Sensory History and Whiffing Nostalgia

Or Why Clinique Happy Makes Me Revisit Teenage Angst

Dear and faithful readers, I owe you an apology. (Please see the above screenshot of cherished (fictional) 90s couple Willow and Tara and imagine me taking each of you into my arms as I murmur penitent assurances.)

I began this newsletter and then, almost immediately took multiple, unplanned hiatuses. In retrospect it’s tricky business to launch an essay newsletter while you’re finishing book edits and balancing freelance work: my timing was not, shall we say, especially wise. But now galley copies of Too Much are out, and I can’t—much to my agitation—do any further editing. Instead, I need to focus on doing everything that will give this book the best chance to succeed while continuing to write (which is not unrelated)…and thinking about Book Two.

On this note, I hope you’ll pardon me for a little Too Much-related housekeeping before heading into the programming that actually brought you here.

(Isn’t she sexy?)

You have likely seen me post about this on Twitter, Instagram, or even cursed Facebook, but Too Much hits bookstores on February 25, 2020. Over the next four and a half months I’ll be doing my best to publicize without becoming contemptible to myself and to everyone else. People often ask what they can do to support an author when they have a forthcoming book, and so hopefully it will not be too aggravating for you to hear a little bit about that right now.

  1. Far and away, the most helpful thing you can do is to preorder my book and to encourage others to do the same, both by word of mouth and on social media. This is especially crucial for a first time author like me, whose platform is modest, and who does not have the backing of an industry publication help her publicize (although I am extremely fortunate in my savvy, compassionate team at Grand Central Publishing—writing a book with a Big Five publisher is an enormous privilege and a gift). Preorders tell my publisher—and the bookstores where you place the order—that people care about this book and my writing in general. It gives me a shot at making bestseller lists (a book about Victoriana and feelings making bestseller lists! Think of it!), and it solidifies my ability to write more books and to be paid a solid wage for them. Preordering is also a way to give future you—or future someone else—a gift, because you’ll likely forget that you’ve done it, and then, on February 25, a book appears on your doorstep as if by magic! You can preorder Too Much here. Please, if possible, do preorder from an independent bookstore.

  2. Once you’ve preordered, or even if you already have (thank you!!), share that you’ve done so on your chosen social media platform(s). You can tag me (here for Twitter, and here for Instagram), say you’re not UNHAPPY to have paid cash monies for my words, and share the preorder link. I know this sounds very icky and performative: it really is! But unfortunately, as our lives seep evermore online, our livelihoods depend upon the glare of visibility. It really does help to share your enthusiasm in public ways, and I’m always very grateful for it.

  3. If you’re on GoodReads, please add my book to your “want to read” list.

  4. If you are associated with media (news outlets, radio, tv), a bookstore, an academic institution, library, or another venue that might be interested in talking to me about the book/my work/my cat, you can email my lovely publicist at Grand Central Publishing. Her name is Kamrun, and you can find her email here.

Okay! Enough of that for now. Allow me to segue into the good stuff with a link to the playlist that has carried me through the book writing process, and one for the playlist tailored to the theme of my book (yes, this is who I am). You will not be surprised by much of what you find on either.


A few weeks ago I used that little Instagram stories tool to ask people what the 90s smelled like. Like a fool, I didn’t save the answers, but I’m sure you’ve already anticipated some of them: CK ONE, Gap Dream, Clinique Happy, Noxema, Auntie Anne’s pretzels, Bonne Bell lip gloss—and then of course there’s the original Herbal Essences formula, which for me is especially evocative of the preteen sex fantasy (maybe because hair washing often preceded bedtime?), Garnier Fructis, a whirring CD-ROM drive, any acne treatment with benzoyl peroxide (I can’t remember when my mother started buying Proactiv for my sisters and me), GAK, chlorine from heady summer days at the pool, troll dolls, the near-nauseating sensory assemblage of a Bath and Body Works, jelly sandals, cupcake dolls (CUPCAKE DOLLS!), old-nearly-disintegrating textbooks, and the list continues, infinitely.

Our engagement with the past is always based in the senses, but sight and sound have something of a combined monopoly in this regard. We read about history, look at old photos, tour museum exhibits, watch old films and listen to old radio programs. Sometimes we even touch artifacts, though for the sake of preservation this is often regimented, or perhaps we eat a dish based on a hundred year old recipe (though of course the results are bound to be approximate). Smelling the past tends to be a more difficult endeavor, at least when one is studying the an era so totally ensconced in history that our access is entirely mediated by or saturated with modernity.

