The nonvoice of a nongeneration


From The Boston Globe (August 12, 1992)

by Mark Muro

It wasn't exactly Allen Ginsburg reading "Howl" to the feverish hipsters of the Beat Generation.

And it wasn't much like Woodstock, that Dionysian affirmation of hippie power as mass love-in.

And yet when Douglas Coupland, author of the twentysomething nonBible "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" read some new writing Monday night at Waterstone's Booksellers, the evening unrolled as a cryptic semi-revelation of that enigmatic young generation, the Baby Bust.

Clotheswise, the style was Gap. In mood, the manner was low-key, wry, coolly undemonstrative. And if one expected some kind of devotional air of camp meeting or guru cult, all this polite crew offered was calm symbiosis: a crowd sick of Baby Boom mouthpieces and "Personality" sitting to hear an author of their own who nicely refrained from spokespersonhood.

"I was going to get nervous, but then I figured you came to see me, so you're sympathetic," Coupland began, in shuffling, nonoracular antistyle, and the tone continued as the crowd of 75 nice young Americans, neo-bohemians and People-in-Black guffawed murmurously with unobtrusive approval. Nonguru facing nonfollowing, it was a perfect anti-event for that shrugging, disaffected cohort of 41 million who grew up overshadowed by the Baby Boom and undervalued by the mainstream.

And why not? In town to publicize the publication of his new novel, "Shampoo Planet," Coupland read wry new sketches of a Grateful Dead concert and an anchorwoman's visit to the Vietnam Memorial, but spoke above all as the 30-year-old Canadian author of "Generation X."

With that funny and self-conscious first novel, after all, Coupland last year struck a chord.

Like no one before him, he made a name stick to his generation. Like nobody else, he found a way with ironic asides and mordant characters to anatomize the rueful thoughts and attitudes of the postpunk, postyuppie millions as he watched them straggle into an anxious maturity of AIDS and recession, "McJobs" and "Lessness."

Moreover, Coupland located a familiar tone: the jaded, self-aware deadpan of media-blitzed, no-big-deal twentysomethings. "Things are terrible, but don't have a cow," he seemed to be saying, and in short order Coupland was well rewarded. Suddenly, journalists breathlessly compared his book to such earlier generational watersheds as "The Sun Also Rises" and "Catcher in the Rye," while youths called talk shows to express in Coupland-like witticisms their new- discovered discontent. Pretty soon, some 125,000 copies of "Generation X" had been sold, and Coupland had arrived. He'd become the unwilling voice of his generation.

However, that was last year. On Monday night, and before his true audience, not a bunch of quote-grabbing journalists, Coupland never wavered from his characteristic diffidence. The sketches were read with a total absence of staginess. The audience laughed knowingly at small asides about the application of Nair and about a Mexican immigrant's learning her first word of English, "cool," from a band of skateboarders at an Arizona mini-mall.

Coupland explained he would answer no questions, but only speak to his admirers "one-to-one" as he signed books since he had to catch the shuttle to New York. When he did that, finally, it was with a perfect, Blank Generation nongesture: a nonsignature.

As each 24-year-old and 27-year-old supplicant proffered a book, he'd plop down his hand and trace its empty outline on the flyleaf, scrawling an "X" in the center. Later, of his brand of reading, this generational nonspokesman would explain: "I'm kind of saying, `It's OK: I'm here, you're there, that's cool.' "

Later still, as the crowd trickled out, two recent grads of Stonehill College, Mike Slaven, 22, and Ann Sullivan, 21, made the evening a little more clear. "We came here because Doug was the first person to speak up for people like us," Slaven said.

"Yeah, we're not hippies, we're not yuppies, but we exist," his friend said. "Yeah, we're blank, but we're here," Slaven said.