The Shocking Book That Shows How Far We’ve Come Since the Toxic ’90s

Adali Schell
Adali Schell

They may have been good to me, but the ’90s were not great.

As someone who, as a correspondent for MTV News, had a fairly high-profile perch to the music, pop culture, politics, and social change (such as there was any) of the Clinton Era, I am here to tell you the decade is regularly, falsely, rose-colored-romanticized—often by people who lived through it, and often by straight white cis men. To this day I will be approached by a stranger of a certain age with a question like, “Hey man, things aren’t like they were 25 years ago, huh?” My reply is usually a more polite version of: “No, they’re not, and thank God for that.”

For all of the revisionist tendency to present the era as somehow progressive in all of its alt-ness, the idea that it was freer and more accepting toward women, people of color, queer folk and other marginalized is utter horseshit. The golden age of rap? The “grunge era?” It was also, to be sure, a golden age for misogyny and homophobia. If you were there, you know, and if you somehow remember it fondly in all its crassness, casual cruelty and celebration of bro-culture because your take is, say, “Less language policing and PC-ness, hell yeah!”—well, that says more about you.

And the end of the decade, when you added to the general toxicity of the time the horror of Columbine, the murder of Matthew Shepard, the simultaneous rise of boy bands and pop girls and, in palpable opposition, nü metal, the aggro-dystopia of Woodstock ’99 with its bonfires-cum-funeral pyres, the rise of tech-facilitated narcissism and hyped-up fears of Y2K? It was particularly fraught.

I was taken back to that time, for better or worse, in New Millennium Boyz, writer Alex Kazemi’s long-gestating debut novel, a raw, raunchy, alternately sickening, sweet, maddening and heartbreaking read that immerses you in the lives of three privileged high school boys living out their senior year of 1999-2000, staving off boredom via increasingly depraved adventures. I could hardly put the book down, partly because it’s an addictive page-turner but also because it is set in such a specific time and through events that I reported on during my time as a correspondent for MTV News.

Hardly a chapter in the book goes by without some MTV reference; pages are packed with mentions of songs, albums and artists emblematic of the time. World events: the aforementioned slaughter in Littleton, Colorado, the imploding music festival in Rome, New York, and Shepard’s grim death on a fence in Wyoming, alongside the VMAs, TRL, the Clinton-Lewinsky aftermath, chat rooms, Napster, Handycams and much more all form the backdrop of the book’s story—along with too many brand-checks of sodas (Surge, anyone?), fast food, clothing and backpacks to mention. It felt, for a work of fiction, remarkably like non-fiction to me. The endlessly sardonic teens love to bash on MTV, but they watch a lot of it. And an interview I once did with Silverchair singer Daniel Johns, about an eating disorder, is singled out for mockery. Never before have I read a book of fiction in which I felt almost like a background character.

“You’re totally a background character!” Alex Kazemi says with a laugh over Zoom from his hometown of Vancouver. “For sure. It’s like this parallel multiverse, right? So it’s like, they’re there watching you cover the Beautiful Monsters tour [Hole and Marilyn Manson’s ill-fated 1999 trek] on MTV. And it’s happening like, right now. It’s not written about as a thing in the past, it’s happening as you read it. And so that must have been very surreal for you, cause you’re this looming figure in the background!”

Alex Kazemi
Adali Schell

New Millennium Boyz, no need to sugarcoat, is a rough ride. Briefly, it’s the story of Brad, an affluent self-styled “good boy” looking to shake things up in his predictable existence. For the first 40 pages—a complete “red herring” of which Kazemi is forever proud—it seems that shake-up will come at summer camp, as Brad falls for his first real girlfriend, Aurora, and loses his virginity, explicitly but sweetly. But the blissed rug is soon pulled out from under the reader as Brad returns for senior year, and bored with the same old normie friends, he falls in with two outsider types: Shane, a legitimately depressed and suicidal kid who acts as beta to a Marilyn Manson-idolizing, Baphomet hoodie-wearing alpha, Lu (as in Luke, or, ahem, “Lucifer”)—the sort of nail polish-wearing nihilist who will do or say anything for shock value. You never quite know whether Lu’s bark is worse than his bite, but his bark is substantial. Brad falls under his over-the-top toxic spell and proceeds to live a double life—one to his parents and in completely phony letters to Aurora, as the good boy the world has always imagined him to be, and another out of the house, in a push-pull passive-aggressive relationship with Lu that you just know will not end well. Handycams are ever-present, especially for Lu, who in between berating Shane, gaslighting Brad and making Columbine jokes, admits: “Ever since I got my own video camera, I don’t want to live off-camera. This is all I want to do.”

Doin’ it for the ’gram, a decade before there was a ’gram.

