“My Clothes Are Made of MSG”: Famous Writers’ Recollections of the 1980s

In 1980s, Wayne Koestenbaum’s boyfriend gave him a 45 rpm single of Blondie’s “Call Me” in the same year he began to read The New York Times. In 1981, he purchased an IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter. In 1984 he took a course in feminism with Elaine Showalter and bought wholeheartedly into the philosophy; around the same time, he began dyeing his hair, something he did until 1988. Koestenbaum believes it was a year before he stopped coloring his hair that he met Tama Janowitz — whose literary fame seems to be totally contained to the decade in which the two met — although he doesn’t think the Slaves of New York author would remember their meeting (but she probably doesn’t forget hanging out with Andy Warhol).

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I’ve never met Wayne Koestenbaum; I know so much about his life during the decade when I was born only because I read the title essay in his newest collection, My 1980s & Other Essays. While the bulk of the pieces in the book aren’t about the days of Reagan and Gordon Gekko lookalikes (it also covers cultural and literary figures ranging from Brigitte Bardot to Roberto Bolaño), “My 1980s” is the best part of this latest book by one of our most original essayists, and one of the best accounts of how writers wrote about, lived, and worked in that decade of greed and conservatism. It deserves a place among the following classic accounts of the ’80s, by authors including Tom Wolfe, Colson Whitehead, and Lorrie Moore.

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“There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening — and he was among the victors! He lived on Park Avenue, the street of dreams! He worked on Wall Street, fifty floors up, for the legendary Pierce & Pierce, overlooking the world! He was at the wheel of a $48,000 roadster with one of the most beautiful women in New York — no Comp. Lit. scholar, perhaps, but gorgeous — beside him! A frisky young animal! He was of that breed whose natural destiny it was…to have what they wanted!” From Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities

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“So when I arrived there in 1980, there was a certain, sort of, suspense about which way New York was going to go. But at the same time it was incredibly exciting because it was a time of great experimentation and great energy in terms of the arts community. Punk rock had been more or less invented on the Lower East Side, a few years prior to my arriving. When I did arrive, you could still hear bands like Blondie and the Ramones playing at CBGB. There was a really vibrant, underground nightclub scene in downtown Manhattan, and it was a center for all kinds of artistic enterprises and artistic characters. There was a real renaissance for painting, with people like Julian Schnabel and Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. These people were all hanging around the Mudd Club with Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. It was a really interesting moment to arrive in the city.” — Jay McInerney 

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“My clothes are made of monosodium glutamate and hexachlorophene. My food is made of polyester, rayon and lurex. My rug lotions contain vitamins. Do my vitamins contain cleaning agents? I hope so.” From Martin Amis’ Money

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“Two people, two hands, and two songs, in this case ‘Big Shot’ and ‘Bette Davis Eyes.] The lyrics of the two songs provided no commentary, honest or ironic, on the proceedings. They were merely there and always underfoot, the insistent gray muck that was pop culture. It stuck to our shoes and we tracked it through our lives.” From Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor

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“And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.” From Don DeLillo’s White Noise 

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“I had a briefcase at one point, but it was a kind of 1980s New Wave briefcase. It was made of some kind of cardboard and it had metal hinges. It was kind of faux industrial looking, and I used to carry my books in it rather than a backpack. I didn’t want to have normal student accoutrements.” — Jeffrey Eugenides  

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“Look at sex in the 80’s… It was frightening, laced with danger, impersonal, something to be bought, negotiated. And when people, like those in my book, are so obsessed with the surface sheen of life, sex cannot be any more than that. How do you square something as organic and primitive as sex with an obsession with appearance, money and status? It can no longer be the satisfying outgrowth of a relationship.” — Bret Easton Ellis in The New York Times

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“Oh, the usual holiday stuff with my parents. On New Year’s Eve I went to a disco in Morristown with my cousin Denise, but I dressed wrong. I wore the turtleneck and plaid skirt my mother gave me, because I wanted her to feel good, and my slip kept showing.” From Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be the Other Woman”

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“The Talking Heads pulsed from every speaker. ‘The center is missing,’ gasped David Byrne, and Patrick could not help agreeing with him. How did they know exactly what he was feeling? It was spooky.” From Edward St. Aubyn’s Bad News

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“The Olympic boycott was one of the many signs that 1980 was a turning point in the Cold War: tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were escalating. Whenever my mother said this, I thought of escalators.” From Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them

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“I’ll ask you to picture me as a black dot in the desert, a period crawling across a straight line drawn on a vast white page, sweating literally and metaphorically, regretting everything, at Ground Zero in midsummer 1984. I’ll ask you to picture this: the highway patrol on Route 80 outside of Wendover, Nevada had directed me to walk a mile of desert landscape, back to Utah, in the blazing sun of noon – but to get you there, to help you understand how I could have been such an idiot as to be in that position I have to convey what I’d misunderstood about the difference between hitchhiking in New England and hitchhiking across the deserts and mountains of the West. To do the tale justice I need to rewind, to a back road near Chatham, New York, a few weeks earlier, to a ride hitched from a hippie named Melvin in an orange Volkswagen Bug.” From Jonathan Lethem’s “Going Under In Wendover” (included in his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence)

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“I feel like I sort of missed the eighties. At the time, we didn’t know we were having fun, which is probably the way it always is. Kids were coming to live out the dream, not the dream of the eighties but the dream of the sixties, with the Velvet Underground and the metallic silver pillows. I think the sixties must have been quite a lot of fun.” — Tama Janowitz