Following the book’s release, Alex Kazemi joined Document to reflect on its mixed reception and consider the tragedies of teen boyhood
New Millennium Boyz is gross and violent and perverted and foul-mouthed, but not for the sake of shock value. It’s historical fiction; the crude language and abhorrent behavior of the novel’s teens are accurate to the era the book is set in. Alex Kazemi dedicated the last decade to engrossing himself in late-’90s references (many of which appear in the text, extensively fact-checked and strategically-employed) and perfecting the speech patterns of teen boys of the time. (The book is made mostly of dialogue.)
An endorsement from a Columbine survivor on the back of the book jacket, coupled with praise from Bret Easton Ellis on its front, should be sufficient in tipping off readers that New Millennium Boyz’s sickly sweet cover art is just Spring Breakers dressing. Kazemi is less interested in the superficial nostalgia of the era—which has seen much glamorization since—and more concerned with the seedy underbelly of Y2K youth: their insensitivities and their vulnerabilities, the cultural horrors they were subjected to and the ones they subsequently made. It’s not an easy read, but maybe a necessary one.
Kazemi’s characters are horrible, and intentionally so—their ethics are increasingly corrupted as the plot progresses. Their poor behavior isn’t glamorized, as teen misdoings often are (think Euphoria, Skins), and they’re certainly not rewarded in the sense of the narrative. The book is perhaps most profound when it’s at its most profane—if you’re willing to let it be. Because there’s no hyper-present narrator contextualizing and shaping it all, the reader is left to take that role on themself, their judgments entirely based on the characters’ words and actions.
Following the book’s release, Kazemi joined Document to reflect on its mixed reception and consider the tragedies of teen boyhood.
Megan Hullander: I saw that you have a fan mail button on your website. Have you received any hate mail?
Alex Kazemi: I think most of the hate mail is just public opinion.
Were you born in the ’90s?
Alex: Did you understand the references?
Megan: Most of them, there were so many. Did you have a big bank of them to pull from that you used to shape the characters?
Alex: The references were a big part of the character-building, indicators of what they represented. I wanted to mock and satirize, and pop culture became a vehicle to do that. Obviously, I take it to such an absurdist, exhausting degree to depict how brainwashed millennials were by corporate Boomer pop culture. We romanticize that era for its simple truths, but there’s so much darkness in it.
Megan: The characters are really dark. Did it destroy you a little bit—writing as them?
Alex: A lot of people have asked me that—not like, That’s a dumb question, but I didn’t realize how disturbing and disruptive it was for my life until everyone told me. It was hard working with dark material for 10 years.
That’s what’s so weird about working on a period piece: As the world changes, you stay stuck in this period, in this novel. The pandemic happened. TikTok was born, and OnlyFans. During the final moments of putting it all together, I did think of Sam Levinson and the disturbing things that are on the internet, for sure.
“We romanticize that era for its simple truths, but there’s so much darkness in it.”
Megan: Because it’s been more poorly received than you might have thought it’d be, do you think New Millennium Boyz is almost more poignant now than when you started it a decade ago?
Alex: Yeah, maybe. I was responding to things that were frustrating me about Tumblr culture, the extreme teen genre. That feeling of 2013 is interwoven in the book. I do think you’re right; it’s better to come out now because there’s [been] an escalation of the things that I’ve explored. It’s just so much more transparent. Like, I know he’s commenting on Elliot Rodger here. Some people are quite upset by the amount of pop culture in it. And other people are hypnotized by the prose—like, How dare he write a book that is like a screenplay?
Megan: What do you think would have been lost if it had taken a more traditional form?
Alex: I don’t know… It’s so strange writing a book about teenagers. I mean, obviously, you’ve been a teenager—do you remember it being really fucking boring? It wasn’t like Skins, it wasn’t like Dawson’s Creek. It was crumpling up a Doritos bag, or looking for weed in the parking lot. Then, it started to become hyper-performative and aestheticized online—the Petra Collins-era of gaze, like, Let me take a picture on a 35 millimeter of you smoking at McDonald’s. And when Lorde came out, I was very reactionary to her romanticization of the suburbs. So I was like, I’m gonna make something gross and dirty. Like, what prose do these people expect? I think it was just so much more interesting to watch their lives like a reality show.
Megan: I feel like, if not romanticizing, it almost has to come off as condescending when you’re writing about teens as an adult. So you sort of have to let the characters speak for themselves.
