There is a book out there that will make things seem different after you read it. Different how? Different in a physical sort of way. Nineties, by Lucy Ives is the book that will do this. What will those physical symptoms be? For me, it was a strange sort of audible heaviness. It was like a weight being pressed down onto me but then removed. It was sort of like how you feel after you work out very hard, there is a relief yet a sense of purifying. How is this accomplished by a book? I’m not exactly sure to be honest, but I can promise you that if you/when you read this book you will have some sort of visceral aftershock.
Nineties is about just that. The 1990s, but more specifically it is about a girl, about a girl in a private school in New York City. That girl is presumed to be the author. Ives was born in 1980 and grew up in New York City. She is stated at some point in the book at being thirteen close to fourteen. That means she is in the seventh or eighth grade. This is a story about being a girl and things that happen and things that are felt when you are of a certain age.
This is a coming of age story of sorts, about being a teenager with friends and the act of growing up in a place. Don’t be presumptuous though, this is unlike any book that may use this narrative setting. The way this book is written is like a finely calibrated scale. The choice of words, the pacing, the punctuation, the amount of text on a page, (which is sparse), the indentations, the italics, the conversations quoted are all so precisely chosen that it makes you feel like you are on some sort of ledge. There is a precarity to every page. A restraint that gives you a sense of tension even if it is a re-telling of an afternoon at a friend’s house, going to get a haircut, or meeting boys at a pool hall. Passages such as:
Gwen’s father picks us up on the main road.
We slide into the backseat. It’s really warm.
The floor is heated and there is new leather.
It’s a new car.
I start talking to Gwen.
Gwen digs her nails into my arm.
I see her father’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
There is a disembodied feeling as if the observations, re-telling and thoughts of the main character are being remembered but in that remembrance the unknown, the wariness, the vague powerlessness and boredom of having to exist comes to the surface.
The poetry of composition in this book is not unpinned though. As the book proceeds there is a plot that thickens and it involves the characters/friends, which have been introduced and evaluated at the start. The main plot involves a credit card, a shopping spree, a to do list of consciousness and the aftermath of character. Even with this though, there is not an emotional stance. There is a sense of inevitability and more then that, a transference of that lump in the throat that anyone who was once a teen has had when they know they might get caught for something.
The bigness and smallness of situations of being this age are unromantically relived. The triviality of these circumstances feels big though. They feel big in a way that is not a determinant of life but an introduction to the way the rest of life will be or is. The want of material objects, the relationships to authority, the alliances and plots of friends, the steady dullness of accomplishing assignments. All of these things are mastered and learned at this age and with ‘growing up’ appear to be more negotiable but in the end it might all just seem that way because we have gotten better at doing it alone.
This book’s tone and control are not burdens. They are necessary to get to the point of a feeling and to have that feeling be honest. The ways that scenes and memories are selected and presented feel more like insight then nostalgic reverie. There is no nostalgia here, even though there is a time capsule like recall when outfits are described and haircuts are emulated. There is also a noticeably forceful acknowledgment of this time at almost the middle of the book when there is a whole two pages (plus) of nineties brands, bands, words, and other culture queues. It’s not so much about the content of the list but a surface to the setting of this time, like landscape or topography. It affects you although you barely are cognizant of it because it’s all you have ever known.
Nineties is a book that is more then just a story of a girl. It is also about the possibility and the limits of language in the telling of a story. The way Ives writes is not easy. It is accessible and page turning but it is not easy. It is less about an economy of form and more about distilling to a core. Through the way this was written, the feeling of being thirteen, the feeling of being different and only being able to be in one brain and body is transferred and bodily felt.
This book is a must read. There is a lot of 90’s ironic nostalgia occurring at this moment. Read this is you like to participate in that. More so though, read this if you like how words on a page can make you feel different and if being a human being seems impossible but beautiful.
I will leave you with another passage. Go buy this book, read this book, re-read this book and then see how your day will be changed by it.
When I see anything, I have to think its name.
I have to think, “There is a blue bird with a blue head.” I have to think, “Two painted metal doors each with one pane of glass.” I have to do this. I have to think, “Chrissie is staring like her eyes hurt. She is at the desk closest to the wall. I cannot see her hands. Her socks are folded, white.”
In real life, I never do anything. I let things happen. I watch. On television there is a commercial for a psychic. A live rabbit twitches near a rotary phone. I close the cabinet doors over the screen.
I mostly do what anyone I like tells me. I don’t know how to discover fate. I see a phrase, “glancing blows.” It’s in a description of a revolution in a textbook, and I have to make a note. I have to say it to myself ten times before I sleep. “Glancing blows.” It is an expression. It is perfect. I gather it up.