Even though nineties is a short novel, Ives plays her cards close to her vest for quite a while before revealing what kind of novel you’re actually reading when it takes a turn midway though. And by Ives not revealing much I mean that we never even learn the name of the narrator or why she’s telling us what she’s telling us; all we get about the narrator is that she’s a girl of thirteen or fourteen at a private school in uptown Manhattan, that she’s presumably as wealthy as her friends, that she’s utterly absorbed by the details of surfaces, especially personal appearance, and specifically the appearance of models in pre-widespread-internet fashion magazines because the year is 1994. And nothing seems to really sink in with this girl, and she seems initially to leave no great mark on those around her, and (initially) she’s about as deep as a page of one of the magazines she stares at.
She’s not unsympathetic, but Ives masterfully achieves a portrait of teenage girlhood in the mid-‘90s both because we know so little about the narrator and partly through Ives drenching her characters in what in psychiatric terms is known as lack of affect, meaning a kind of blunted, unresponsive response to other people and the world around us. Ives’ narrator, in brief scenes between which the silence of unmediated feelings is quite loud, understands, or at least seems to understand everything happening to her and the people in her insular world, but neither shows nor recounts much reaction to it, either positive or negative. It’s not so much that the narrator doesn’t care (because we eventually get ample evidence she does) as that caring about things is somehow tacky, beneath her, indicative of a youthful naiveté she claims to no longer possess. And both Ives’ and the narrator’s careful attention to distance—the distance between appearance and reality, the distance between people, the distance between desires and action—lulls us initially into thinking what we’re getting is a sharply-drawn portrait of a shallow girl in a glassy world of interchangeable friends and relative comfort and luxury, a world of few consequences. So at first everything we view through the narrator, from the arrangement of dividers for a school binder to awkward teenage drug use and even more awkward teenage sex, is pretty much equivalent. Things happen. The narrator shares some of them in a way meant to indicate she finds it all shrugworthy.
Then, midway through the book, we get a torrent of a paragraph of the narrator’s world and afterward we find out what kind of novel it is we’re really reading. The torrent first: rather than make any grand statements about the ‘90s or nostalgia about it, Ives gives us, at a distance from the narrator’s seemingly flat world, an ocean of surface and distance in the mid-‘90s that opens like this:
Filofax, whippets, Urban Outfitters, snap bracelet, Victoria’s Secret, death row, Mayo Clinic, Kevyn Aucoin, StairMaster, Gillette Sensor, Trish Goff, IBM, Emma Thompson, 2 Pac, J. Crew, Details, NoDoz, Na Na, Betsey Johnson, pukeface, Janet Reno, clinique, Simplex Subsistence, eyebrow shaping, pro-choice, Tavern on the Green…
and which goes on like that for two and a half dense pages of ‘90s signifiers, presented seemingly without order and as if all equivalent. The reason this passage is key is because the lack of affect and the lack of information we get until the torrent of cultural reference leads into the first real decisive act by the narrator, and even though it’s minor both as transgressions go and in terms of consequences it reveals that what we’re reading is a carefully, elegantly understated horror novel. There’s never any violence or gore, much less monsters and demons, only teenagers and distant authority figures, and nobody dies, much less gets injured, but what we find out during the final half of nineties, leading up to a spectacularly yet quietly terrifying final scene, is that the lack of affect and penchant for distance are a mask, for the narrator, surface and nothing more.
And the reason nineties is such a compelling novel, horror or non-, is that we’re never quite sure whether the narrator is victim or villain. And there’s a very real possibility she might actually be both, striding calmly through an increasingly unordered world while inside her there’s some considerable tumult that we, except once, don’t directly witness, only get reference to—the way she reacts to the provocations of her meanspiritedly insecure friends, the way she reacts to the admonitions of school authority figures, the way she confesses, the way she acts toward her probably-only-visited-once psychiatrist, the way that on the phone speaking to the father of her best friend Gwen she threatens suicide and we’re not sure, by late in the novel, whether (again) this is a manipulative move, a legitimate threat, or something somewhere between the two. Even if the narrator’s transgressions are minor and ultimately waved away by everyone around her save for her dismissal from school, nineties is really less a portrait of disaffection than a story about how that disaffection ultimately fails to protect the narrator from the world around her or from herself.
So through telescoped action and precise details in Ives’ sharp, spare prose we get a portrait of an unnamed girl who unlike (for example) the heroine of Carrie is in no way special but also unlike that heroine has no means at her disposal to bring forth into the world the mayhem going on inside her. Instead we see a girl do and say a few mildly but not drastically desperate things leading up to the aforementioned wildly revelatory final scene, but in Ives’ absolutely beautiful and mortifying parade of deceptive surfaces that slide along with us from the first page to the last, we get an absolutely indelible portrait of the complexity of a not-quite-average teenage girl.