The bullying is relentless. The trio takes it from the jocks and then dishes it out on those weaker or younger, sometimes brutally. And there’s drugs aplenty, self-harm, sexual assault, animal abuse, endless homophobic, racist, ableist, and wildly misogynistic banter. But Kazemi insists he has no interest in “empty shock,” and says that the rawness of the language and behavior are in service of larger commentaries on areas that couldn’t be more relevant today: the inner lives of boys and young men, and an obsession with image and insta-fame.

“I think that it could be interpreted that like, I just wrote a bunch of shock porn,” Kazemi concedes. “But I think if you zoom out, I’m trying to talk about the escalation of the behavior and a culture that is sort of encouraging their worst impulses. I think, because a lot of my generation likes to romanticize goth culture—Manson, Nine Inch Nails and stuff—I wanted to expose it for being just another aspect of the ‘bro’ culture. You know, just cause Manson was wearing lipstick and all, it doesn’t change the fact that he was a part of that very male culture.”

The book does come with a “Note to the Reader” content warning, something Kazemi says was asked to include by sales reps, but which he isn’t sure was “warranted.”

“I mean I’d rather have my book stocked in stores, than not at all?” he says. “But it feels weird. I don’t know, I don’t actually feel like I get off on the provocation the book might cause, or anything like that. It really isn’t like that for me, because I was sort of under the impression that, ‘Oh, Chuck Palahniuk has happened, Dennis Cooper has happened, Bret Easton Ellis has happened.’ You know this transgressive-literature genre isn’t really new.’”

Those authors and others whose work shocked many and even incited calls for “bans” in decades past have long been among Kazemi’s favorites. “That transgressive work, or work that challenged or criticized or questioned the world around us,” he says. “Obviously, people like Larry Clark or Harmony Korine—people like that who were making critiques of things were definitely inspiring for me. And I guess that I kind of learned that maybe through a lot of Gen-X antiheroes who were very cynical of the world around them.”

Kazemi cites Clark and Korine’s third rail-touching film Kids (1995), Clark’s Bully (2001) and Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) as inspirations, along with Douglas Rushkoff’s 2001 documentary Merchants of Cool. Writers Laura Albert aka JT Leroy, Poppy Z. Brite, and Ellen Hopkins—literary lightning rods all—contribute accolades on the book’s back cover and front pages, a move that feels like a preemptive strike against those who might be inclined to shut Kazemi down. Hopkins, in her pull quote, vows to “forever defend” Kazemi’s right to write his book. And right on the cover is Ellis, calling Kazemi “my favorite millennial provocateur.” Those are some button-pushing heavy-hitters to have in your corner, but they are at least a generation older, and none of them came up in quite the climate in which Kazemi is releasing New Millennium Boyz.

New Millennium Boyz book cover
Simon & Schuster

To be clear, Kazemi is a young millennial, born in 1994, meaning he was not a peer of the boys in his book. He was all of 5 years old in 1999, which meant that setting a novel believably in Y2K (and he does nail the vibe of the era) required extensive research.

“I had to learn a lot about it,” he says. “But what drove me to it, and the appeal of it was that overload, the obsession with the Y2K era, Chuck Klosterman, the Nineties, this obsessiveness in the culture about that era. I wanted it to be almost a case study, to sort of reveal a more real version of it, to depict things that came up in my research, like the open racism, the open homophobia, Matthew Shepard, I wanted to talk about these things that are forgotten about when we just think it was all, ‘Oh my God! The VMAs! Britney!’ You know, this weird façade. And I think some people who were born in the 1980s are very upset about the book, because they feel it’s such an anti-nostalgia novel, and it kind of ruins their idea or their façade of Y2K? But that was sort of the point. We can’t do this sort of historical revisionism. But there was a lot of really human research about the time, to try to make it right, down to the last detail, the cologne, perfume, everything. I just really wanted it to be a time capsule of that time.”

It's been a 10-year journey to get the book to publication. New Millennium Boyz began in 2013 as Yours Truly, Brad Sela. Kazemi posted 50 pages of the manuscript and a letter explaining his vision to the site Scribd, embedded it to Tumblr, and from there it took off, whetting viral appetites for the full thing.

“People kept reposting and reblogging,” he recalls. “And I’d get hundreds of messages from teenagers all over the world like, ‘When am I gonna get to read the final version? I’m ready to buy it!’” Easier said than done. Despite a deal with MTV Books(!), which Kazemi says happened through sheer persistence, the book “wasn’t ready” yet, and he struggled to find an agent. One year led to another and he “would get frustrated every birthday, saying ‘This is the year it’s gonna get finished!’” As the culture changed, most conspicuously via #MeToo, but also Black Lives Matter, reckonings with queer and trans rights, and newfound openness about mental health among Gen Z, Kazemi’s book evolved. “Yes, so much!” he exclaims. “Because the original one was more of an 18-year-old’s diary journals, really, just very bare bones concepts. And I would say the original was much less dark.”

