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Literature : Interview

Generalizing a decade's affect, the insubstantial magic of capital, and Ive's novel nineties.


Photo by Lucy Ives.

In the novel nineties by Lucy Ives, three friends come-of-age by committing credit card fraud. Living in Manhattan at the end of the twentieth century, the girls are surrounded by the dark and contractual abundance of capital; by television, sex, celebrity, and consumerism. The plot—their crime and the subsequent police investigation—launches an inquiry into the nature of guilt, debt, credit, privilege, adolescence, feminism, and what these concepts mean to the daughters of the happy few who live on Park Ave.

Alien, canny, and alert, the unnamed narrator indexes her historical present (the 1990s) as she riddles her way through the compromised process of self-actualization in the age of capitalism. At the outset, her circle steals their friend’s (father’s) credit card, goes on a shopping spree at a local department store, and consoles the girl by threatening to “fuck up” the thieves. The secret crime fuels their sense of autonomy, but makes them vulnerable to a higher authority; namely, their parents and the police. The theft almost reads as an unintentional act of political transgression—not a cure but a rupture. The girls almost read as accidental radicals—their subjectivities shift; their actions author that shift. For an instant, they transcend their classification as “child-consumers” by using credit fraud as a means to outfox the mercenary circulation of money and stuff that makes up their world. They spot a loophole, slip through it, and end up in a psychologist’s office.

Ives says: “Oddly, I think they are all in a hurry to preempt any kind of victimhood that might be foisted upon them, by whom I have no idea. I think it’s this fear of becoming victims that makes them as vile and destructive as they are.”

So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation? Neither ethical tale nor enlightenment narrative, there is no moral; there is no reveal. Wrong-doing fails to present the girls (or the reader) with a chance to recover a workable idea of right-action. Instead, their heist produces a highly constructive form of critical anxiety that asks: Is this life? How should I live it? Will I be punished if I live it incorrectly? Lucy and I speak about these issues and more as nineties, published by Tea Party Republicans Press, enters its second print-run.

Kendra Sullivan You have told me you wrote nineties in response to your own desire to read nineties. What does that mean?

Lucy Ives It means that I wanted to read a book that contained clear, almost (to the extent that this is possible) objective description. I wanted to read something that didn’t contain instructions for how anyone should feel, in reading the book—that wouldn’t instruct one as to how the characters “really” feel, or even as to how the reader should react. I wanted that space to be open and ambiguous, as it is in life. So I wanted to read a fundamentally amoral but incredibly visually and perhaps even spatially precise book.

KS Why do the words on your pages feel so much like objects?

LI This is the style I write in in this book. It seems to fit, also, with the plot, which is about consumerism. This is a novel about an actual affective and aesthetic condition standard to the time in which it takes place, roughly 1992 to 1995. If affect can be generalized across a society and a historical time period, then this is the kind of affect I want to generate, depict, play with.

KS Roland Barthes writes, “Every biography is a novel that dares not speak its name.” Is the unnamed narrator of nineties actually called Lucy?

LI The narrator’s name could be Lucy, but her name is certainly not “Lucy Ives,” or at any rate she isn’t me. In nineties a narrator speaks in the present tense. We don’t know if what she describes has only just happened or if it happened in the past. But the narrator doesn’t have a life in the same way that you or I do, which is of course obvious, but all the same I want to say that I don’t intend for this narrator to have a life; I intend for her to tell this story.

KS The girls lie to their parents and lie to each other. They commit a crime. The police arrive. Multiple dialectics develop: between lies and fiction, fiction and truth, truth and fantasy, fantasy and lies.

LI Maybe something to be said here is that these girls may have little in common. Though they all live in New York City, their families have very different histories; this is the American situation, of course, but perhaps it’s in some way intensified in this particular competitive, privileged milieu. What do they share? Being female, being young, attending the same school, being rich. Are they rich enough? Will they stay that rich? You could say something like, these people have everything so what’s wrong with them, and I think that’s also right, but: they are living in an era of generous credit, in a time in which having is not the same as having the means to have. This is not a judgment, it’s just a fact. And I think you see this disconnection reflected in their way of relating to one another, which is, or was always going to be, extremely venal.

KS The girls remind me of a coven. They share a heretical subject-hood, though their bond feels sinister; their allegiances suspect. Do you think the friends in your book were empowered by their alliance with one another?

LI I hesitate to be too optimistic, but I have to say that I think that these characters are better off having committed their crime, having seen the consequences. Not because now they are reformed and won’t be “bad” anymore, but because they are more informed about how the world works. I think that they know more at the end of the novel than they did at its outset, and I can’t object to that. I’m sad that their friendships have to end, but honestly there are more important things in life.

KS nineties is inflected by atmospheric typographies: street signage, store and brand names, graffiti—and the writing of the girls themselves in the form of notes. When, in a novel, I read that someone is writing a letter, the letter is real even if the writer and the recipient are fictional.

