Life after X


From The Irish Times (July 2, 1994)

by Brian Boyd

Once upon a time there was a generation called X. Born the 1960s, they emerged into adulthood to find a world shaped by Reagan, Thatcher, AIDS, environmental destruction and acceptable levels of unemployment. With nothing but contempt for the babyboomers above them, whom they blamed for all of this, they retreated into their own barricaded inner worlds. Suspecting everything and trusting nobody, they're now living angrily ever after.

As a coping strategy, thy developed a flippant and ironic approach to their lives. They regarded sincerity as pornographic" and a career as "pointless". They indulged in "occupational slumming" taking a job well beneath one's skill or education level, like a McJob. The advantage here was that they didn't have to work with babyboomers, who, once they had risen to the level of their incompetence, swiftly casualised all forms of labour below them.

There were other problems too; there was "consensus terrorism": the process by which decisions are made in the workplace; "successophobia": the prospect of turning into your boss; acrid most frightening of all, revenge psychosis": the fear that if you "get ahead", you'll only end up treating younger people the way you've been treated.

X'ers, as they are known, exist in a world of Virtual Jobs (very little present and no future) and there's a line in the book, Generation X (Tales For An Accelerated Culture) which sums up how they feel. One of the characters leaves his "career" job to engage in a spot of occupational slumming. His parting shot to his fortysomething boss is "I have to endure pinheads like you rusting above me for the rest of my life, always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed wire fence around the rest. You'd last about 10 minutes if you were my age these days.

Like the yuppie scum above them and the techno brats below them, it was assumed that X'ers would have their column inches of fame and then go away. But as they crawl into their thirties, they're still the subject of comment and curiosity. By virtue of being born when they were (between 1960 and 1970) they become into adulthood riding the waves of a fast forward culture and are the first specimens of what sociologists call a "post religious, post ideological" society. Gosh.

And what have they found? "They've found Life After X," says Douglas Coupland, the man who wrote Generation X and its follow up, Shampoo Planet. Coupland, (32), who is uneasy about being labelled a "spokesperson", feels that although X'ers have moved on, their message still hasn't got through. "Babyboomers are in denial about what's going on around them," he says. "I don't know what's going on in their heads, did they think they could carry on as embittered hippies and continue to get in our way forever? They've been basking under what do you call those little red lamps that keep French fries hot? Even though they've been cold for hours, they've been under that lamp for 45 years and suddenly they've had the light taken off them. And they're going nuts. It's pathetic. It's the same with advertisers, they're angry because they can't invade and kill the organism."

Although published four years ago, Generation X still sells 6,000 copies a month. Very much a cultural handbook or "zeitgeist defining" as older people called it, it was followed up by the vitriolic Shampoo Planet, which dealt with the consumer obsessed younger brothers and sisters of X'ers. Coupland's third book Life After God, published next month, looks at what happens when twentynothings turn into thirtynothings.

"Unlike in the conformists and the greedy '80s, life isn't as mapped out as it used to be. People now are dealing with life without a road map, they're having to make it up as they go along," says Coupland. "It's important when you consider that I was born in 1961 and there were more people born in 1961 than any other year in the history of the planet. So there are more people our age than anyone else on earth." That this is not reflected in politics/the media/anywhere at all, is forcibly dealt with in Generation X.

In Life After God, Coupland has, much to the surprise of critics in the US who branded him a "sloganeer" found a strong literary voice. The book is a sombre and introspective account of how people his age cope with being thirtynothings, with keeping their ideals in a corrupt world and with spirituality in an age without faith. There are eight short stories, each as disturbing as the next, as "heavy questions" are asked. In one of the stories, Julie, a recovering X'er, says "I'm trying to escape from ironic hell, from cynicism into faith, randomness into clarity, worry into devotion. But it's hard trying to be sincere in another, the main character bemoans the fact that "when you're young, you always feel that life hasn't begun yet, that 'life' is always scheduled to begin next month, next year. But then suddenly you're old and the scheduled life didn't arrive . .. I never thought I would end up in the suburbs with a lawnmower. I feel like the punch line to a joke, I might have told 10 years ago."

"I don't know, maybe life becomes less interesting," Coupland says about the themes in Life After God. "You run out of firsts, but there's more to it than that. I think people are becoming de narated." Explain. "It used to be that the templates with which you traced a life religion, politics, whatever gave you a sense of position within a historical continuum. But most forms of culture have now become "aregional" we are all beginning to have the same cultural reference points, they have to become homogenised and that is what I mean by de narrated. It's dangerous in terms of not having any identity, any real identity."

Coupland, who is in Ireland visiting friends, drinks life threatening amounts of coffee and talks in epigrams. He's an art school graduate who now lives in Vancouver ("It's great, it's got no history"). After leaving college he had a series of McJobs before deciding on writing as a career. He is a close friend of cyberpunk writer, William Gibson (his neighbour) and REM's Michael Stipe. He suffered from chronic acne in his teens and says he "still can't connect" to his body. He has a Patti Hearst fixation, a subscription to Viz magazine, wonders continually why "so few people know the effect they have on other people", doesn't describe himself as happy "happy is a word Hollywood agents use when they want to steal you away from another agent" quotes Isabel Allende, hates media exposure and wants to remain "invisible".

He finds something morbidly funny in the fact that a "hi tech, media dense, consumer democracy society" is just as messed up as less "technologically advanced" societies. "People are still falling apart, many of the certainties which comforted earlier generations are gone. For a while, I tended to put my faith what there is of it into things like infrastructure: freeways, civil aviation, technology. For a while I lost the equation between progress and technology; now I'm starting to equate the two again."

He was brought up with no form of religious instruction and says that asking a person what it's like to have no religion is the same as asking a blind person what it's like to have no sight. "At the age I'm at now, I find myself, quite naturally, looking for transcendent values." Are you religious now? "I'm reflective. My favourite thing is sitting and thinking in a quiet room, or in a forest. I was horrified by a recent poll that said being alone in a forest was one of the public's most common fears. I can't imagine anything more wonderful."

He's no stranger to Ireland; two years ago he spent two months in Sligo researching a book on the Famine. People who know no better would think that's an unlikely choice of subject? "You get that all the time: 'oh, you're the Generation X person', as if you weren't capable of anything else."

He remains indifferent to the mini industry that has grown up around the term he coined. A whole slew of X films is now coming out of Hollywood, led by Reality Bites and along with the copycat books, there is now an "official" Generation X diary.

Newsweek magazine recently ran a cover story about "The myth of Generation X: seven lies about X'ers". