Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

I picked up this novel hoping to learn from the source what defines me – what defines membership in Generation X, the generation I’d always been told that I was part of. The first thing I learned was that I’d been lied to… as initially coined by Douglas Coupland, Generation X consists of people born in the late 1950s and 1960s, people who, at the novel’s publication date in 1991, were in their mid-to-late twenties. As someone born in 1975, I was too young to belong. So Generation X, the novel, isn’t about people like me, it’s a sketch of the people I knew as I was growing up.

I think ‘sketch’ is the mot juste because Generation X isn’t a novel in the sense that most of us are used to: there’s no character arc in sight, and the plot arc is basically flat. Indeed, the plot of this novel could be summed up as ‘three twentysomethings living on the outskirts of Palm Springs hang out, tell stories, go home for Christmas, and then move to Baja California’. The meat of the book lies in the second clause of that description. Andy, Claire, and Dag, the three main characters (I hesitate to use the term protagonists), spend much of their time recounting elaborate tales to each other, or rather parables which artfully reveal their attitudes towards their selves and their world. Sometimes these tales have a meaning that is easily unpacked. In one, a woman decides to meditate in solitude for seven years, but finds out too late that her spiritual program, which she’d borrowed without careful study from an Asian monastery, relied on a different calendar and that she’d overdone it, and that enlightenment would come after only one year, and that the final six years, which ended up being fatal, were redundant. In other words, don’t spend too much time in your own head. Other stories the trio tells each other are more opaque, but Coupland’s skill as a storyteller makes them engaging even when they’re unclear.

So what, according to Coupland, defines Generation X?

Surprisingly to me, there’s none of the compare-and-contrast of his subject with the Baby Boomers, which years of pop sociology had led me to expect. Instead, Coupland describes Gen Xers in absolute terms. They are hyperintelligent, hyperarticulate, and introspective to a fault. They prefer experiences to possessions and travel and the exotic to the familiar. Old enough to remember the last gasps of the Vietnam War, with its associated curdling of belief in the future, they stand in the shadow of two Armageddons, one fast – nuclear war – and one slow, namely the gradual poisoning of the environment by nuclear waste and non-biodegradable plastics. Awareness of looming catastrophe poisons their lives with anomie; one coping mechanism is to stare longingly at the artifacts of an earlier, optimistic age, and to constantly recontextualize those artifacts – 1964 Spokane World’s Fair ashtrays, Snoopy lamps, and more ephemeral cultural totems, like the hairstyle of a “1950s Indiana Woolworth perfume clerk”. Above all else, their inability to find interesting, well-paid work – in contradistinction to the “McJob” – and affordable housing translates into a strong preference for rich interior lives at the expense of possessions, homes, or roots. These rich interior lives are necessarily well guarded, so Gen Xers also have trouble forming lasting romantic connections… and those who do are shunned by the rest of the tribe as having become boring. Children do not appear, and their absence is neither lamented nor noticed.

Reading all this, it’s easy to see what missing, namely the stereotypical Gen Xer that would emerge in the public consciousness after Coupland defined the term. Whereas Coupland, himself smart and historically versed, describes a generation that looks much like him, in the public mind Gen Xers were ironic slackers. Lacking any sort of rich historical memory, these kids fixated on nostalgia for the toys and TV shows of their youth, which was all the pop culture they ever got to have, because Boomer icons like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart refused to relax their grip on 1990s pop culture. Frankly I prefer Coupland’s account; if only I had ever met any of the people he describes.

That’s the difference, I suppose, in being born in 1965 to 1975. Coupland’s characters remember the Vietnam War; I only know it from Rambo: First Blood Part 2. Coupland’s characters grew up expecting permanent recession and nuclear Armageddon; for me, the Cold War was over by the time I was a teenager, and I came of age in the long economic boom of the Chretien-Clinton years. Everything seemed to be getting better, politically and economically; socially and culturally, the arrival of the Internet changed everything – a brand new world to explore. There was no anomie and listlessness for me and my cohort. It seems, to my surprise, I was right – Generation X doesn’t include me, and Generation X doesn’t speak to me, except as an artifact of a time that seems as alien and long ago as the Roaring Twenties or the Depression.

But that’s just me. I suspect someone born in 1985 would find more resonant material here. Someone that age – a Millennial? I’m not sure – grew up in the curdled future of 9/11, the Iraq War, and global terrorism, with the slow-motion destruction of global warming hovering over everything. After the 2008 economic crash, they face a persistently weak economy with limited job opportunities for youth and – in Canada, at least – sky-high real estate markets in the major cities that make homeownership a daunting prospect. Do these young people, like Coupland’s, retreat into rich inner lives, and claim with pride their refusal to embrace a future of careers vs. jobs, committed relationships vs. intense-but-brief pairings, or rooted homes and communities vs. travel and exotic experience? My limited experience suggests so. It is to them that I recommend Generation X. To them it will be, I think, a foggy mirror.

About andrewmiller2007

Andrew Miller is a Strategic Leader with the City of Mississauga in Ontario. He holds a BA from McGill, an MA from Yale, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins, none of which are related to what he's doing now. His interests include cities and urbanism, narratology and game design, noir fiction and belles lettres, and Aristotle and Saint Paul, but it's his expertise in public-transit policy and implementation that pays the bills. He volunteers his time to PhD students interested in exploring lives and careers outside of the academy. He's been a panelist on CBC Radio on the subject of municipal finance reform, and is a two-time TEDx speaker. He's also fun at parties.

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