LI I’m interested in the difference between the narrator-as-character and the narrator-as-narrator and how the presence of incidental writing in the book makes you think about this—and also think about the possibility that there is a third facet to this narrator, which is to say, the narrator-as-author.

I’ve imagined the narrator of nineties as someone who is, if not exactly a writer, then unusually interested in writing and the ways in which learning to read and write shape and alter our perceptions. I don’t think the narrator knows exactly how writing changes things, but I think she does feel fairly sure that it does. (Certainly she thinks a lot about brand names.) It seems like writing is a device that allegedly repeats or represents the world, yet it repeats or represents the world imperfectly. All the same, it’s a powerful device for representing, reflecting, and perhaps even understanding what is the case.

Then there is the fact, as you point out, that in the context of a novel a letter between two characters is a “real” letter, a real written thing, even if the characters have no corporeal existence. Maybe this matters to the narrator, too. Maybe written things—the notes, letters, and poems authored by the characters of nineties—get included in the novel because they seem like traces or proofs of real events, events that in themselves remain ambiguous and lacking in objectivity. It’s hard—and the narrator almost knows this—to think without writing. The narrator uses writing but is also still in the process of learning or coming to understand what writing is.

Maybe when we learn to write we also acquire a means of engaging privacy in a selective way. I’m pretty sure that the writing undertaken by characters in nineties is about trying to figure out who their allies are and what—or whose—language it is they speak. They really have no idea who they are, what they sound or seem like. Writing is a means to some kind of provisional resolution of these (inevitably unsolvable) quandaries.

KS While re-reading nineties I recall 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Shopping and browsing figure heavily in both. Clothes that freely cross state borders, where populations cannot, stand in as contact relics of sweatshop labor practices consumers never see. nineties dwells in the surface of excess. Without mention of “exploitation,” it is everywhere inferred.

LI There’s a lot of stuff in this novel. Why is all of it here? What should anyone do with it? I think part of the bad behavior you see in this book is an attempt, on the part of these not very moral young people, to manage this enormous quantity of stuff—stuff, recall, that they know very little about (re: its origins) and which they’re supposed to desire. It’s possible that these characters could have moved on to blowing things up or lighting things on fire and so on. Such actions might be a logical (illogical) step; such violence would seem, then, to stem from being overwhelmed by material things, by the nonsensical unmotivated presence of all this expensive and mostly useless stuff.

KS Kristeva writes of “consumerism that swallows up human life.” Consumerism inspires criminality in the girls; their crime initiates a kind of trial. It’s not totally clear if they survive its proceedings.

LI I think they survive in different ways. Which is to say, they manage. Their parents manage. Everyone seems to be on trial, in some sense, since credit fraud is easily in reach of everyone; so, in this sense, the question is not “Did you steal?” but “Will you?” Anyway, what would it mean to behave morally, or not amorally, in this environment? Is using a credit card legally, in one’s own name, a moral act?

We need suffering in order to have knowledge. It’s not just some stupid free-for-all of postmodern floating signifiers in life! I think this is the tragedy I’m trying to point out here. Debt may not be “real,” but other things you think, feel, see, and so forth are real. Other things (and people) supporting the insubstantial magic of capital are real. I know we all know this! Maybe this has something to do with the fact that suffering is never theoretical.

KS Sometimes, the young girls read like drones collaged from ads in sales catalogs. They slip into the apparatus of capitalism through “wanting” and “suffering.” Their “wanting” and “suffering” is different than the wanting and suffering of those laboring to produce all that stuff, but the girls are no more free to escape their affliction than the laborers are to escape theirs.

LI The characters in nineties are attempting to learn a livable idea of freedom. They’re trying to be free, to behave in the way that they believe people who are actually free would behave. However, their idea of freedom is mostly destructive—and false. It’s based on images they’ve gathered from entertainments of the day and is fundamentally apolitical, by which I mean it has zero to say about what it means to live together and share limited resources and so on. In fact, one of the major problems with the idea of freedom the characters in nineties subscribe to—which is to say, the three main characters, who commit the crime—is that it assumes that one lives in a society of literally limitless wealth and abundance, that there will always be more, and that therefore one is an idiot if one does not simply take whatever one wants. Here, freedom is recognition of this purported infinite abundance. It’s the willingness to look this terrifyingly massive abundance dead-on, to realize the implications and possibilities of a supposed infinite fungibility of money and debt. It probably seems strange to some people that adolescents could have such an idea about larger social and/or economic notions and even act accordingly, but I guess that is what this novel is about.

Lucy Ives is the author of Anamnesis (2009), nineties (2013), and Orange Roses (2013), and is Deputy Editor at Triple Canopy, which has been included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. She lives in New York City, where she is completing a PhD in comparative literature at New York University.

Kendra Sullivan is an artist, writer, curator, and boat-maker based in Brooklyn. She works at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.

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Experimental writing
Novels
Writing process
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