When I was in graduate school I took a fantastic course on sensory history and early modern literature from Holly Dugan, a scholar as compassionate as she is brilliant. She called our class’s attention to the curtailed possibilities endemic to smelling the past, and asked us to consider what that might even mean. Smell is invasive and also fundamentally transient—what odor endures indefinitely, after all? But then again, we could consider the act of smelling as passivity dressed up in the trappings of agency. It is something we do, but it is also thoroughly permissive: when we inhale something, it travels through our bodies into unseen and sensitive crevices, ever so slightly reconstituting us in the process. I’m skeptical of theory for theory’s sake, but I find Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on assemblages—which I’m about to vastly oversimplify—useful for thinking about our more vulnerable engagements with the world. We’re all comprised of one another; we are assemblages from the moment we’re born, and beforehand, too. Our particles mingle and sink into one another’s skin, or they float into our noses and throats. When I was working on my dissertation I grew fascinated with physiological responses to writing and reading and the sorts of embodied bonds the text could forge between author and reader—this is a more mediated relationship, to be sure, but it felt and still feels to me of a piece: that we are always making and unmaking one another, and that we have constant, often profound physical impacts on other people through the most everyday interactions. We shouldn’t need to think of this in order to prioritize empathy, but if nothing else, there’s a logistical argument for it here: if, when it comes down to matter, our boundaries grow labile, then shouldn’t we, well, matter to one another more? (Another theorist who writes about this is, if I’m remembering correctly, Karen Barad. She has a physics background and has actually demonstrated just how permeable we all are—that where I end and you begin is actually quite unclear and is perhaps nearly impossible to ascertain.)

You may have heard this quote from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life; it’s one I dearly love and that I try to keep in mind: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

Scent is dangerous precisely because it does have a unique and peculiar power to undo us. You can’t really smell by halfs: you more or less have to commit to the experience and let it do what it will to you. If we see something we don’t like, we can turn away or shut our eyes. A bad taste—we can spit that out and gulp some water. A smell is not so easily abolished, and so the act becomes nothing less than a leap of faith.

Tangled in all of this is the argument to take nostalgia more seriously than we do—by which I mean we should interrogate it, rather than to bask in its whimsical surfaces. In England there was a short-lived attraction called Dickens World, which purported to immerse tourists in the famous Victorian author’s milieu. It closed in 2016, and word on the street is that it floundered precisely because it didn’t offer the cozy, sanitized fantasy of Victorian London that one might have found in a 19th Century annual. (I am, as you might imagine, devastated that I never got to visit this by-all-accounts extremely bonkers theme park). It’s unpleasant to think about the Thames littered with rotting corpses, or the city slums stinking with pestilence, or the streets covered in the contents of chamber pots and horse shit. It’s also horrifying to consider the millions of people of color slaughtered as the British sought to expand their empire by nearly any means necessary, the women who were dying in childbirth, and the children who died inside chimneys, or of black lung. These are wretched smells, and it should upset us when we try to summon them. Dickens had his own fantasy of Victorian England because the one he represented on the page was very often nightmarish (Dickens also seemed to believe himself a consummate victim and was a terrible asshole).

So where does this leave me with my obsessions for Victoriana and the 90s, the two focuses of this newsletter? I can allow myself these enthusiasms, sure, but certainly not unchecked. It is unethical, and an abuse of privilege, to dwell in what is pleasing without extending oneself towards the challenging and the painful. It is easy for a white woman to love the 90s because I was not lacking in cultural representation. It is slightly more difficult as a bisexual woman, because in that area, I sorely was—and this is just on reason I didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until relatively recently. The smells I listed at the start of this ramble are, for the most part, smells born from middle class comforts. My family belonged to a swim and racquet club, and so I had access to a gorgeous, clean pool with gleaming white diving boards. Clinique Happy delivers me into the hands of my adolescent angst because my family could afford to buy me—then a child—relatively expensive perfume. My volatile skin was assuaged with expensive products, Clinque and Proactiv. I’m sure I treated my Cupcake Dolls and Polly Pockets with the care of a spoiled child who had too many toys vying for her attention.

When I consider the allure of Clinique Happy—that I liked how it smelled, yes, but also liked that it would make me smell like everyone I knew—it’s a reminder that most of the people I knew were wealthy white kids who attended private school. I certainly was “happy” in circumstances if stridently unhappy in various other ways. I probably spritzed the perfume on my wrists and neck before school dances, where I felt unattractive and ungainly and unwanted, and was flush and coddled and impossibly lucky.

Note: If you’re interested in scent, you should subscribe to The Dry Down, an exquisite perfume-focused newsletter written by my brilliant friend Helena Fitzgerald and Rachel Syme.

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