Review of Generation X


From Calgary Herald (January 21, 1992)

by Michael Smyth

The voice of Douglas Coupland's Generation X is a strange one.

He says the dialogue contained in his new novel so mystified his publishers that he crafted a series of often-funny definitions to assist readers unfamiliar with the lingo of post-baby-boomers. Here are some examples:

McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector.

Veal-Fattening Pens: Small, cramped office workstations built of fabric-covered, disassemblable wall partitions and inhabited by junior staff members.

Mid-Twenties Breakdown: A period of mental collapse occurring in one's 20s, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments coupled with a realization of one's essential aloneness in the world.

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

Douglas Coupland is a young, somewhat reclusive Vancouver writer who has been hailed as a spokesman for a generation in some quarters and sneered upon as a literary opportunist in others.

His provocative first novel about three dispossessed young people - Generation X - is considered one of the season's hippest books in New York where publications like the Village Voice have sung its praise.

In Canada, sales of the U.S.-published novel - with its comic-book-style illustrations, margin definitions and variously colored dust jackets - are rising rapidly through word-of-mouth endorsements.

Meanwhile, the author has become something of a cult figure, called upon for comment on social issues by TV networks and national magazines.

The novel has sold 105,000 copies - and who could have predicted it?

Certainly not Coupland himself.

"I thought the book would fail miserably. I'm continually surprised," the 30-year-old writer said in an interview.

The fuss began last year when Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture was published by New York's St. Martin's Press. Coupland's manuscript had been turned down by Canadian publishers.

It's the story of a so-called "new lost generation" - the demographic group born just after the baby boom and known in some circles as the "twentysomething" or "baby busters."

Today, the X generation includes people aged about 20 to 33, Coupland says.

The black comedy's three protagonists - Dog, Claire and narrator Andy - have left their hollow, urban existences and moved to the desert retirement community of Palm Springs, Calif., where they take low-paying service-industry "McJobs."

The three friends trade their irony-tinged views of the world and reveal themselves to be idealistic yet hypocritical, jaded and very, very cynical.

The Xers' plight, Coupland argues, is that they simply "lost out in the genetic lottery."

The baby boomers - that huge generation born between the end of the Second World War and the late '50s - grew up to be today's yuppies and sold-out hippies.

They took all the best jobs, bought all the houses and embarked on a decade of greed - the 1980s - that saddled the Xers with a crippling recession.

The novel's setting is a microcosm of the X destiny, Coupland says. "Palm Springs is a vision of the future. You have a lopsided geriatocracy - 60-per-cent senior citizens, enforced leisure and no middle class. It's like a condensed version of what 2010 could well be like.

"For the purposes of the book, I thought: 'What a great living laboratory.' "

Generation X has divided the critics.

Cosmopolitan called it "a modern-day Catcher in the Rye" while People magazine credited Coupland with giving an identity to "a new generation."

But others, some particularly suspicious of the book's campy packaging, haven't been as kind.

Critic David Boyd, writing in the British arts journal Vox, described it as "a shallow, gimmicky novel about three pathetic yuppies." Norman Snider said in the Toronto Star the book was promising, but ultimately "frail stuff."

Most critics, though, have recognized Coupland as a distinctive new voice bound to be heard from in the future.

Coupland - born at a Canadian military base in Germany where his father was a Canadian Air Force pilot - says he did not set out to write an account of a generation.

"It's just about my own life. It didn't purport to be any groundbreaking treatise on a collective experience.