Alex: I studied the cadence of the way the boys would speak; I tried to make it feel as real as possible. That’s why, whenever someone’s like, ‘There’s so much homophobia and racism and misogyny in this book,’ I’m like, ‘In this time, that was the reality.’ Boys were being encouraged by media personalities like Howard Stern, egging them on into this mindset, [normalizing] it.
Megan: How do you know when the purpose is coming through—that it’s perceivable, and doesn’t just read as shock value?
Alex: It’s hard. Because the quality of being in that bro world is that overindulgence, that oversaturation. What I hopefully get across to the reader is that they’re stepping into the world of the character and the way he perceives the world and the boys around him—they’re experiencing that constant newness, and maybe that’s why it’s extreme. Some people could perceive it as just hateful—it just depends on what you can stomach and tolerate. I don’t feel like I depicted it in a way that was hyperreal. I think this was real.
“You’ve been a teenager—do you remember it being really fucking boring? It wasn’t like Skins, it wasn’t like Dawson’s Creek. It was crumpling up a Doritos bag.”
Megan: Is the variation in what readers can stomach what justified the content warning? I know you weren’t on board with that.
Alex: The content warning was bestowed upon me. I got a call, like, ‘Hey, Simon & Schuster doesn’t want to stock the book in stores unless you put a content warning on it. They’re afraid that teenagers are going to reenact the behavior in the book.’ And I don’t think anything in the book is glamorous. So I thought that was really weird.
Megan: The idea of a 14-year-old boy picking up this book at the bookstore and asking his mom permission to buy it, and her seeing the content warning and telling him no, is kind of ridiculous. Or even the idea that someone is going to be corrupted or disturbed by it in a way they aren’t already by the internet.
Alex: It’s so absurd, and it’s arcane. I was under the impression we were post-Dennis Cooper, post-Bret Easton Ellis. I thought that I had all these freedoms, because they paved the way. But no, apparently, this little book is diabolical. The 14-year-old kid is gonna get it. He’s gonna download it on iBooks or something.
Megan: A satire warning might be more effective… How much posturing do you think it needs, outside of reading the book itself? I knew the summer camp introduction was a parody of sorts, but I read it with a lot of context about what the book was and who you are. I don’t know if I would have just thought it was a John Green variant without that.
Alex: It’s interesting to think, if the New Millennium Boyz marketing wasn’t so bombastic and aggressive, would more readers think it’s a cool new indie book about Y2K? I think that meta-pop art performance makes it what it is. The summer camp [set-up] in the beginning was very much a red herring.
Megan: Did you go to summer camp?
Alex: I didn’t. But I had a lot of friends who did, and I was really bitchy and cynical about their experiences. They’d be like, ‘We had the best summer, we all played games, roasted marshmallows over the fire, fucked in the woods.’ I was just like, Fuck off. I think a lot of the misery of my lack of participation in teenage ritual probably also drove writing the book.
“I was under the impression we were post-Dennis Cooper, post-Bret Easton Ellis. I thought that I had all these freedoms, because they paved the way. But no, apparently, this little book is diabolical.”
Megan: I didn’t go either, so I don’t know—but do you think it was actually epic or that it’s self-aggrandizement?
Alex: When I was younger, everything that was self-aggrandized felt real. I called the cops on a house party I wasn’t invited to once… Every rejection felt violent. And I came of age [during] the birth of Facebook. So, like, my friends would all upload pictures from a party, or [post that] they’re all watching a movie in the basement together, and I’m not there. It created wounds. And maybe, subconsciously, I wanted to live out a different life through writing the novel.
Megan: For the most part, we all experience heartbreak in friendships before we do in romantic relationships, and I think with New Millennium Boyz, the way the boys treated each other was the most heartbreaking.
Alex: Yeah, I agree. I think boys break each other’s hearts. And they don’t know how to articulate those feelings. They internalize them, or they do crazy shit. It’s not a gender-specific experience—it’s human beings. I think you leave the book realizing that these boys kind of hate each other, and they’re just kind of using each other. They’re not building real intimacy or friendship, yet they’re holding onto it, because they’re so afraid of growing up.
I think that the misogynistic teen genre of, like, Girls are cruel and mean bitches, is so insane. Because boys are just as bitchy, and boys do diabolical and horrible things, usually to torture or be mean to girls for the joy [that comes from] humiliating them—and also to get the approval of their friends, of course. We’ve been focusing on how fucked up cool girls are. New Millennium Boyz doesn’t let teenage boys off the hook.