Shelf Life: Our Collections and the Passage of Time

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Like a lot of other people, I enjoyed Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” a young woman’s coming-of-age story that’s also a spiky romantic comedy of sorts. But the reason I can’t stop thinking about this movie (which I can’t discuss further without risking spoilers, so be warned) has to do with its status as a Gen X midlife cri de coeur.

The full cry — appropriately laced with self-mockery, self-pity and highly specific pop-cultural references — arrives in a single devastating scene near the end of the film. Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a graphic novelist who like the director is in his mid-40s, is dying of pancreatic cancer. Julie (Renate Reinsve), the film’s official protagonist, who had earlier broken his heart, comes to visit him in the hospital. She finds him playing furious air drums as “Back to Dungaree High” by the Norwegian death-punk band Turbonegro blasts in his headphones.

“It’s such a trip just to survive,” the singer howls, and Aksel is preoccupied with matters of life, death and popular culture. He tells Julie that he spends most of his time listening to familiar music and rewatching his favorite movies, including “The Godfather,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and the films of David Lynch. “The world I knew has disappeared,” he laments.

What was that world? It was “all about going to stores.”

That description isn’t meant to trivialize his youthful pastimes and passions, but rather to convey their magic and meaning to a millennial whose primary experience of shopping is likely to consist of clicking on an icon rather than rifling through bins. Aksel goes on to rhapsodize about the record, comic-book and video emporiums he used to frequent.

His pilgrimage stops may be particular to Oslo, but they have counterparts in every city. Julie, who works in a bookstore and dabbles in writing, is hardly oblivious to the utility and charm of physical media. But she doesn’t quite understand the intense emotion — the longing, the meaning, the sense of identity — that Aksel attaches to memories of an earlier style of consumption. This isn’t necessarily a difference of taste or sensibility. It’s more a contrasting relationship with the material aspects of culture, a different way of living in a world of things, and it defines the generational schism between them.

I know which side I’m on. I don’t think of myself as a shopper, but the truth is that in my time on this earth I’ve rarely been able to walk past a book or record store without going in, or to walk out empty-handed. I’ve surrounded myself with things, the most precious of which have been scratched, scribbled in, lent out or given away. As Aksel says, “I’ve spent my life doing that — collecting all that stuff,” but not because of its monetary or even its sentimental value. Those objects begin as vessels of meaning and tokens of taste, but their acquisition becomes a kind of compulsion, emptied of its original passion. “I kept doing it when it stopped giving me the powerful emotions,” Aksel reflects. “Now it’s all that I have left: memories of useless things.”

I don’t completely identify with Aksel. He is kinder, cooler (it took me some Googling to identify that Turbonegro song), a few years younger and a lot better looking than I am. But it isn’t enough for me to say, as people do these days, that watching him made me feel seen. The effect was more intimate, more shocking, more shameful, as if Trier had dumped out a laundry bag full of my favorite vintage band T-shirts on Aksel’s hospital bed for the whole movie-loving world to rummage through. Seen? I felt smelled.

Not that this is all about me. What Aksel says to Julie confirms him as an especially sympathetic and self-aware specimen of a recognizable, not always beloved type: not a fan, exactly, but a highly opinionated hybrid of connoisseur, collector and critic. You might know a version of this guy from the novels of Nick Hornby (or the films adapted from them), notably “High Fidelity” and “Juliet, Naked.” Or maybe from movies by Kevin Smith, Noah Baumbach, Judd Apatow and other Gen X auteurs. He could be your older brother, your ex- or current partner, your best friend or the long-lost buddy you’re sort of in touch with on Facebook. Your dad, even. But then again, if you’re like me, the teen spirit you smell may be your own

