Wayne Koestenbaum's My 1980s and Other Essays, out this week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, isn't so much nostalgia as it is a celebration of what it means to be young. Koestenbaum tackles the era, surely enough — stories about Warhol, AIDS, and IBM typewriters are all there — but by the last page, you'll want to look at your own college photos, whatever generation they may be from.
The book holds 39 short essays in all. Some are poetic; some, like a conversation between Brigitte Bardot and Karen Kilimnik, are dramatic imaginations. Some give advice: "Take your intuitions seriously, even if older bossy people tell you that you are deluded and self-indulgent. the word self-indulgent (let's destroy it) inhibits breathing." Koestenbaum skips effortlessly between longer prose passages and short, sparse observations.
He discusses many famous figures throughout, but what a book about youth really needs is a legitimate teen idol. For Koestenbaum, that's Debbie Harry. The New Yorker has a preview of his essay about the star, "Debbie Harry at the Supermarket" — and if you read nothing else from the collection, read that.
Koestenbaum explains the appeal and depth of the Blondie singer:
Even her physical beauty seemed ironic; she seemed to deploy it as an analytical torch, a secret agent, dismantling the stereotypes she cheerfully traversed. In the Polaroid snapshots that Andy Warhol took of her in 1980, she gazes at him — and at the viewer — from across the moat of received wisdom, whose toxicity can’t touch her; with us, she exchanges a complicit glance, as if to say, We understand the joke that gender is, and we understand how masterfully I embody its barbed glories.
In this collection, Koestenbaum elevates pop culture discourse. He's not merely being ironic or pretentious, treating the era's cultural artifacts as intellectual playthings. As he explains in the essay "The Desire to Write," ruminating on pop figures of the Age of Ronald is his way of growing up: "The point of writing — of my writing, at least — is to travel forward under the guise of traveling backward."
My 1980s & Other Essays, published by FSG Originals, is available now.
Photo: "Brigitte Bardot Shopping in Shorts" by Karen Kilimnik, 1985