From The Courier-Journal (April 3, 1993)
by Constance Alexander
I didn't read the book Generation X because I wanted to. I mean, what mature person in her right mind would voluntarily pick three disaffected "twentysomethings" who complain about having to work at "pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause." Poor babies.
"Welcome to the real world," I am inclined to snap, especially when the post-adolescent darlings spend an inordinate amount of time tooling around in an old Saab and calling home - collect, what else. -- when they've reached the credit limit on their American Express Gold cards.
So I guess you can tell, right off the bat, that I was not predisposed to empathize with the characters in Generation X. Nor was I inclined to like the book's annoying two-column layout. With the main text running in the middle of the page, and the outer column reserved for intermittent marginalia, the reader is constantly forced to decide when to break away from the main text to read the side notes.
But my 24-year-old stepson gave me Generation X as a present. "Because it looks cool," he tells me. Of course the implication is that Andy thinks I'm cool, too; so, to keep the image up, I'm forced to read this "post modern" novel. I thank him profusely, and grimly place the book on my bedside table. At 50 pages a clip, I figure I can be done with the thing in four nights.
My time estimate is accurate, but I have to admit I was hasty in forming my first impression of this unusual first novel. Douglas Coupland is a fine writer. He has a satirist's sense of humor, a poet's sense of language and imagery, and a storyteller's sense of timing.
The three main characters of the novel, Andy, Claire and Dag, weave fantastic stories from strange bits of fabric, and an occasional puff of smoke. They combine their conjurings with accounts of their own experiences in a world where a "McJob" is the only work readily available to many young people.
Terms like "McJob" and "Down-Nesting" are defined in mini-sidebars on the oversized pages of the book, ironically reminiscent of the format of The American Heritage Dictionary. McJobs are "low-pay, low-prestige, low- benefit, no-future jobs in the service industry." "Down-Nesting" occurs when parents move to smaller houses after the children have grown up, so as to avoid "boomeranging" children, aged 20 to 30, who can't afford to live on their own.
The marginalia in Generation X is informative, clever, and a good read all by itself. At the back of the book, a section entitled "Numbers" provides statistics that may contribute to the listlessness of the generation under 30. For example, the percent of the federal budget spent on the elderly is 30; on education, 2. Or, 65 percent of United States 18- to 29-year-olds agree that "given the way things are, it will be much harder for people in my generation to live as comfortably as previous generations."
Reading the book forced me to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about my generation, the Baby Boomers. The sheer numbers of us alone create a tyranny of the aging. It's no wonder the young generation, as portrayed in Generation X, feels cheated.
I admit to feeling somewhat impatient with the characters in the book at times, but then I have to remind myself that they are still in their 20s, still searching for the elusive "meaning of life," and already criticizing the younger generation.
I find it amusing when one of the characters complains about his young brother and his friends. "Global Teens" he calls them contemptuously. "Not one of them can go to Waikiki for a single one-week holiday . . . without several enormous gift-laden send-off parties . . . and once they arrive there, nostalgic phone calls soon start; sentimental and complicated volleys of elaborately structured trans-Pacific conference calls flowing every other day, as though the jolly vacationer had just hurtled toward Jupiter on a three-day mission rather than six days of overpriced Mai Tais on Kuhio Street."
Generation X is sub-titled "Tales for an Accelerated Culture," and Douglas Coupland certainly takes his readers for a ride in the fast lane. It's a book worth reading, and Coupland is an author worth watching