The Great Battle of 2016 Literary Nostalgia: The 1980s vs the 1990s

It’s a commonplace idea that we’re living in a throwback moment that makes room for many nostalgias at the same time. It’s probably true. Even our most pernicious nostalgia, the Trumpist mania for “making America great again,” slides easily into a culture of men with barbershop fades, videos of post-millennial children playing the original Metroid, young stylists on Instagram who post stills of ‘90s movies as inspiration for new fashions. The obviousness of this nostalgic “condition” is such that my above description makes me sound mean and old. Or nostalgic for cultural theory from the 1980s.

The idea that nostalgia is a disorder goes back to its coining. In 1688, the Swiss student Johannes Hofer invented the word to describe the “Swiss illness” that afflicted displaced mercenaries; they were, in a word, homesick. And this coinage relies (it’s often pointed out) on literature’s most famous case of homesickness; namely, the “nostos” of “nostalgia” is used by Homer to describe Odysseus’ seabound journey home to Ithaca. Nostalgia is the pain Odysseus must have felt when he missed his home.

In culture, to point out the obvious, this yearning (for past comforts) becomes a metaphor, one that is sometimes used to show contempt for a person who is “too at home in the past,” whether that “past” implies a bygone decade or a way of living. In this respect, the historical avant-garde was anti-nostalgia; it believed that culture was too complacent, and saw nostalgia as a conservative reflex. We no longer have such a vanguard, but, until recently, we had Steve Jobs. When he died, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Mike Daisey that praised Jobs as an “enemy of nostalgia.” His disregard for past comforts, the story goes, gave him the mental space he needed to come up with the iPhone. Your opinion about nostalgia may reflect how you feel about your phone.

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Fiction, though, complicates nostalgia. It has a history of changing its rules, of working it to different ends, of being “hands-on.” The Victorian novel in particular flipped the purpose of nostalgia by showing that it can be used to tame the past. In his influential Amnesiac Selves, the scholar Nicholas Dames defines nostalgia as “the stories about one’s past that explain and consolidate memory rather than dispersing it into a series of vivid, relinquished moments.” The novels of Dickens and Austen, he argues, had a way of repacking a reader’s memories into lighter luggage, which allowed them to travel more easily into the future:

Perhaps some form of “nostalgia” has always been with us, but it is the nineteenth-century novel that lifts it into the light of art and, starting with Austen’s fiction, gives it a distinct cultural purpose: the amelioration or cancellation of the past. The nostalgic moment is the sign of a culture freed from its past, freed from consequences and resonances, prepared for the perfections of the future. Seen from this vantage point…it can be said that the nineteenth-century novel invented modern nostalgia […]

That the Victorian novel invented a way of using it as artifice means that the novel has a long history with nostalgia. But it also suggests that nostalgia is malleable, and that literature — with its “hands-on” approach — can reshape it.

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What is contemporary literature’s deal with nostalgia? That’s way too big of a question for me to consider alone. Still, I have noticed that very recent novels, as you might expect, are more nostalgic for decades not long past: the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And what interests me, given that nostalgia is often personal — it has to do with one’s sense of “home” — is what contemporary writers want us to realize about the way things were.

1970s (Prelude)

There are two prominent examples of recent 1970s nostalgia: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), which explores, in part, the gritty New York art scene in the 1970s, and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire (2015), which does something similar with music (and other things — it’s over 900 pages long). Unfortunately, I was not yet born in the 1970s, so it’s hard for me to qualify this strain of nostalgia, other than to say that it feels conflationary in both novels. In Kushner’s novel, the art of the 70s reflects the past of futurism and the present of contemporary art; Hallberg’s novel, as I’ve written before, mimics contemporary television while emulating the Victorian novel. (It is, I think, nostalgic for the Victorian novel’s art of nostalgia.) All of this makes sense in an era of “many nostalgias at the same time.”

1980s

And though I was born in the 1980s, I don’t remember much of it. Fortunately, the author and critic Dale Peck, in an introduction to the forthcoming The Soho Press Book of 80s Short Fiction, has reclaimed the spirit of the decade (and its fiction) for me — or, as he makes clear, he writes to show what about the ’80s is worth reclaiming.

Peck’s essay opens by admitting “we cringe when we think about [the 1980s],” and follows with good reason: Ronald Reagan’s embodiment of a radical new stupidity, a politics of script reading and AIDS-denying moralism that was “Warholian in execution, Orwellian in effect.” This not uncommon (but uncommonly composed) breakdown of the Reagan presidency spreads into an original formal awareness. From whatever angle, the ’80s offers a sheen, a performance of capital and greed pasted over an uglier reality. Peck acknowledges that the “aesthetic ideology” of the ’80s can be reduced to Gordon Gekko’s well worn slogan: greed is good. “The line itself,” he writes, “is forgettable. What makes it emblematic is the fact that audiences were supposed to find it, like, evil, when the truth is it represented their values…” Opposed to this ideology of shiny greed — or under it — is what Peck calls “my 1980s,” an underworld of “nerds, eggheads, Goths, drug addicts, and dropouts… bitches and lezzies, faggots and trannies” — and, it’s worth pointing out, the writers who populate the anthology that follows.

