The Twentysomething Gang


From The San Francisco Chronicle (April 14, 1991)

by Sophie F. Deprez

Some members of the Twentysomething Generation, as they most recently have been labeled by popular media and whom Douglas Coupland calls ''Generation X,'' are in the midst of defining themselves in post-Reagan America.

Disillusioned by yuppiedom and the materialism, restriction and artificiality it represents, too old to accept the notion of shopping malls as vital structures, yet too progressive and sophisticated to regress to sheer hippie-ism, they have rejected their past and their future and have chosen to explore the many possibilities complete freedom offers.

The main characters in this first novel are lively, bright, fun and aimless. Andy, Claire and Dag are young, modern-day heroes who rebel against the high- tech, fast-paced, stiflingly stable environment their elders established so proudly when they ran away to find solidarity in the bungalows of California's desert.

Coupland carefully defines the boundaries of each character's struggles: Andy, the narrator and voice of romantic reason, is vaguely depressed about mediocrity and compromise in middle-class life; Claire, desirable in her individualistic and confident power, is obsessed with a gorgeous, two-faced yuppie; and Dag, a Holden Caulfield figure, is adolescent in his pointless and careless vandalizing. Their strong, platonic friendship is reinforced by stories they tell each other about ominous and absurd events in the outside world, as well as in the past and future.

These stories often reveal significant life experiences heavy with moral conclusions. These vividly described tales contain elements of surrealistic humor combined with harsh realism, and serve as safety nets for the characters' chosen yet fragile lifestyle. Andy, for example, remembers when he lived in Japan, and his boss, Mr. Takamichi, took him aside and asked him to describe the most valuable thing he owned. ''Try and explain the concept of sophomoric minimalism to an octogenarian Japanese publishing magnate,'' Andy says.

''So I said, quite truthfully (and, it dawned on me, quite refreshingly), that I owned no thing of any value.'' Mr. Takamichi then proudly showed Andy his most valuable possession: a semi-pornographic photo he took of Marilyn Monroe. ''I broke out into a sweat,'' Andy says, ''and the words of Rilke, the poet, entered my brain - his notion that we are all of us born with a letter inside us, and that only if we are true to ourselves, may we be allowed to read it before we die. The burning blood in my ears told me that Mr. Takamichi had somehow mistaken the Monroe photo in the safe for the letter inside of himself, and that I, myself, was in peril of making some sort of similar mistake.'' Soon thereafter, Andy moved to the desert in a minimalist bliss to read the letter inside himself.

Coupland effectively captures the language, mood and culture of these ''Generation X'' specimens, as well as that of other generations. Tyler, Andy's precocious younger brother, is as alive to us as his much older, stuck-in-the-'50s-rut parents, despite the heavy-handed characterization.

Short statements and Lichtenstein-esque drawings in the page margins show statistics on Generation X and define its vocabulary. Chapter headings that read like post-dadaist slogans enhance the novel's humorously surreal quality, although this vehicle is sometimes overdone. Coupland's minimalist literary style is often chillingly cool, yet it is fresh, knowledgeable and consistent.

''Generation X'' is a readable and valid account of a generation that envisions a completely new, genuine genre of bohemianism. By being true to no one or no thing but themselves, these characters not only read the letters within themselves before they die, but they also share them with each other and with readers