“I am starting to figure out that what it is is I like to play with fate.”
When I was thirteen years old, I was caught shoplifting. There was a rash of girls my age who all regarded shoplifting as a norm, and I was one of them. I don’t remember how it actually started, but I do remember being impressed by friends of mine who would disappear down the cosmetic aisle in McCrory’s and emerge into the mall with a new compact, lipstick, and lip liner (very stylish at the time). I had heard of girls who lifted cassettes and sometimes even CDs from The Wiz after school, but that always felt like the big time to me and I was always too nervous to try. I did however get into the business of stealing clothes: going into the dressing room with a bunch of stuff, slipping some of it on underneath what I was wearing, and then walking out of the store like it was no big deal. I couldn’t tell you how many times exactly I did this, but I can tell you that it felt like an awesome and powerful secret, something that made me feel more acutely aware of my surroundings and as a result, made me feel in control of them.
Girlhood is mostly interesting to girls or rather, to women who used to be girls and are trying to contextualize it. Lucy Ives’s nineties deals, yes, with the pervasive pop culture of the 1990s, but its crystalline focus is through the eyes of a young girl growing up during that particular decade.
What does it mean to be a girl? Does it mean anything? I’m not suggesting that nineties has an answer to these questions, but it does start with a cryptic allegory that gives us some kind of framework through which to read the rest of the book. It begins, “A long time ago we invented a game about civilization,” and goes on to explain how an imaginary bus driver gets the imaginary people from an imaginary good town to go with him to Torture Town, despite its unusual and ominous name. Once they arrive, they are persuaded to enter the town’s factory, and then the “invisible dignitaries and citizens of Torture Town” have a good laugh and the factory springs into action: “shiny red domino-shaped blocks began to appear in a line on the opposite side of the factory from where the good citizens had entered. It was the object of the game.”
Now, this doesn’t necessarily sound like a game that is going to work out for the people from the imaginary good town. What would it mean to live as though every decision you made was part of a game? Or rather, what would it mean to make up rules to an imaginary game that only you and your friends played, regardless of any ancillary consequences, because, well, the consequences aren’t a part of the game and therefore don’t count? What if, for a time, that’s what being a girl meant? Maybe it meant trying to control and direct events in your surroundings. Maybe it meant making mistakes.
nineties is not an unconventional novel per se—it tells a story, there is a plot, there are characters—and yet there are no in-depth character descriptions or development or overt analysis. It is also a novel that is in all likelihood drawn from Ives’s real life experiences. There is a picture of her on page ninety with one of her friends, a blond-haired girl with a big grin, resting her head on the shoulder of the dark-haired girl one could assume is Ives.
The plot is pretty simple. First, we are introduced to our unnamed narrator and her girlfriends, Hannah, Gwen, Larisse, and Winnie. The action takes place in New York City. One of the girls lives up on Park Ave. They go to a school that has a headmistress. These girls are girls of a certain kind of privilege.
nineties at first reads like some kind of exposé of adolescent drama. A laundry list of the cool, “bad girl” things the characters get into: Gwen and the narrator sneak out and sneak into a bar in midtown, where they get older guys to buy them drinks, until Gwen gets a page from her mom and they realize they are totally busted. They smoke Parliament Lights. They go to pool halls and try to meet guys. Everyone “has a baby tee and leggings. Everywhere it’s about cropped hair and the benefits of eating low fat.” They “shoplift at department stores and only get black clothes.” They read Details magazine. They go to house parties of kids who are in high school. They drink and get drunk.
But then the tension of nineties shifts and becomes focused on one single, defining action: Gwen, Hannah, and the narrator come up with the idea to steal their friend Winnie’s credit card and use it to go shopping. They succeed at both the stealing and the shopping. The narrator hides the boots that she buys in her closest so her mom doesn’t see them. The school they attend immediately begins an investigation. The girls go two weeks before the narrator turns them all in. They go two weeks still hanging out with Winnie and letting her talk about her credit card being stolen. They even attempt to comfort her in a sort of nonchalant way. Gwen says, “Whatever. Don’t even fucking worry. We know so many people who can fuck them up it’s not even funny.” The only inkling of guilt or concern comes from the narrator who realizes they are totally fucked, they are going to get caught, so she writes out a list of how they should handle the situation, outlining, “What We Did Wrong,” “What We Can Do,” and “Analysis.”
