VANESSA BERRY Ninety9. Reviewed by Walter Mason
Goths, zines and inner-city life: this memoir of 1990s Sydney is nostalgic and multi-layered – and fun.
One of the ways I love to torture myself is by reading about people who are immensely more creative, daring and productive than me. Writerly envy can be delicious, and I am never happier than when racked by a deep jealousy and sense of inadequacy as I read a book about somebody else’s infinitely more fabulous life. It is a wonderful and, I think, very healthy kind of torment.
This was precisely how I felt while reading Vanessa Berry’s beautifully crafted memoir Ninety9. A paean to alternative culture in 1990s Sydney, this little book (it is one of Giramondo’s constantly satisfying series of ‘Shorts’) details Berry’s career as alt-rock chick, band shirt collector and maker and distributor of zines.
While most of us spent the ’90s working in boring corporate nine-to-fives and spending our weekends at dance parties (well, that’s what I did), Vanessa Berry was romantically locked in a darkened room in Camperdown, waking in the afternoon to create quirky miniature handcrafted magazines. Then she would dress up in modified goth chic and head out to see some genre-defying band. And all this on a week day!
Ninety9 is a record of la vie boheme, inner-Sydney style, and as such it is unique, both in its setting and its subject. Berry describes a mythic journey from suburban geek to inner-west goddess. She is frank, self-deprecating and wonderfully unpretentious. I loved her descriptions of suburban life as a desperate teenager, so instantly recognisable in its moments of bathetic rebellion and sweet excitement. Driving with her mother through one of Sydney’s drearier outposts, she spies two goth boys, the men of her dreams:
I wished fervently I could have jumped out and followed them. For a long time afterwards I thought about the goth boys, wondering who they were and where they had been going. To see them in Beecroft … was as surprising to me as if I’d seen two giraffes loping through the park, grazing on the treetops.
Berry’s special genius is her affection for, and ability to describe, place. One feels the awful inconsequentiality of Turramurra, the suburb she grew up in, and becomes excited, along with her, in the more exotic climes of Newtown, Annandale and along the unexpectedly interesting Parramatta Road. Berry charts and maps the weirdness of these locales in zines and later blogs. Her eye for detail and her great affection for the quotidian bring her writing alive with layers of meaning and observation. She is deeply affectionate towards her surrounding environment, even while being occasionally tormented in her personal life. Berry translates her fascinating personality into the places and things she encounters. Her descriptions of suburbs and streets are in fact maps to her own psyche, and her painstakingly crafted zines are public revelations of her interior worlds. Her contradictions are writ large – or perhaps small, as the distribution of her zines is always limited to those record stores, markets and fairs she can get to on foot.
Ninety9 is a book about discovering yourself through the creative process, and as such is a surprisingly sweet and inspirational memoir of the energy and inventiveness of youth:
Zines became my official guidebooks. In them I found a different way to think about life, one that reflected my own burgeoning identity. I was pleased to feel different from the people around me, even though I was often lonely.
A great part of the charm of this book, for a Sydney reader, is its nostalgia. Berry describes a lost Sydney, a Sydney of record stores and pubs with bands, where a part of Pitt Street was still grungy and filled with dusty second-hand shops. The names and places she mentions make a litany of bygone monuments: Phantom Records, Ashwoods, Lawsons, Waterfront … Berry chronicles a lost city in a way that reminds me of the work of Sumner Locke Elliott, who carried in his head a precise map of a disappeared Sydney of the 1930s and ’40s which he constantly resurrected in his writing. Her fun, and even campy, nostalgia also brings to mind the affectionately playful retro-cool of John Waters.
Ultimately, Ninety9 is a glorious celebration of youthful naïveté and friendship. It captures the intensity and enthusiasm of discovering new and fascinating people, and of exploring the most outrageous parts of one’s own persona. Berry’s recollection of letters, lists, movies and fascinating young people are beautifully rendered, and she manages to welcome the reader into an intricate and frequently peculiar intimate world. Ninety9 is about family, friendship and youthful longing, as well as the arcane excellence of 1990s popular culture. Berry is an expert chronicler of memory, and has managed to create a timeless book set in a very particular moment in time.
Vanessa Berry Ninety9 Giramondo 2013 PB 160pp $19.95
Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (2010) and Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom (2013). You can visit his blog here.
To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.