the decade where I too came of age with regard to cultural understanding – would be an undersell. My expectations were sky high – so high that I wondered if I had put the bar out of reach.

My concerns were utterly unfounded.

In “The Nineties” (Penguin Press, $28), Klosterman turns loose his considerable powers on a singular decade, one that marked a significant turning point in the direction our culture has taken. It is a thoughtful and engaging trip down the Gen-X rabbit hole, exploring a variety of impactful moments and events of that timeframe both in terms of what happened and – most importantly – the differences between that reality and our memories of it.

Despite what you may think, this is not a nostalgic book. In so many ways, the fog of nostalgia clouds our perspective on the past. Klosterman not only steers clear of that impulse, he pushes in a direction that is more straightforwardly analytical. This is a book that explores what happened and the subsequent consequences, and along the way, he breaks down the difference between the truth of the moment and the fictionalized stories we tell ourselves.

It starts with the very definition of the 1990s. Klosterman argues – quite convincingly, I might add – that the ‘90s as an era began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ended with the events of 9/11. This is not a story that starts on January 1, 1990 and ends on December 31, 1999; it’s considerably more fluid like that, just as so many previous eras loosely defined by decades were.

As he tends to do, Klosterman goes full polymath here; while his focus is on popular culture, the truth is that all aspects of our experiences are reflected through said pop culture. Hence, we get chapters that dig into all manner of topics – music and sports and movies, sure, but also political and technological and sociological realities as well.

Right from the jump, Klosterman hits us with the unreliability of memory, choosing the now-ubiquitous notion of the Mandela Effect – something simply didn’t exist in the pre-internet age because if you didn’t know a fact and someone gave you an answer, odds are you just went with it, since you didn’t have access to the sum of all human knowledge via a device in your pocket.

You likely won’t be surprised by some of the entry points Klosterman uses here. There’s a great chapter about Nirvana, of course, though through that, we venture into a much more discursive conversation about the now-quaint notion of “selling out,” an act that was viewed as an ultimate sin then, but has become essentially a goal within itself (though some had that goal in the moment – see Brooks, Garth).

Politically, Klosterman devotes time to both the bizarre and ultimately Quixotic Ross Perot campaign for President in 1992 and the in-retrospect-baffling wide support for Bill Clinton in the midst of the scandal surrounding his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In both cases, we’re reminded of just how different our perspectives were and left to ask ourselves some interesting questions with the benefit of hindsight.

Do you ever consider how the explosive proliferation of the VCR in the 1990s influenced the movie business? How it fundamentally altered not just our ability to see movies, but the types of movies that would ultimately get made? Or how dismissive so many people initially were about the overall utility of the internet? How drastically and relatively suddenly our modes of communication changed?

Klosterman digs into these things and more. The MLB players strike of 1994 and Michael Jordan’s retirement from basketball to go flail at minor league fastballs for a while. The brief and inexplicable desire of corporations to sell us clear versions of other things. The omnipresence of TV and the waning days of the monoculture. “The Real World” and Biosphere 2, O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas. The evolution of fame and what that even means. On and on, discussing things you remember, things you don’t … and things you think you remember.

There’s a lot of thought given to the basic interiority of Generation X as well. Just as one example, he engages with the conversation surrounding a film like “Reality Bites,” where we’re ostensibly shown two sides of the same coin (and where we’re reminded that our initial impression of that film has likely changed in the ensuing years – i.e. Ethan Hawke’s slacker philosopher Troy versus Ben Stiller’s go-getter Michael) proves an apt way in which to contrast the prevailing attitudes of then versus now.

Each of the chapters is followed by a brief interstitial of sorts, a few pages devoted to an oppositional or mirrored perspective to what came before. Through striking this balance, we’re taken even deeper into the ideas and ideologies being explored and expressed, both then and now.

“The Nineties” is a bit different than the usual Klosterman fare. It’s a bit headier and a bit more serious, though he never loses track of the sense of the absurd that makes him such an engaging read. Serious, but not self-serious, if that makes sense – Klosterman is writing from a place of thoughtful consideration and in-depth analysis, but he also never stops being funny. It is a clever, smart book that will evoke memories while also causing you to question those same memories.

Seriously, how cool is that?

This isn’t the first attempt to contextualize the 1990s in the face of today. Nor will it be the last. One imagines that there will be plenty of examinations – nostalgic and otherwise – of this particular period. However, I don’t anticipate that anyone will be able to write a book on the subject that feels nearly as genuine, nearly as lived-in, as Klosterman has.

As someone who came of age during this period, “The Nineties” hits me where I live. The fact that it’s Chuck Klosterman doing the hitting makes it exponentially better. So throw on your flannel, put your “Nevermind” CD on in the car and head to Blockbuster to see what you can find in the rows between the walls of new releases.

Or better yet, just buy this book.

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 February 2022 10:34


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