The first item on the “What We Did Wrong” list is “We did not close the locker door and left the planner out on the ground. Now everybody knows that whatever happened it happened in school.” What they did wrong was that they were amateurs, and that is her greatest regret. Ultimately, it is a conclusion that the narrator comes to in a poem that she writes which gives her the courage to fess up in the hopes that the situation will just go away afterwards: “No one is going to kill you. // It is just people.”
I couldn’t help thinking of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers while reading nineties. The adolescent shenanigans of the girls in that movie are definitely higher-stakes. They involve sticking up a restaurant (with fake guns) for money to go on spring break, ending up in jail, then falling in with a local thug, sticking up other spring breakers with him, and climatically using actual guns to take out an entire rival gang. These girls are older than the characters in nineties, but it’s a similar pattern of behavior in that there is no forethought or concern about potential repercussions. They are “playing with fate” and are turned on by it. I think this is true of every generation, nineties or otherwise. Perhaps it’s just true of youth. The scary thing about this playing with fate is that said fate can be accessed in further and more nuanced ways aside from just credit fraud. The Internet and social media can inspire such cruel, desperate, and depressing behavior (think of all the stories of kids who kill themselves because they are bullied online, because of their sexuality or otherwise), and we are still learning how this behavior will be understood through the eyes of a generation of humans who have never experienced life without it.
After we left the department store wearing stolen men’s silk boxers under our clothes (what can I say, they were cool in, you guessed it, the ’90s), I realized that we were being followed by these two nondescript men, definitely men our dads’ age. I knew that they knew. I tried to test my theory by going into the girliest stores in the mall, Contempo Casual being one of my favorites. The two men followed us into the store. Getting nervous I tried to devise a plan. I decided the best thing would be to just go back to the store and return what we had stolen. I honestly thought this would work. It did not. My friend and I were immediately stopped when we tried to re-enter the store. Immediately brought to this tiny nondescript beige room. A short while later, our parents showed up to retrieve us. They wanted to know why we would do such a thing. My friend and I looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders.
Gwen, Hannah, and the narrator are kicked out of their school. They have to go to a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist asks the narrator why she did it, why she stole one of her best friend’s credit cards, the narrator simply replies, “I don’t know,” and I think that is the most honest thing she could say. I think it’s generally presumed that getting caught doing something wrong should yield some kind of change in behavior, the old adage, to learn from your mistakes, etc. But when the psychiatrist asks the narrator, “OK, if you could do anything […] anything at all right now, what would you do?” the narrator bats that shit out of the park: “I slowly say, ‘Two dicks.’”
One could argue that to write the book now, presumably at least fifteen years after the fact, indicates some type of remorse, whether or not that remorse is represented in the book. One could argue that the book is true to the experience of those events at the time of those events. It’s an honest depiction of doing something really fucked up and not really knowing how to deal with it. How the “regular” things of girlhood like make-up and talking on the phone can be mixed in with this more complex understanding of how we exist in the world.
Early on in nineties, the narrator confesses, “In real life, I never do anything. I let things happen. I watch.” I think that’s true of most thirteen-year-old girls. You don’t really do anything in “real life,” because what the fuck is “real life” and how is it different from the life you had been living? You don’t have any idea what “real life” is going to be or how you are supposed to be a person how actively partakes in “real life.” All of a sudden, all these adult boundaries and consequences manifest themselves, and the most logical thing one can do is rebel against them. The rebellion can be lived out to extremes à la the Spring Breakers girls, or it can be sublimated into something else, intellectualized, written about. It can be used to become the person you want to be in your “real life.”