Caught in Claptrap With Generation X


From The Washington Post (April 1, 1994)

by Carolyn See

Besides having the misfortune to have been raised by loving parents in an affluent suburb, the narrator of this "fiction" may have read Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" and Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" at too impressionable an age. He doesn't seem to have read many novels or short stories, but since this narrator - whom others call "Scout" - is the same age as the author, was born in the same place and grew up in the same place, it's possible that "Life After God" is autobiography. Whatever it is, it's God awful.

Douglas Coupland has made a name for himself by naming his generation: Generation X. And since we're going to be on the subject of the divine here, I hope there's a special circle in Hell for people who have the audacity and chutzpah to presume to name their own generations, whether it be Gertrude Stein (who at least had World War I as an excuse) or Tom Wolfe (who did pull off an astonishing career-building move with his "Me Generation") or this young man with his X. Such thinking brings new meaning to the word "solipsistic": I think, therefore, they are.

But all that is in Coupland's secular, cynical past. He's in a pious mood now. He's worried (or Scout is worried) that four of his thirtyish friends have gone down the drain. One is HIV-positive, one an alcoholic, one a survivalist-fundamentalist drug addict ex-porno-model who tells Scout, "God is descending into the suburbs... . All secrets will be revealed. There will be great destruction; structures like skyscrapers and multinational corporations will crumble. ... Your body will turn itself inside out and fall to the ground and cook like steak on a cheap hibachi and you will be released and you will be judged." The fourth one, a nice girl, is afraid "my ability to fall in love for real will just sort of atrophy." And, of course, the narrator describes himself as "a broken person."

The problem is, according to Scout, that his generation, his friends, grew up without God. Their parents invested time and money in pretty houses in the hills above Vancouver. Each kid had his or her own bedroom and three square meals a day. (But does the author gripe about the food? You bet! His mother has the nerve to make cream cheese and pimento sandwiches for her bridge group, and Kraft dinner takes a major beating in this book.) There are lawns in front and swimming pools in the back, but evidently these parents thought morning was for reading the Sunday funnies, because nobody got taken to Sunday school, and nobody believes in God.

So here comes the author (or the fictional hero) writing little teeny-weeny chapters, each with a cunning line drawing at the top, like the ones you find in "The Little Prince," only worse. The tone sounds scarily like "Deep Thoughts" on "Saturday Night Live": "And then sometimes I think the people to feel saddest for are people who once knew what profoundness was, but who lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder - people who closed the doors that lead us into the secret world - or who had the doors closed for them by time and neglect and decisions made in times of weakness."

On the other hand, if you're the unevolved sort who lives in a house and eats cheese products, there's not too much you can do to change, because the narrator believes "you've had most of your important memories by the time you're thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don't register in the same way or with the same impact." Since the author is 32, I'm not sure how he knows that, but what the heck: He thinks, therefore we are! But I admit I don't like being preached to by a man who writes "profoundness" instead of "profundity" or, in another context, writes, "Oddly there is, though, six tins of caviar sitting in corner." There is six tins. Those wacky parents have more than a lack of Sunday school to answer for!

Beyond all this complaining about tone or grammar or strange logic (more than two bedrooms to a house and the Devil is coming to get you and your Kraft dinner), I think Douglas Coupland is simply barking up the wrong tree. He's made the assumption that his generation (late twenties? early thirties?) has been atheistic. One of his stories/chapters carries as its epigraph: "You are the first generation raised without religion." Nobody famous said this: He said it. And again, railing on about the shortcomings of his happy childhood, he suggests: "The price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony... . I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God." I trust there's logic here, but I can't find it. (On the purely factual side, I teach in a great, secular university, where any word against God, in any of His or Her many manifestations, will get you very severely chastised.)

This looks to me like a made-up book based on false assumptions. It's disgracefully written and ineptly illustrated. But it does have the most cryptic warning I've ever seen on any volume: "Please remove cover jacket before reading." And there must be some young adults out there who crave "meaning" in their lives. I guess it might be for them