What is it like to take a time machine back to a time when I was a burgeoning sarcastic twenty-something with a tendency to sneer and a sense of humor as black as it comes? The recent Minus Times Collected, lovingly assembled for its 20th anniversary, is a portal to that time, for me at least. Is it a place I want to be, though?
When confronted with work like this—a relic full of irony for irony’s sake that creates a critical distance on purpose—it only brings out my ponderous side. By definition, isn’t nostalgia supposed to create a sense of wistfulness and yearning? Sure, I like a thumb in my eye when the humor feels earned, and I realize that this style should be different because it isn’t meant to feel cozy and warm. When I looked back at this wicked side of this particular collection it only served to make me realize that there are other and better time capsules, ones that are consistent and head and shoulders above this in quality.
Coincidentally, several of today’s literary and musical artists have teeth marks all over this; it’s where some of them obviously developed their signature style. (Alumni like Dave Eggers, Brad Neely, Wells Tower, David Berman, Will Oldham, and Chan Marshall contribute pieces and illustrations.) Given free reign, and a multitude of styles to mess around with, a virtual playground was built piece-by-piece. Coarse and crude, yet carefully hilarious, there are moments when it is easy to see just why these artists have become so important today. The Minus Times was a product that was free, but not easy to find, only they seemed to know that the readers who would be lucky enough to find it would appreciate it.
Unfortunately for The Minus Times, those that fed at the teat of its ideas and style ended up impacting the public and pop culture at large in a much bigger way. McSweeney’s, The Onion, and The Daily Show have all released books that possess the charisma of the rough trade, the experimental, and the bizarre. Their continued existence only serves to create another glaring question: If it is already out there and you—elder statesmen you—served as the sperm donor, why release your very own weaker progeny now? Rough trade by many definitions doesn’t necessarily equal lazy and is not without its charms. This was never meant to be polished or to reach its tentacles anywhere other than the places where its intended audience wanted to be touched.
Baby, I like it raw, but it has to leave a lasting impression. There are gems to be found amongst the debris if you read carefully enough: Brad Neely’s delightfully sick and mischievous sense of humor is on full display throughout the collection and Wells Tower has one of the its strongest pieces with his unexpectedly affecting reimagining of Caddyshack. My absolute favorite is a delicate and stirring examination of the Aunt Bea character from The Andy Griffith Show, along with the various “interviews” with Harmony Korine, Stephen Colbert, Chan Marshall, and David Berman.
As I finished the book, the philosophical questions returned. Just because they did it first does it mean that those that came after should never replace them in my fond memories? Does experimental “anything goes” really just mean that the quality doesn’t always have to be there? I’m relieved to know that The Minus Times existed and persevered through difficult circumstance and sometimes boredom, only I’m not quite sure why this collection itself has to exist if for anyone other than the diehard fans of the publication. Sometimes, a cultural zeitgeist serves us all better as pure ephemera and nothing more.
The Minus Times Collected was published on September 10 through featherproof books Drag City and is available to order from The Minus Times website.