Review of Generation X


From The Minnesota Review (Fall 1992 - Winter 1993)

by Mark Brett

Look around you, and we're there. That bartender who knows much more about ancient Crimea than the average purveyor of alcoholic beverages. That woman at the lingerie shop with the biting wit and a haunted look in her eyes. The amiable, somewhat slovenly English Masters' Candidate. All have one thing in common. We are members of the "Twenty-something" generation, a group faced with so many choices in life that we retreat and make none. People from nice middle class backgrounds, we go through college and suddenly find ourselves deposited in a working world that we want no part of. A blank generation with no war or "movement" to define us, we refuse to define ourselves.

But according to Douglas Coupland's Generation X, this lack of definition is exactly what does define us. The Canadian authors's first novel, Generation X follows the non-adventures of Andy, Claire, and Dag, a trio of X'ers living in the California desert. All refugees from the corporate world, they've taken "McJobs," low-paying vocations that are traditionally below their level of education and training. They spend their leisure time telling each other cheerfully bleak stories that reflect the world as they see it.

Those stories, and that world-view, are littered with the remnants of a lifetime's worth of forgotten slang and advertising campaigns, the flotsam of life in our consumer-driven culture. Our heroes feel no connection to that culture and so they render it ludicrous, as in their jointly created world of Texlahoma. In Texlahoma, Andy (our narrator) tells us, "the year is permanently 1974, the year after the oil shock and the year starting from which real wages in the U.S. never grew again." It's a hopeless little place, filled with pettily familiar people in pettily familiar jobs, that exists on an orbiting asteroid from which there is no escape. "It's a fun place to spend one day," Andy tells us, "and then you just want to get the hell out of there."

In the only Texlahoma story we are treated to in the novel, Claire tells us of Buck the Astronaut, whose spaceship is caught in Texlahoma's gravitational pull. Buck needs the aid of a woman in love to help his ship lift off. Unfortunately, this lucky woman will suffocate in transit; Buck could, however, revive her later. For this love aid, Buck attempts to woo the Monroe sisters.

Two of the Monroe sisters turn Buck down, but the youngest, Sharleen, agrees to his plan. Anything to escape Texlahoma. As they watch blast off, the two older sisters comment on their sister's decision:

"You realize," said Arleen, "that that whole business of Buck being able to bring us back to life was total horseshit."

"Oh, I knew that," said Darleen. "But it doesn't change the fact that I feel jealous."

In the story of Buck the Astronaut, we have a primer on X'er social commentary. All the symbols of hope put forth in our childhood are rendered worthless or sinister. Look at Buck himself. An astronaut, supposedly the finest our race has to offer, turns out in the illusion-shattering litmus of Texlahoma to be the heavy, a literal monster who defiles young women to get what he wants. The pseudoscience of the story's central plot point, the need of a woman in love, is ludicrous. Science, traditionally man's greatest boon, is violated and has become preposterous.

Even true love is given a working-over. We've got a "Beauty and the Beast" plot here. Only Sharleen's True Love "wins out" and gets her off Texlahoma. But her escape is also an illusion; the only way she can truly escape her society is as a corpse. Cynical? Perhaps, but to the mind of an X'er, it makes all too much sense. In our minds, as much a social litmus as Texlahoma itself, the civilized veneer of society peels away, revealing a tawdry reality not to be taken seriously.

Also not to be taken seriously is this book's plot, or rather its lack of one. In between the fun-filled apocalypse tales of our principles, Generation X tells the story of their lives, such as it is. There's no real plot here; any X'er will tell you that nobody's life is a story. Nothing has a beginning, middle, and end. There are always pre-existing conditions that define and shape any event. The best we can do is string along anecdotes and fill in some holes along the way.

The anecdotes here, almost always a little bit of nothing, are made terribly interesting and significant by the intensively private nature of our heroes. Claire's father, twice-yearly, has a "heart-attack," which he stages to garner some attention. Andy has a loving, dysfunctional family filled with relatives who give well-meaning advice, but don't truly understand him. Dag, our desperate "rebel without a clue," likes to just take off for days on end without warning and tell his middle-aged boss postmodern jokes that the poor man can't possibly understand.

In one particularly telling vignette, Andy goes home for Christmas. The horrifying irony of this oh-so-traditional action is not lost on him, and his attempts to relate him to his family are awkward as a result. The visit seems common place; any hint of festivity is drained from the episode by the character's overwhelming familiarity with each other. Either you get it or you don't. If you do, the sequence is tinged with a hint of bittersweet memory. If you don't it's strange and alien and not a little bit unsettling. Much like X'ers ourselves.

Inserted perhaps to make our generation a little less alien (if no less unsettling), Coupland has offered handy, easy-to-reference definitions and slogans in the huge side margins of the extra-wide pages. These sound-bite-ready blurbs are designed to illuminate the text and the X Generation. As blackly humourous as everything else here, the marginal comments ridicule not only "normal'" society, but also the X'er reaction to it.

A few choice items plucked from the marginalia:

Eroticize Intelligence

Knee-Jerk Irony: The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation.

Nostalgia is a Weapon

Conspicuous Minimalism: The nonownership of material good flaunted as a token of moral and intellectually superiority.

Adventure Without Risk is Disneyland

Option Paralysis: The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.

Re-invent the Middle Class

Slogans and slang for a new generation, born out of the ashes of the old. Campy postmodern self-parody brought about by confusion and harsh reality. As members of the X Generation, we've learned the same lession the punk rock community did in the Seventies. Over-protected as children, we were spoonfed Leave It to Beaver homilies about the world that are no longer valid. The world is a lie and hanging on to the dreams of our parents is only self-delusion. Typical generation-gap alienation? Perhaps, but, like the punks before us, X'ers are still abandoning the values and viewpoints of society at large. In something very much akin to anger, we are attempting to forge our own way.

But the kind of anger the punks felt and that many of us felt too, back when we were skaterats (skateboarding youngsters, for those readers out of the loop), is hard to sustain for long. Finally it burns itself off and we're left with a kind of apathetic complacency. We are not druven to succeed. We don't want nice cars and large houses. We don't want great material wealth. We don't want things, which make us alien to the great majority of Americans. We want to survive, somewhat comfortably, and simply find something to take our minds off the terrifying, yawning abyss of life. Such is the lot of whiny, disaffected middle class.

Douglas Coupland has been accused of playing God, creating a generation in his own image. Granted, I and other X'ers I know don't agree with everything Coupland sets forth in Generation X. To us, X Life is more individualistic, less a peer-pressure status symbol thing than it appears to be to our heroes (or maybe even pals). But then, we're on the lower age-end of the Twentysomethings, hooked on the tails of Coupland's X Trailblazers. A second generation X, soured on reality early by growing up under the yoke of Reaganomics. I'm sure that all the Beats didn't exactly jobe with Kerouac either. Or all the Lost Generation with Hemingway. But they were still definers. And if Coupland doesn't have their fire, their drive to express his own private angst... Well, isn't that the point?