Fat telephone books
Do you remember a time before the web page existed? It’s a question connected to a person’s age, of course. For those who qualify, what springs to mind about our pre-internet life?
Some things are long-forgotten. Fat telephone books. A road map in your car (that you couldn’t fold back up). We had telephones hanging on our walls. (Can you imagine attaching a big plastic brick to your wall?) We drove to the store for every single item. Convenience twenty-five years ago was ordering a sweater from a mail-order catalog. It all feels very kitschy. Things have changed so much.
Convenience twenty-five years ago was ordering a sweater from a mail-order catalog.
I bring up the 1990s because it’s the decade that my debut novel is set in, specifically the early part of 1995. For those of us who came of age then, it’s a time not so far removed in our minds. I believe we all remember vividly the passing of musician Kurt Cobain in 1994. We can recall where we were, even who we were with (hey AS), when we experienced our first cultural tragedy.
The dawn of surf
Nineties memories could fill a book to be sure, but my novel isn’t a trip down memory lane. The time period isn’t played up, but it impacts the story.
The year 1995 is a special one. It’s the final year when people lived what were considered to be modern lives before the internet changed everything.
It’s the final year when people lived what were considered to be modern lives before the internet changed everything.
The following year is when the internet began to be wisely used. It was 1996 when some of us began to surf the web and send (the old spelling) e-mail.
Lonely hearts club
What were things like before? What kind of people were we? If I can strain to remember myself, I’d say we were a bit more lonely. Compared to our connected world today, you might notice a prevailing social isolation that was just normal life.
“Social isolation” sounds dramatic. You could say we were responsible for own emotional well-being. We had to fend for ourselves more often.
Ever heard of helplines? Lovelorn newspaper columns? Radio call-in shows? They exist today in places, but back then they were legitimate avenues for lonely people to reach out when no one was available.
In 1995, a supportive friend wasn’t a text message away. Having a person on “speed-dial” was as close as you got to instant access. In 1995, the general public relied on answering machines, pay phones, and occasionally a dial-up connection to America Online. If you were having a bad day, it was possible to feel alone and have nothing to fix it. (Except ice cream.)
I don’t think we’re particularly different as people in 2020. We have these ways to create an illusion of connection in our solitary moments. For example, we check Facebook for ten minutes and feel part of a larger world, even if all we do is scroll and hit like. One question might be, what is instant connection covering for? What did we face without it?
In my novel Marble on a Table, the main character is unemployed. Much like a person stranded on a desert island, Rasmus relies on meager tools to help him escape his predicament. The answering machine and telephone are his way out. When he’s not at home, the pay phone is his mobile connection.
His daily distraction isn’t surfing his smartphone, which didn’t exist. Instead, he works on a massive jigsaw puzzle that sits on his floor.
Without a technology quick fix, Rasmus tries to fix himself. He’s being drummed out of New York, both his career and apartment. It’s time to fight back tooth and nail, but Rasmus gets an inspiring idea. He’ll respond to a heartless city with generosity. He’ll fight the bad with good.
Instead of banging on the vending machine that has taken his dollar, he’ll put yet another dollar into the vending machine.
Does a noble gesture work in New York? It doesn’t work. It’s a long shot idea by a city resident who can’t win in pre-technology New York. The power isn’t in the cloud, but in the hands of establishment players. No quick emails to influencers are possible, only painful cold calls. No easy employment websites exist, only awkward employment agencies.
The power isn’t in the cloud, but in the hands of establishment players.
At one point in the novel, Rasmus desperately needs to reach someone. Without the person’s phone number, Rasmus visits places where he thinks this person might be. He walks the streets in hopes of a chance encounter. Rasmus has no good way to navigate his world, to bring it under control.
Remember the web-culture term “life hack?” When I first heard it, I was skeptical. Can you actually game the system? Back in 1995, you could only cut the line, and only when you were lucky enough to know a gatekeeper. If you had an “in” you were saved.
Fortune and luck
I’m fascinated by this old-time when there was less access to everything. Today we talk about our personal agency, of being able to direct our futures. Back then, there was talk of waiting for “your ship to come in,” of gaining fortune and getting lucky.
Opportunities were more valuable a quarter-century ago. Power was centralized. Victories were less frequent. Your personal network wasn’t easily replaced. In Marble on a Table, Rasmus must sort out his intentions in a competitive city. He has few chances to get it wrong.
Worth losing for
The antidote to a rough world is love, we’re told. Love is cooperative. It changes hearts, changes the game. Love makes losers into winners.
Marble on a Table begins in the place described above. It ends up asking a question about love. Is love more important than personal agency? Is love a life hack, a means to an end, or is it something sacred? What lengths will love inspire us to go? Is love worth losing for?
I don’t think this novel could be set in any other time than 1995. The characters are modern, living in the shadow of the second millennium. They’re smart, aware. They’re like us. And yet, they’re naturally limited by their era, making connections in ways we find outdated and awkward. They are human without the cover of technology. They’re who we used to be and, underneath it all, maybe still are.
They’re who we used to be and, underneath it all, maybe still are.
If you remember 1995, or if you’ve lived in New York, the novel will bring back familiar feelings. If you weren’t old enough or weren’t here yet, the novel will hopefully show you a time that is quite foreign today—people needing each other, and hoping to get it right the first time.