Everything Looks Impressive & Generation X


From Change (September, 1993)

by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

I'm irredeemably curious about undergraduates. I teach and advise them but I know that they allow me to see very little of their experience. By and large they present themselves to me as eager, overworked, and ambitious. Only in a moment of crisis does the veil come down; then it reappears as the student returns to the semester's work or goes home for a rest.

Almost a decade ago I became so frustrated at what I did not know that I embarked on the serious project to understand student cultures that became Campus Life. Historical research allowed me knowledge of the past, and interviews with students at a range of colleges and universities gave me some valued insights. In addition, I have since learned much from Michael Moffatt's Coming of Age in New Jersey.

But the world changes and so do undergraduates. Now that I have returned to teaching and research on other historical subjects, I feel cut off from undergraduate cultures. Thus, I welcomed the opportunity, in writing this article, to see if I could find out anything about today's undergraduates from fiction. After my shaky start - reading books that only appeared to be about college life - I found the brand new novel, Everything Looks Impressive, by Hugh Kennedy. As a book written by a recent graduate and set on the Yale campus, it held special promise.

Alex MacDonald, the narrator and central character, is a scholarship student from a small resort town in Maine. He is a modest but decent fellow, and he has good instincts. For suitemates he gets Brook Morehouse and Peter Cliffman; both are preppy rich and Old Yale, but different. Peter is initially the most accessible. Tall and blond, fourth-generation legacy, Exeter, the son of a newspaper editor and a decorator (divorced), he comes to Yale with all the historic aspirations to be and do everything: the Yale Daily News, the Political Union, Directed Studies. But as Alex soon learns, Peter is too nimble to be real, and Alex begins to wonder if the Peter he met on the fence of the Old Campus on their first day in New Haven was the most genuine Peter he would know.

Brook is more somber: tall, handsome, with black hair and the Yale jaw; his fist contains repressed anger. Blue-blooded and Andover, his family is intact but disordered. In Alex's two visits with the Morehouses in Connecticut, he never sees his roommate's father sober or kind. Dr. Morehouse has high ambitions for his son. His emblem is the '56 Head of the Charles oar on the attic wall in Darien. He wants Brook to achieve as he has achieved. Brook, who seems at times to be cruising through Yale on alcohol and drugs, is nonetheless often there for Alex when he needs him.

The book's most important story is elsewhere. Alex meets the extraordinary Jill Lanigan, a senior who fascinates him and leads him to an alternative Yale, the Yale that dresses in black, delights in the transgression of boundaries, and lives off campus. Jill is tall and coltishly slim, with short blond hair that runs to red at the tips (when it is not dyed black or platinum). She is provocative and bewildering, a complicated exotic who keeps the hero in a state of fevered, unconsummated excitement. She draws Alex to her by brilliant, elusive speech, and by deep kisses - only to insist that he keep away so that she remain loyal to Lauren, her woman lover.

As Jill introduces him to her Yale, Alex is clever, young, liberal, and eager to learn. The story builds to the most vivid moment of the book, a dance given by the Alliance for Sexual Progress, to which Jill invites Alex. A mixed couple, they go as mirror images. Jill wears a tuxedo to match that of Alex and she paints Alex's face with makeup to mimic her own. While Lauren is in New York, Jill invites Alex to go home with her for the night, teases him with her showered, fragrant body, climbs into bed, and then asks him to ignore the demands of the flesh and go to sleep. He awakens the next morning alone in the bed to hear her showing him off to her father and stepmother as they step out for coffee and Danish. Alone in her apartment, he finds the pictures of Jill and Lauren hidden in a drawer.

Does Jill care for Alex? Is she just toying with him? Or is she using him as a cover to calm her prying parents? One never gets to know, for Jill dies soon afterward. Weeks before, she and her girlfriends had crashed a party at the house of Brook's football player friends where they were not welcome. They had crashed it because, as lesbians, they were not welcome. The big guys attacked them, and Jill was injured. Brook was there and said that he got hurt pulling them apart. After visiting with Alex at the infirmary, Jill fails dead outside on the walkway of an epidural hematoma, perhaps resulting from the earlier injury. Alex, reeling from his loss, resumes where he had left off with his down-to-earth Maine girlfriend and tries to make his moral way as accusations fly that Brook is responsible for Jill's death. One is left with the slogans of those who argue over the cause of her death, Alex dealing with the quandary presented by what he knows, and a closing rather than an ending that brings Alex back in the snow for his second semester.

I liked the book, and it got better on the second reading. Some of the characters are memorable. At the center of the story, Jill is magical. Flavia Nathan, Peter's girlfriend, came alive for me. Because the author both lets his readers inside Alex's head and allows them to hear his dialogue, I see what it is like for a responsive, sensitive fellow to sound like an ordinary jerk. It is hard for me to think of Jill, Flavia, and Alex as fictional characters. They now people my world.

Yet to the degree that they tell me something about young people in college today, they also make me sad. At the outset the book draws one to an earlier tradition of the college novel. Alex arrives at Yale from Maine set for the sprint to become a Big Man. His first act is to arrange for a squash game with a popular upperclass student from the prep school he had attended as a day student. Owen Johnson's Dink Stover of Stover at Yale would have been proud. But quickly Alex and the book veer off course. On the way to the squash game Alex gets sidetracked by the political tables on the Old Campus and falls hopelessly in love with Jill. His Yale career is over before it begins.