I would contrast Peck’s politics of nostalgia with the “conflationary” nostalgia offered by Hallberg and Kushner, and, more recently (as of this month), Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Night in 1980, which opens with the turn of the calendar from 1979 to 1980 and tells the story of a synaesthete art critic in the New York scene. Openly inspired by The Flamethrowers, Prentiss’ novel begins with two epigraphs. The first, from Camus’ essay “Between Yes and No,” epitomizes the work of the nostalgic artist:

A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

The second epigraph proves my point about “conflationary nostalgia” because it comes from the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle:

What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?

The observation I’m making is simple: you only head a novel about the 1980s with an epigraph from 2013 if you’re writing a novel (secretly) about the present. Peck’s nostalgia, on the other hand, is what filmmaker Thom Andersen calls “militant nostalgia” — it intervenes in the past in order to change it.

1990s

“The ’90s ruined everything, of course,” Peck adds (near the end of his essay). “The boom went on so long it produced a generation that believes it can have whatever it wants.” What the 1990s wanted, judging by Robin Wasserman’s forthcoming Girls on Fire, was authenticity.

Set in early ’90s Pennsylvania, Girls on Fire captures much of the contemporary nostalgia for the decade by way of period detail, especially of the kind that would be recognized by women now in their thirties — who were then in high school. Doc Martens, Nirvana, trashed out Buicks, Winston cigarettes, mixtapes, Satanism, witchiness. And, in a way that I wish would be more appreciated in contemporary fiction, it embodies its period (and the nostalgia for it) by reflecting its own media presentation: it’s as much a ’90s-style story as it is a historical fiction set in the ’90s. Without giving too much away (it isn’t out yet), I’ll just say that it involves murder, abuse, and the obsessive friendship of two lonely girls who search for authenticity in a culture that isn’t altogether inaccessible — in the language of TV, it falls somewhere between Buffy and My So Called Life.

After reading Girls on Fire, I wrote to Wasserman to ask why she wanted to write a novel set in the early ’90s. She explained it this way:

Maybe because in the ’90s I was a nerdy suburban theater geek who bought my flannel dresses at the mall and couldn’t really tell the difference, authenticity-wise, between Nirvana, Candlebox, and the self-proclaimed grunge guy on the first season of The Real World, I wanted to write about the way that an obsession with authenticity can become an act of authenticity. The commodification of authenticity: We’re used to thinking about it in terms of Nirvana, what’s gained and lost when you let yourself end up on the cover of Rolling Stone. But it also seemed like a perfect lens for exploring adolescence. When you’re a teenager, falling in love with a band or a genre of music can be a declaration of identity — of tribe — and I wanted to use grunge as a way of thinking through the blurred boundaries between revealing yourself, disguising yourself, and transforming yourself.

If the authentic 1980s was characterized by an opposition to a performance of greed (Reagan’s, for example), the 1990s identified (or confused) authenticity with a consumerist performance. Maybe the ’90s did ruin everything.

Or maybe it didn’t. Belinda Mckeon’s excellent Tender, another novel about an obsessive friendship, is set at the other end of the decade; it opens in 1997 in Dublin.

Maybe the most smoothly written novel of the year, Tender has another virtue: if City on Fire is television but doesn’t realize it, and Girls on Fire is television but does, Tender isn’t television and knows it. As Judy Berman wrote in our earlier review of the novel, Mckeon takes a caricature common to TV of the late 90s — friendship between a gay man and a straight woman — and restores to it sex, intimacy, and pain. Yet she doesn’t forgo her sense of nostalgia for those years. When I put to her the same question I asked of Wasserman — what made you choose the late 1990s? What did you want to capture about the time? — she wrote back:

Tender had to be set in the 1990s, I think; the place in which I wanted to place my two young characters needed to be a place coming out of one mode of being (conservative, punishing) and into another (ostensibly more open, comfortable) the way Ireland was just at that time. But also, come on, the 1990s! Friendship, everything, seemed more intense then, made that way by the necessity of actually talking to someone if you wanted to communicate with them. We were stuck staring at each other’s faces all the time. I wanted to recreate that sense of intimacy meeting claustrophobia. Also, I wanted to write about someone listening to OK Computer for the first time.

When I read Mckeon’s email, I was struck by a similarity between her longing for a time of “actually talking” and “staring at each other’s faces” — a time not overburdened, entirely, by the Internet — and a moment in Peck’s essay on the 1980s that evoked the same, well, nostalgia:

It may be that history — whatever “history” is anymore — remembers the ‘80s as the last analog moment when human beings were what we always had been, before we’re fully digitized into whatever hive creature information technology is in the process of creating.

This shared observation affected me: it was shared, not on the Internet, but by writers of different ages who have probably never met. And it told me that our rootless moment of many nostalgias could mean we’re homesick for the same home.