There are some scenes of genuine physical and sexual harm in the book, but for me it’s the casual verbal meanness that’s the toughest to read: the boys bringing an Asian girl to tears in a food court; Brad, who clearly for all his performative love of “pussy” has palpable sexuality issues, publicly beating up a gay boy who hits on him at a party and taunting another queer person who opens up about a painful experience; and Lu, mocking Shane’s very real thoughts of self-harm (“He’ll never do it”). I believe that we are in a kinder time, 23 years later, even for adolescent boys, but cruelty is sadly forever as mass shootings have gone from bad to mind-numbingly worse. In our present-day, AR-15-armed abattoir of a nation, the 1999 shock of Columbine seems almost tragically quaint. And in a time when female stories and experiences are often rightly centered—when Barbie and the Eras Tour are this year’s tentpole cultural moments—it’s notable that Kazemi focuses squarely on the experience of figuring shit out as a young man.

Alex Kazemi
Adali Schell

“To anyone in this world who was born a boy,” reads the novel’s dedication.

“When you’re born a boy, and you’ve been socialized into this world,” Kazemi explains, “and you’ve been part of the privacy of the boy world because it’s your gender, there’s all these weird issues that come with that are not really discussed in most work. Like, we’re always exploring like the ‘secret world of girls’ in like The Virgin Suicides or all this like gauzy, femme stuff. But we never want to look at the cruelty of teenage boys. It’s always how bitchy and mean girls are, but we don’t want to examine how fucked up boys are. And then we get all shocked when they shoot up a school or they overdose on their Prozac, all these things, and it’s because no one really cares about teenage boys’ issues.”

Brad, Lu and Shane’s ugliness is emblematic of the sort of behavior the great bell hooks wrote about in her essential 2004 The Will to Change. Not only are the 17 and 18-year-olds in New Millennium Boyz not interested in (or even aware of) the notion of embracing “radical love” as hooks insisted was essential for men to grow, they’re being spoon fed the no-big-deal misogyny, homophobia, and general meanness that came out of every corner of a white male-dominated media. “The boys in my book are vulnerable, and impressionable,” Kazemi says. “They’re kids. They don’t really know the violence, or the weight of what they’re doing. They’re just part of a normalized, masculine bro culture. They’re waking up in the morning and turning on Howard Stern who’s saying, ‘Oh, the Columbine killers should have raped those girls, instead of killed them.’ You know? And it becomes like white noise, in the background. Or Loveline? They didn’t care about the kids at all! It was total exploitation. I mean, that’s the reality of what it was. And you hear the helplessness and vulnerability in these teenagers. They’re calling Adam Carolla, and maybe they don’t have access to therapy or anything like that. And then he just, like, shuts them down.”

Is a depiction of depravity glorification? Does presenting cruelty equal endorsement? I don’t think so. If we can’t remember the past, as Santayana said, we’re doomed to repeat it. Early reaction to New Millennium Boyz has been mixed since its release earlier this month, but Kazemi says some of the book’s biggest fans come from Gen Z.

“It’s been a range of reactions,” he admits. “There are some people who think that I completely fucked it up, and I didn’t capture the era properly, and my attention to detail was wrong. And there are people that just want to hate on the book. And then there are the teenagers and people in their 20’s and 30’s who read it and are very emotionally impacted by it.” That includes younger queer readers, he says, who grew up in kinder times. “I’ve had Zoomers, young gay men who’ve read my book and bawled and screamed,” he offers. “And they just couldn’t even handle the idea that the world was that way. So I think that if that’s an indicator of our evolution, and progress? That’s positive too. It’s historical fiction like education.”

On Y2K night, New Year’s Eve, 1999, while I was in our Times Square studio, filled like most everyone with elation and maybe a touch of fear, Kazemi’s Brad, Lu and Shane attended a particularly raucous teen bacchanal that served as a launching pad for their most extreme adventures. But I imagine all of us were wondering that night what was to come in this new millennium. On some counts, we’re worse off, but on balance I’d say we’re better now. Kazemi’s vulgar but funny, raucous, harrowing and ultimately tragic depiction of a harsher, meaner time doesn’t let us forget that.

New Millennium Boyz only reinforces my anti-nostalgia impulses, though it does bring to mind a line made famous not by a Millennial or a Zoomer or even a Gen X-er or Boomer but rather an 80-year-old, the great Carly Simon, who famously sang: “I’ll stay right here, cause these are the good old days.”

Who Should We Blame for the Death, Riots, and Misogynistic Mayhem of Woodstock ’99?

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