As I have thought about Alex and Dink, I have seen a fundamental difference between what could be written in 1912 and in 1993. Stover at Yale and books such as Percy Marks' The Plastic Age that followed presented young heroes who went through an archetypal pattern. A young man entered college enthusiastically and wanted to become a college success. He had promise and seemed destined for victory. Then disillusion set in. He saw evil existed in organized college life. Although books and ideas began to matter, temptation proved stronger than morality, and cynicism reigned for a season. But at the end of the four years, the hero departed with an adult realism, a mature and grounded self-knowledge that gave him a solid basis for belief in himself. He went out into the world as a knight ready to do battle and work for personal success and social good.

In the typical college novel the good values of the real world, represented by professors and great books, won out over the temporary false values of college life. But the real world in Everything Looks Impressive is pretty awful. The title comes from a Talking Heads song that Kennedy cites at the outset, in which the full stanza contrasts the appearance of things with their reality-division and incompleteness. That pretty much describes the world that Alex faces. The parents of his friends are superficial, materialistic, full of booze, narrow. For Alex, home values exist as an alternative, but his own parents are shadowy figures, and Katherine, the hometown ex-girlfriend, bedrock, tried and true, is not really importable into Alex's new and bewildering world. The professor in the novel seems a charlatan. Her jargon-filled post-modern first lecture on "Cold War Ideology and Modern Animation," designed to sell her course to student shoppers, begins with "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" and ends with a slide of a department store mannequin. In between are such memorable lines as "This discourse is first codified in the activated political consciousness symbolized by the ticking bomb." Her interest seems to lie only in good coffee beans and in dealing with her own needs, not those of others.

The inside of college life is bewildering, and the world outside, including books and professors, is by and large filled with fakes and failures. Yale itself with its great Gothic face is an appropriate visual representation of humbug. In a dramatic moment, after speaking at Jill's memorial service, Alex sees a Gothic niche in a Yale building lit by a car's headlights. Inside is a chalice with an inscription plaque honoring the memory of a 19th century graduate. And then Alex notices the copper button attached and understands: "It was a Gothic Revival drinking fountain, just the thing for this Disneyland."

I've been watching the Alex MacDonalds of the American college for about a decade. They have interested me because they have seemed free of the weight of collegiate cultures of the past. In my understanding, they are the representatives of a new possibility for American college students. They dissent from the three existing undergraduate cultures: the remnants of old college life, careerist opportunism, and the formulas of political rebellion. With an independence of mind, such students question clichés. They are balanced by an inner gyroscope that enables them to make their way through the bewildering worlds on campus.

Yet in their freedom, what does American society offer them? Has the culture created a liberty that is only a negative freedom from, not a positive freedom to? What fills the space after all the idols are toppled? These questions are raised again by reading what seems to be the most influential book on campus today, Generation X by Douglas Coupland. The young adults who people the book are not college students, they are in their twenties, some years after graduation, but some students tell me they identify with them.

The X-ers are immensely likeable. Andy, Dag, and Claire are neighbors and companions in Palm Springs. They are detached individuals who wryly observe mainstream culture. As they hang out before and after work, they tell each other stories - imaginative, quirky stories that critique American society and draw their readers to them. Each has an adventure. Andy goes home and lights up his parents' house in a thousand candles for Christmas. Claire goes off with a handsome stud who proves to be the cad that she and her friends knew him to be. Dag destroys a mogul's car almost inadvertently, gets caught, but has the luck of pinning the blame on a dead man. In the end they head for Mexico to live out their dream of running a small hotel. Their adventures, however, are less appealing then the X-ers themselves. Whimsical, they remind me of e.e. cummings' poetry. They are minimalists, making few demands, leaving modest imprints. One could understand their choosing not to use capital letters.

The trio acts out minor dramas in large-scale pages that include in the margins a glossary of the times, as well as occasional cartoons and quotations. Ask college students about the book, and they will say "McJob," an unforgettable word defined in the margin as a "low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector" (as in flipping hamburgers). At first, reading the book is distracting. One's eye is always drawn initially to the side, to the words or images, breaking the rhythm of continuous reading. Soon the process feels right. Coupland's is a clever strategy. It sets a comical tone that keeps one from worrying about Andy, Dag, and Claire. It contains the fluid characters and the amorphous plot within the powerful brackets of categories that label and constrain as well as amuse.

Even though Jill's death is turned into a political event, Everything Looks Impressive is less explicitly political than Generation X. The X-ers have left the rat race of high-pressure jobs in the corporate world, and its memory colors their stories. They refuse property and success. The bomb hovers. Environmental sensitivity is everywhere. But despite these differences, I am struck by similarities between Alex and the X-ers and by the recognition that in neither book do collective political acts have meaning. The public world is only oppressive. Authority is hateful or a sham. One can only make a separate peace.

Is this what some of the students I most admire feel? Do they believe that they have come into a world in which there are only private solutions? I write this in a college in which commencement and convocation speakers repeatedly tell students to go forth and save the world. If Coupland and Kennedy are to be believed, how unpleasant and hypocritical these words must seem to some of them, something like the way that the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson sounded to young modernists at the end of World War I.