The prophet of irony summons the McJob generation


From The Independent on Sunday (March 6, 1994)

by David Usborne

A boiled sweet, a children's book about a rabbit and a licence plate frame engraved with the message, "Ignore Boomers - Proud to be a Member of the X Generation". These are some of the modest but personal gifts piling up on the desk at Kepler's, where 32- year-old Douglas Coupland is signing copies of his latest work, Life after God. He finished his reading in this Palo Alto bookstore, outside San Francisco, over an hour ago, but still fans are queuing for the chance to meet their new idol.

Three years after writing Generation X - Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Coupland has become the sole voice, prophet, apostle - the critical epithets vary in their extravagance - of twentysomething America; the first writer, he says, to explore the mundane, middle-class reality of over-educated but under- stimulated post-boomer suburbanites. Or, to paraphrase the young East and West Coast intellectuals who have adopted him, he is the wonder boy of post- modern ennui.

His success seems unlikely to be fleeting. Life after God, eight short stories about young men and women struggling to make sense of the delayed transition from adolescence to disappointing adulthood, is already on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list and is the hottest item this week at Kepler's. He is the latest catch of the self-consciously brainy Washington DC political weekly, the New Republic, to which he is now a regular contributor.

Viewers of the rock-video station, MTV, are being plied with a series of 30-second channel promos that star Coupland uttering passages of his book in a variety of post-modern settings. And some literary critics venture comparisons with Hemingway and Salinger.

But he is controversial also, especially among the established gurus of American youth culture: the advertising executives of Madison Avenue and the editors of Rolling Stone magazine. They question whether the age group Coupland defines as those "born in the late 1950s and 1960s", aged up to the mid- thirties, can be lumped together and called the X Generation in the way of post-war babies, the "boomers". It may be a threat to them because as a marketing target the anti-glamorous Coupland style is unpromising. Nor do X- ers respond to the familiar Sixties and Seventies icons on which magazines such as Rolling Stone are predicated. "Eric Clapton? Who gives a shit?" exclaims Coupland.

Jan Wenner, the millionaire publisher of Rolling Stone, did not want to attack Coupland, whom he claims, surprisingly, not to have read. But on the generation question, he lets rip. "It's time to drive a stake though this odious phrase, Generation X," he declares, arguing that there is little to separate the twentysomethings from his own boomer age group in terms of social concerns and even musical tastes. "The idea that there is a new generation gap filled with resentment is empty-headed nonsense spouted by self-styled pop culture theorists and opportunistic media critics," he says.

Coupland denies that in writing Generation X he was setting out to define an age group, let alone become its spokesman. "I live my life, I write about my life, no one else's, and the people in my orbit and in no one else's," he insists. Now essential campus reading around the country, the book plots the fortunes of three young "slackers", who cut loose from their home environments and boring but socially acceptable jobs, and come together in Palm Springs where they share their fears, tell each other stories and exist on "McJobs" - "low-pay, low- prestige, low-benefit, no-future jobs in the service industry". Their language is loaded with cynicism and irony.

It is this new culture of irony, brought on by an unrelenting exposure to the media and especially to television - the electronic babysitter - that divides the twentysomethings from older generations, argues Coupland. "Young people are never going to be without irony again. That's one of the psychological fall-outs of media bombardment when you're young. Because you see life being posited in a certain way with a certain resolution and a certain codification and then you see life as it is lived, which is messy and ugly and boring."

Coupland attributes the refusal of Rolling Stone to acknowledge him to what he calls the "social schism between those people, like myself, who, like 1,000 tea-bags in a pot of hot water, were steeped in the media culture, and people like my parents or even those boomer somethings, who weren't. There are a lot of older people who wish I would go away."

Life after God is a more philosophical and possibly even more introspective book than X. The tone, Coupland says, is the result partly of a "blizzard" of personal losses - the deaths of friends or family, he does not elaborate - he has recently suffered. The book's jacket tells readers: "You are the first generation raised without religion." This is a phenomenon, which, according to Coupland, helps to explain the sense he and those he knows have of being adrift without a religious, moral or ideological anchor.

Whatever doubts marketing analysts or Wenner may have about the Generation X label, Coupland's fans back at Kepler's harbour none. Don Miller, 23, who has a McJob as a hospital orderly in Stanford, says: "I think people my age are rarely written about and the observations he makes are really right on." And, of a girl who had sat next to him and had objected to the "X" label, he says:

"It was so funny, because I recognised her immediately as a character from one of his books."

So what's next for Coupland? He says he is going to London: "I want to learn how to affect a British accent." He does not explain why