Imagine a place where the ‘90s never ended: where the only snacks available are sticky rolls of Fruit-by-the-Foot and the poisonous green energy drink Surge; where Pulp Fiction and Space Jam grace cinema screens in perpetuity; where modern medicine, Kindles, and the four Harry Potter books published in the ‘00s are still but embryos of ideas; where nostalgia is a lifestyle and anachronisms are a punishable offense.
Such is the premise of ‘90s Island, Marty Beckerman’s novel about brothers with ‘90s nostalgia complexes so deeply ingrained in their personalities that they appear as neuroses. Jake and his twin Zack communicate using beepers and record their favorite shows on VHS. They worship Kurt Cobain (as kids, they sneaked backstage at a Nirvana concert and the grunge legend tossed them a spare guitar) and dream about a time when the economy wasn’t in the toilet. When Jake’s girlfriend gives him an iPhone for his birthday, hoping to pull him into the current millennium with a bit of modern technology, both twins rage against the machine, get wasted and post a Kickstarter project for ‘90s Island, an imagined land where ‘90s culture can thrive to the extreme. The tagline? “Come as you are, stay as you were.”
The twins’ caprice becomes real when thousands of fellow nostalgia-mongers fund the project within hours. ‘90s Island opens to the public, and within days, Jake encounters the beast that was his brainchild: the good (all-night raves, sexy computer hacker girls), the bad (a massive heroin dose, a South American dictator toting a gold pistol), and the ugly (JNCO jeans, frosted tips). The novella has the same over-the-top, manic zaniness as an Austin Powers movie or a Spice Girls song. It’s pure Dunkaroos frosting sugar, with an extra combat boot kick of bitterness.
I spoke with Beckerman about the origins of the ’90s Island idea. “I think I read there was going to be this ‘90s cruise that was like Everclear and Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray or something,” Beckerman says. “So, take what’s happening in reality where ‘90s culture is very much being fetishized right now, and say, well, what is the most extreme way that could be expressed? And that would be to cut off the rest of the world and say, we’re so devoted to recreating the ‘90s that we’re going to make it illegal to own a Kindle, and any prescription medication that’s been invented in the last 13 years will be banned because that wouldn’t be authentic. Those ideas started percolating and it became what it became.”
Attention for ‘90s Island really started percolating when Beckerman unveiled its corresponding website, a Geocities-style eyesore that takes visitors back to that heady time when it took five full minutes to sign onto AOL via dial-up. At a time when the internet is all about minutely detailed nostalgia—“It’s so specific. The Best Video Games Released Between 1994 and 1995 Designed By This One Guy. The Best Snacks Of The ‘90s That Were ‘Mystery White” And You Didn’t Know What The Flavor Was”—90island.com hit the sweet spot. The novella’s never-ending callbacks to Sugar Ray and Rollerblades do the same, though not without recognizing the self-centered nature of that kind of masturbatory back-in-the-day referencing.
“I love the nostalgia thing, and it’s a love-hate relationship, because I know it’s infantilizing me. Watching the cartoons I liked when I was like ten isn’t something that’s very becoming of a 30-year-old man,” Beckerman says. “I think we’re more nostalgic than previous generations were. The Boomers were extremely nostalgic for themselves, and they’re extremely nostalgic for the Woodstock era, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same way. They’re nostalgic for the times when they changed the world, and we’re nostalgic for the times when we ate sugar cereal and watched Saturday morning cartoons.”
Jake and Zack, ostensibly the island’s governors, start off getting busy planning concerts and dance parties for their citizens, then quit when “it feels too much like working on vacation.” Both characters start the story as underemployed would-be do-gooders suffering under the awful late ’00s economy, then begin reveling in their glorious inactivity once settled on ‘90s Island. “This idea of the slacker, it’s so of another era. And yet somehow [slackers] thrived then. I think we took for granted the idea that you could have stability if you wanted it, and that disappeared, and it’s a deeply terrifying thing.”
So, why fiction to tell the ‘90s Island story and not, say, a Buzzfeed-style listicle? “Um…I think with fiction you can—here’s no way I can come out of that sentence without sounding like a pretentious douche—you can tell bigger truths than you can with nonfiction. Oh my god, I sound like the biggest asshat.” The bigger truths Beckerman is gunning for are certainly there, even in what initially seems like a slip of a comedic novella. Fear of getting older, for one. Emotional scarring after “a few years of complete existential anxiety about jobs becoming unpaid internships,” for another. Whitewashing history in favor of pop cuteness—before Jake leaves, his girlfriend implores, “You’re forgetting Columbine, Rwanda, Kosovo, Oklahoma City, Batman and Robin…”
Plus, there’s the fallout of hero worship gone wrong. “Kurt was 27 when he died. I always looked at him as this mature guy. When you’re a teenager, 27 seems like—that’s a grown-up. And now you begin to see a little bit that he was a confused guy who’s a little harder to put on a pedestal when you’re older. I started noticing it with Operation Ivy, the punk band that became Rancid. They did all their stuff when they were 17, 18, 19. You listen to the Beatles and it’s like holy shit, they were 21, 22. What was I doing at 22? Nothing close to that good. So I guess that’s something I try to get at in the book, is that when you’re older than your heroes lived to be, maybe they seem a little bit less heroic and a little bit more human.”
Lest we get too heavy, it must be said that the ultimate legacy of ’90s Island may very well be the haunting presence of frosted tips. Did Beckerman ever sport the signature ‘90s ‘do? “Oh yeah, totally. I had frosted tips from the middle of high school to the beginning of college. I cut them off in 2002. So I had them longer than was really acceptable. I’m not a cool fucking guy, so I cannot comment on what is and is not timelessly cool. But I’ve picked up from actual cool people that cool is about not really giving a fuck. When you sit in a salon and have somebody put a bunch of chemicals in your hair, and you’re under a heating dome for half a hour and you’ve got the apron thing around yourself… that’s trying a little too hard to be cool. Don’t go to the salon to get your hair bleached, because you don’t want to look like the guy from Smash Mouth.”