In real life, this kind of person isn’t always a guy. Popular culture often assumes as much, and assumes his whiteness, too, which is partly a failure of collective imagination, and partly a matter of whose cultural obsessions are taken as representative. Chuck Klosterman, perhaps the emblematic white male cultural critic of his (which is to say my) generation, somewhat inadvertently makes this point in his new book, “The Nineties,” when he implies that the release of Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” was a more significant world-historical event than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In typical ’90s fashion, the claim is hedged with knowingness and booby-trapped with irony. Klosterman understands that there were plenty of people in the ’90s — and not only in Berlin — who never cared much about “Nevermind.” The appeal and the annoyance value of his book arise from the same source, namely his unapologetic, extravagant commitment to generalizing from his own experience. “The Nineties,” with the modest, generic subtitle “A Book,” is neither history nor memoir, but rather uses each genre as an alibi for the shortcomings of the other. Of course this is just one guy’s recollection of the stuff he saw, thought about, listened to and bought in the last decade of the 20th century. But it’s also, Klosterman periodically insists, an account of what that decade was really like, a catalog of what mattered at the time and in hindsight. You can argue with the second version — how can you write a cultural history of the American 1990s without so much as an index entry for “Angels in America”? — but not so much with the first. What the ’90s meant is open for debate. What the decade felt like, maybe less so.

This is what makes Klosterman, who was born in 1972, a cheerful, mainstream American counterpart to Aksel’s gloomy, alternative-minded Nordic intellectual. They are both ’90s guys, driven to explain something that seems in danger of being forgotten or misunderstood to people who weren’t there. To a degree it’s the same something, but not quite the something either one thinks it is. Klosterman seeks to illuminate the reality of a unique and crucial period; Aksel tries to share with Julie the sources of his own sensibility. But the cultural reference points are red herrings. The deep motive is a longing to arrest and reverse the movement of time, to recover some of the ardor and bewilderment of youth.

The things you loved when you were young will never be able to make you young again. The reluctant acceptance of this fact is the source of nostalgia, a disorder that afflicts every modern generation in its own special way. Members of Generation X grew up under the heavy, sanctimonious shadow of the baby boom’s long adolescence, among crates of LPs and shelves of paperbacks to remind us of what we had missed. Just as baby boomers’ rebellion against their Depression- and war-formed parents defined their styles and poses, so did our impatience with the boomers set ours in motion. But I’m not talking so much about a grand narrative of history as about what Aksel might call the useless stuff — the objects and gadgets that form the infrastructure of memory.

Every cohort has these. A CD in a plastic jewel box is not intrinsically more poetic than a vinyl LP in a cardboard sleeve. On the internet and in television shows like “PEN15,” a robust millennial nostalgia fetishizes AOL chat rooms, Dance Dance Revolution, Tamagotchis and other things that I was already too old for the first time around. Gen Z will surely have its turn before long, even if its characteristic cultural pursuits don’t seem to be manifested in physical objects.

And that is the substance, so to speak, of Klosterman’s relentless cataloging and Aksel’s lamentation for lost record stores. The digitization of culture — the abstraction of all those beautiful things into streams and algorithms — feels to many of us like a permanent loss. What kind of a loss can be hard to specify, since there is also clearly a benefit. In the old days, Aksel might not have been able to watch “Dog Day Afternoon” over and over again. He might have had to wait until it showed up at a revival house, or until the previous customer returned the only VHS copy to the video store. Now he can stream “Back to Dungaree High” on a playlist with his other favorites. Klosterman can watch any episode of “Seinfeld” or “The Simpsons” any time he wants.

And so can I. Why isn’t this consoling? Why do I, like so many of my colleagues, mourn the passing of things that aren’t even dead? The end of movies, or at least of moviegoing, has been declared and decried (and in some cases celebrated) with increasing intensity through the rise of streaming platforms and the pandemic-assisted shrinking of theater audiences. The peril is real, but that may only be to say that the technologies of cultural consumption are always changing, and that the art forms that flow through them tend to wax and wane in unpredictable cycles. People continue to read, watch, listen, browse and seek out not only distraction and diversion, but also sources of meaning and connection. Young people tend to do so with a special avidity, sometimes as if their lives were at stake.

I know that feeling. I miss that feeling. But it may not, at bottom, have much to do with music or books or movies at all. Aksel doesn’t name Woody Allen among his favorites (though Allen’s influence on “The Worst Person in the World” is easy to spot), but he does paraphrase one of Allen’s famous lines. “I don’t want to live on in my work,” Aksel says. “I want to live in my flat.” With Julie, and with their books and records and DVDs. What makes all those objects useless is that they lack the power to make that possible, which is paradoxically why people like Aksel collect them in the first place. As he says: “It’s not nostalgia. It’s fear of dying.” Young people don’t understand this. They will.

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