Generation Xtinguished


From The Observer (August 7, 1994)

by James Saynor

Both wonder at life, and anxiety about life, tend to increase as you head into your thirties. The knack is to stop one choking off the other: instead, to have the two pleasantly reverberating. A lot of the writing of Canada's Douglas Coupland is about the quest for this tricky dialectical balance.

Having a family and a job, but not a 'career', may be one way to maximise things. The stories in Life After God, Coupland's new set of parables on sub-yuppie living, feature young male narrators with the scales off-kilter. 'Careers' are in the process of becoming non-jobs; families are already being run by lawyers. But burn-out isn't just the main topic of this curt book; it is, the whole literary experience of it.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) was Coupland's dazzling, zeitgeist-affirming debut. Contrary to popular belief, it centred on the cultural scavenging not of the under-25s but of the youngest fraction of the 'baby boom' " those aged around 30, particularly badly blitzed by the post- Reagan recession. Shampoo Planet (1992), his equally good follow-up, was the volume that tackled the perky nihilistic attitudes of the younger cohort.

Both books, set in the irradiated cultural desert of the western US, were hilarious manuals of constructive sloth about young people caught in a peculiarly tragi-comic situation " trying to come up with ideas to connect with an inherited world they couldn't possibly believe in. They yearned for meaning while at the same time decrying all semblance of it. This involved the frantic ironising of everything that moved: or, in other words, retreat into the building of a new language-for-its-own-sake out of trade names and other attitudinal found-objects on the rubbish dump of consumerism and post-modernism.

The upshot was Coupland's famed inventory of hip, shallow, word-processed buzz -talk " 'cursor mumbo', as one might think of it. 'McJobs', 'Armanism', 'boomer envy' and the like marked Coupland down as a mere style-monkey in conservative literary minds. But the point was that this mini-mall of new language was the only place left for Coupland's kids to grow in the fin d'histoire junk-world they were heir to.

Coupland, obviously wanting to grow beyond this lexical maze, has, in Life After God, abandoned cursor mumbo for more conventional ways of expressing early-mid-life angst. Mini-mallist writing had given way to back-to-basics West Coast miminalism, as pared as Kraft cheese slices. (Format- wise, this means between 30,000 and 35,000 words spread over 320 hymnal-sized, hyperventilated pages. Yes, that's 100 words a leaf.) But Raymond Carver this isn't.

A series of similar-sounding, beached narrators cough out a breviary of short -winded, New- Agey musings " on how you wait endlessly for life proper to begin; on the depressing relations between love and sex; on how suburbia's pernicious perfection kills religion. 'I told Mom my own theory of why we like birds " of how birds are a miracle because they prove to us there is a finer, simpler state of being which we may strive to attain.' Mom has some equally washy feedback: 'First there is love, then there is disenchantment and then there is the rest of your life.' Most of the brief prose stanzas feel as if they've been force-written in the half-hour immediately following a deep afternoon sleep. Only Coupland's fine descriptions of Pacific-coast flora and fauna give the passages some ginseng. But moments of antic natural beauty are counterpointed with human lumpishness in a curiously unproductive way, like a David Attenborough programme shown in an all-night cinema. Coupland still likes pulling down image-making material from the grocery shelves, but the trade-names now seem merely listed: listless. 'Ironic hell' is his term for the former attitudes of the Generation X-ers. But in his search for profundity- without-flash, he seems to have forgotten that the very meaning of the X-world was in the language-dazzle. Project X (as, perhaps, with Shakespeare) was primarily to do with the making of a world within language "not with the ravaged dystopia of any empty world outside it. In going back to more standard forms of expression, and trying to get in touch with real things like Nature and God, it's maybe not surprising that Coupland can't find anything much to say