A review of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture


From The Times (June 4, 1992)

by Michael Wright

Funny, colourful, and accessible, this is a blazing debut by the Canadian Douglas Coupland. But there is more to it than that. Part novel, part manifesto too, [Generation X] homes in on a trio of alienated 20-somethings who - overeducated and under-employed - reveal all the grim symptoms of belonging to the new "lost" generation of post-Baby Boomers, identified here as Generation X. Disillisioned with the world they have inherited "like so much skidmarked underwear", and fed up with "pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause" Andy, Dag and Claire have retreated to the Californian desert to tell each other stories, hoping to make "worthwhile tales" of their lives.

Whether you accept Coupland's thesis about cultural disaffection among the 20-somethings which he backs up with a set of statistics, does not really matter. Andy, Dag and Claire are painfully convincing in their own right, and reveal enough wonky humanity and cardinal cynicism to prevent the book from appealing only to those glum young things who see themselves darkly reflected there. The trio's modern fables of love and death and spacemen and nuclear war, sparkle like lumps of quartz amid the granite of their desert life, each tale offering a small epiphany or moment of spangled optimism amid the prevailing gloom.

As Claire puts it, "It's not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. Either our lives become stories or there's just no way to get through them." Their difficulties in making connections and creating a "worthwhile tale" are tidily echoed in the Heath Robinson construction of the novel itself. It is told by Andy in the form of a first-person, present-tense narrative with a series of short chapters only clumsily sewn together.

This same jerky pattern is reflected in microcosm at sentence level, where phrases knee-deep in nouns grind against one another with only the occasional verb for lubrication. Thus "Baby magnesium flare twinkle lights gird the sentinel palms of Highway 111". An area later described as "a Daytona, big tits, burger-and-shake kind of place where kids in go-ho boots and asbestos jackets eat Death Fries in orange vinyl restaurant booths shaped like a whitewall GT tyre".

Even as he attempts to escape the clutches of a mercenary world, Andy is lexically trapped in its grasp. His whole means of expression is dominated by the thingyness" of the world around him. It is this which lends the narrative its dizzying sparkle and originality, as the narrator makes his own connections, churning out preposterous metaphors like so many pairs of odd socks that somehow work fine together.