During the ’90s, people said that author and artist Douglas Coupland was “the voice of Gen X” maybe because his first novel put it right there in the title, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (St Martin’s, 1991). There’s more than one way to be the voice of any generation and maybe this is just the usual skepticism of a Gen Xer here, but it always seemed to me that the strongest voices would be the ones that emerged later during the middle age of a generation, as opposed to writers like Coupland who resonated within the contemporaneous moment of my generation’s youth. Although which generation I belong to is itself a controversy, depending on whether you think October 1981 is ten months too late or you think, as I do, that Generation Catalano is a thing.
Before the ’90s were even over, Coupland immersed himself in Silicon Valley culture and the perspectives of those who came after Gen X. A handful of people said the voice of Gen X was actually David Foster Wallace, based on the strength of Infinite Jest alone (Little Brown, 1996). This is a weak case either because a heavily marketed book isn’t the same thing as a zeitgeisty book or because no generation should hold up a man who died by suicide as the voice that speaks for their collective. Now here I sit at the grand old age of 40, having held my breath for Chuck Klosterman for very many moons.
Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City (2001, Scribner), included many kinds of non-fiction—sometimes memoir, sometimes journalism, sometimes criticism. He wrote about glam metal in the ’90s in a useful and personal way, with all the breeziness and sense of irony common to Gen Xers. And he kept up the bleak funny stuff as well as the autobiographical odyssey of his musical adventures throughout the Aughts in four other books that were all more or less excellent. He seemed to like talking about himself as a necessarily arbitrary yet reasonably fair and always comfortingly specific lens through which to view the quandaries of our era. Then in 2011, Klosterman helped form Grantland and I dropped out of his school because—Gen X classic eye roll here—I will not be made to care about sports.
But I did perk up when he became an ethics columnist for The New York Times Magazine in 2012. He still had what passed for populist charm among Gen X readers and I was very interested to see where his more straightforward ideological explorations would go. In 2016, they went into a critique of naïve realism, But What If We’re Wrong? (Penguin). Klosterman making a move from pop culture to pop philosophy was exactly the kind of aging I’d hoped to see from a prospective candidate to retroactively award the title of “voice of Gen X”. But what if Klosterman was wrong about how we might talk about the present as if it were the past? And what if I was then wrong about Klosterman? I gave the book a mixed review and privately resolved to give a good dude another chance whenever such an opportunity inevitably arose.
Surely a project whose title offers as heavy and comprehensive a vibe as The Nineties does would be Klosterman’s flag-in-moon moment! Surely this was the book that would survey the horizon over our middle-aged shoulder and define the true youthful nature of our generation, beautifully poised to snatch all the laurels just as our contemporary culture is obsessively reaching peak ’90s nostalgic reboot. On the one hand, I was super hopeful that Klosterman was about to make a significant, lasting offering to the field of cultural studies with a grand summation of what was at stake back in the day, and on the other hand, I should’ve known that getting super hyped about this book would result in significant disappointment on any number of fronts. The most Gen X thing about The Nineties is how easily Klosterman disappoints. This tension of opposites seems at times like the ultimate mood of the decade that his project wants to address.
Let’s start with the content itself. Obviously, everyone will have their own fetishes for particular cultural artifacts of the 1990s, so I’ll skip past my own laundry list of things Klosterman should’ve included or should’ve allocated additional page space (such as Garbage, Mike Judge, AIDS, and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho). The flip side of that is a list of all the things that could’ve been left out (starting with the two and a half pages on Crystal Pepsi). The bigger issue is that this project offers a truckload of content that becomes unimpactful very quickly, like a multi-function appliance that doesn’t do any of its 12 possible tasks very well. Klosterman is capable of a wide-ranging subject matter, for sure. Yet there is a ridiculous number of things worth discussing in between the rise of America Online and the fall of the Twin Towers, and the author is not up to the task of glossing Green Day, the Green Party, and Alan Greenspan without readers going cross-eyed as if looking at a very insanely complex murder board.
At least with a murder board, the mission is clear: determine the murderer. The mission of The Nineties is not at all clear. Is it an encyclopedic effort to define the key events and objects we associate with the decade? Is it an archeological offering that excavates the objects and events we would otherwise dismiss or have erroneously let fade away? Is it a genealogical pursuit that attempts to trace the fomentation of ideas and feelings of the decade? The book is missing any argument at its center. Which I guess is pretty ’90s.
