According to her bio, Lucy Ives is “the author of nineties, a novel about a decade” though in my review here I was more taken with the novel’s play with the horror genre and the character’s complete lack of affect (apathetic stoicism) than with the novel as a statement about any decade, especially the nineties, so Ives agreed to answer some questions of mine about her novel, about the decade in question, and about how the two are related.
Nicholas Grider: The main action of the book, with the teen girl narrator and her friends, seems like it could have happened almost at any point in the last four decades, yet the novel’s titled nineties and in the center of the book there’s a torrent of ’90s cultural signifiers. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how the world of the narrator is grounded in the decade.
Lucy Ives: Even before we come to the torrent of signifiers, as you call it, there are hints about the dated nature of this text, again more signifiers: an educational typing/word-processing program involving an animated character shaped like an asterisk, the movie Children of the Corn II, Jerry Seinfeld, to name just a few. But I agree with you that the presence of these items and celebrities (plus the general absence of cellular phones) is not enough to certify its nineties provenance. What, to me at least, seems most “nineties” about this narrative is the form the narrator’s affect takes. This narrator is unable to perceive, intuit, or feel any kind of natural (or automatic) connection to the social world in which she exists. She also seems unable to react in any felt way to anything save language—here, largely brand names and other proper nouns—and this reaction is confined to noticing this language, organizing it in certain ways, “poring over” it, obsessing. In this sense, the language the narrator has access to is structured more like an image than a sign. Words are objects of fascination rather than conveyors of meaning. This, to me, is a very nineties way of relating to the American language. And all the nineties paranoia about persons and things being “real” or not, an individual having “sold out” or not, someone feeling viscerally “stupid and contagious” in relation to a regime of entertaining images (Kurt Cobain) or not—all this points to a way of understanding the world in which language has developed an autonomy that somehow matches or analogizes the power and autonomy of mass media. I guess it’s hardly a surprise that television formats or music industry “hits” might have affected one’s speech, but the 1990s was a time at which forms of resistance to consumer culture were being commodified and sold back to Americans at unprecedented rates. There was a feeling that one was not at home in the very words one spoke, partly I think because popular culture had become an engine for explaining the idea that all desirable forms of experience, even progressivism and “dropping out” and so on, had to be purchased. And language was very often the engine of this engine.
NG: Most of the characters in the novel are also too young and grounded in the present to really be nostalgic, yet right now there’s a large wave of ’90s nostalgia, especially in music. Does nostalgia play a role for you at all in the book? Another way of asking this would be: how does the novel’s title fit the story?
Ives: I think I have a relationship to the ’90s that is somewhat more active than a relationship (or feeling) of pure nostalgia would be. I think I actually want to recuperate something that I understand as definitive of this time, that seems specific to this time—but which is also strangely nearly ineffable, since so close to language and to representation itself. It’s not necessarily a good thing, what I’m talking about. But I think it’s significant for us as we attempt to understand what American language and American images are like now. So I’m questioning, too, your suggestion that this novel could have happened at many different times and that the title is what dates it with certainty (your suggestion is a fair one, I should note!) I don’t myself think these characters could have existed before early 1993. Certainly they may exist after. So we might find them walking around today, in some form, but they are emotionally and intellectually defined by this particular moment, particularly by virtue of being so young. I want this novel to be a space in which characters move around, personifying a decade; I haven’t wanted to create something “real,” even if real human experience could form the basis for what is in some sense an allegory, in my novel.
NG: What you’ve written (here and in the novel) about the narrator’s lack of affect is fascinating, and I’m wondering how, for you, the lack of affect is related more specifically to the decade, which burst forth with a resistant underground becoming mainstream (I’m thinking especially of Nirvana and the wave of performing not to care that really oddly came in their wake and with the birth of both Reality TV and home-consumer internet that postdates the novel by a few years. I was a high school freshman the fall that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out, and it was fascinating to witness my peers and others copy the surface of “grunge” but not the suddenly popular culture’s core of engagement.
Ives: Something that occurs to me, reading and thinking about this question, is that it’s really difficult to perform “I don’t care.” In other words, “I don’t care” isn’t an emotion; rather, it’s a vague way of attributing value. Also, performing “I don’t care”—which, I should say, has traditionally been the role of the dandy and other variously “cool,” refined figures, previous to the advent and global domination of the teenager as hero of culture and art—usually ends up being closer to “I can’t care,” or “It is impossible for me to attribute value of any kind to this situation/experience.” Then, built into the performance is the affect associated by the performer (the artist) with this impossibility. Does one despair because it is impossible to attribute value to experience? Does one wink, shrug, have sex, get high? I feel like much dated American popular culture of the earlier twentieth century concerns the shrug of an artist in response to the impossibility of caring about experience. Popular culture of the later twentieth century becomes invested in harsher or more absolute—and perhaps even more honest or uninhibited—kinds of response to a situation of “I don’t care.” Some of this feels related to social and economic pressures and is a more or less complex response. Some of this is a less complex performance really only touching on the matter of not caring. I guess what I’m saying is that I see a longer history of U.S. youth. Yes, the nineties were different. But to me they seem a reshuffling of certain well-worn American tropes, which is partly what makes them so ripe for figuration and novelization.
NG: I’m also wondering if you could share some more of your portrait of what language in the ’90s was––both what that meant for the nineties’ literary world and how a kind of fetishization of words developed across the course of the decade and, following that, more specifically what role this fetishizing of language takes place less in the narrator’s psychology than in the style and structure of the writing itself. For me, the poster boy of nineties literature was David Foster Wallace and a kind of maximalism and display that came along with the internet, but the writing here is very different from that, and obviously that’s partly from being filtered through the mind of the narrator.
Ives: To the extent that poetry can be admitted here, the 1990s come at the tail end of a long series of obsessive explorations of language throughout the twentieth century, i.e., modernism, culminating, if you like, in something that appears on the west coast in the last few decades and is called “Language Poetry.” By the nineties, perhaps Language Poetry has been well institutionalized; it’s a recognizable movement or thing. I can’t exactly speak to what this means for popular prose. It is interesting that David Foster Wallace, who was something of an experimentalist, was also a superstar in the nineties. Whether it was the time itself or what you call his “maximalism” that made this possible, I can’t say. However, at the heart of Wallace’s maximalism is also an obsession with individual words, proper names. Here I’m not talking about the kinds of not very remarkable lists of names of persons that for some reason have been included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. I’m talking about the fictionalized names of corporations and mass-market products that appear everywhere in his stories and novels. Recall that Infinite Jest is set in so-called subsidized time; corporations have begun purchasing the right to name the very year, here: “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” (Y.D.A.U.). For my nineties, I do not fictionalize brand names. All the brands you read in nineties are quite real. I employ other stylistic affordances to emphasize what I view as the peculiarity of the language of the decade, which is to say that I’ve created a narrator who has an unusual kind of economic relationship to language, in that she recognizes both its power and her own disaffection with this power. I suppose that’s why she treats everything she thinks or says as a kind of image.
Lucy Ives is most recently the author of Orange Roses (Ahsahta, 2013), a collection of poetry and essays, and nineties (Tea Party Republicans, 2013), a novel about a decade. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Conjunctions, Fence, The Huffington Post, n+1, Ploughshares, and other journals. A deputy editor at Triple Canopy, she is co-editor of Corrected Slogans: Reading and Writing Conceptualism, published by Triple Canopy and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. With Triple Canopy, she participated as an artist in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.