Klosterman offers endless platters of factoids and a lot of them are fun to mull over, but never does the totality of this project rise to a cogent statement of belief about what the Nineties meant or what parts of it we should carry forward in some way. I’d hoped this would be a book that could be given to college students who missed out on the decade, that it could be taught in pop culture electives so the kids could receive some wisdom from a decade that they seem to be heartily enjoying as a rebooted copy of an original thing about which they know nothing. Their world begins with September 11th and Klosterman’s book will not help them understand or insightfully wield any lessons of our past. It has a carefully constructed uselessness about it that I guess is also pretty ’90s.
Perhaps, just as he did in But What If We’re Wrong?, Klosterman would like to protest that these vagaries are the whole point—that The Nineties is performatively engaging in an uncaringness toward its own subject as a plausible demo replicating the vibe that was the 1990s. I want to believe he is just such a mastermind and perhaps would be willing to spot him the utter inconclusiveness of the project, except for the other content element clearly absent from the book: I greatly miss Klosterman’s willingness to insert himself into his own writing.
The Nineties contains very few statements in first-person and no stories about the author’s life, even though this more hybrid and intimate approach to non-fiction is what sealed the deal with his early fan base. If middle-age leaves him tempted to use a somewhat more objective and academic voice now, then the book should make a proper argument. He’s so busy squeezing in research that he left himself out as the book’s most organic subject. There’s a tiny glimpse of it in the source notes at the end: “I sometimes worked in reverse, searching for source material that verified what I thought I remembered. This process worked roughly half the time” (341). Those are the failure stories I wanted to hear, full of gaps and dead ends just like his road trips in days of yore, not simply the author’s scrubbed up and less personalized assessment of the decade.
The number of things covered could easily be cut in half and reformed into a very coherent analysis of the way television shaped our understanding of the decade. In the ’90s, TV changed how we frame wars and elections. It gave us commercials and school shootings and Friends. This and the music stuff are very squarely in Klosterman’s wheelhouse and that slice of this work would’ve made a cool contribution to Media Studies beyond simply underscoring that Klosterman should be King of Nineties cultural arbitration.
Instead, this overstuffed burrito supreme suffers an ongoing structural problem as it tries to find a sensible order for the flow of factoids. An encyclopedia of the decade that aims to be more descriptive than argumentative could do it chronologically or even alphabetically. But Klosterman is working off some notion that everything in the ’90s was as clear as mud, full of contradictions, paradoxes, reversals, ambivalence, and other forms of dualism. So every cultural artifact in the project must be pressurized against another artifact in ways that often make little sense. My favorite bruising here is one of the longest treatments in the book (five pages) where he juxtaposes Alanis Morissette with Liz Phair as a thousand other (male) music critics have done and feels he’s gotten away with it by inserting this little footnote right at the start of it: “It’s hard to imagine a male version of Morissette (such as the band Candlebox, who were on the same record label as Alanis) viewed as even vaguely analogous to a male version of Phair (a group like Guided by Voices, Phair’s prolific peers who also recorded for Matador Records)” (96).
Is the mass of contradictions supposed to be a unique feature of the ’90s? Of course not. But perhaps Klosterman could’ve taken this moment to go fully academic—which his readership can surely handle even if they don’t like it—and say something incisive about the limits of literary postmodernism as a lifestyle or the ascendancy of neoliberalism within our cultural practices of everyday living. It seems Gen Xers must still continue our search for some heroic voice since the texture of the voice in The Nineties is instead nothing but a grind with very little payoff. If the author does want to claim some really deep intentionality about that, okay, but that means he wrote a densely lame book on purpose—and being that kind of “try hard” is a cardinal sin to Gen Xers, second only to being a “sell-out” (a charge I do not intend to levy against Klosterman until he incurs a third strike).
So let me end on an abruptly “meh” moment and swing for a last-second redemptive nugget by saying the best paragraph in the book is the last one in the acknowledgments at the end because it shows so many of the things we used to love about Klosterman are still rattling around inside of him:
Part of me thinks I should individually thank every single person I experienced the nineties with, since they all shaped how that decade seemed at the time and what I remember about that decade now. This, however, would be thousands and thousands of people, many of whom might be somewhat freaked out to realize I remembered them at all. It also occurs to me that—if I tried to credit every influential person I knew during the nineties—I would also need to cite all the mass media I consumed during those years, and that just feels insane. It does not seem reasonable to thank (for example) the members of Drivin N Cryin just because I listened to Fly Me Courageous for four months in 1991. Then again, by specifically mentioning I’m not going to acknowledge Drivin N Cryin, I suppose I inadvertently have done exactly that. There’s just no way to do this in a manner that accurately reflects my reality. But I will say this: If I knew you in the nineties (or you knew me), part of you might be inside this book, somewhere or somehow. So … thanks for that. It could have been worse” (340).
Yeah, it definitely could have been worse. But Klosterman, my man, it could have been so much better.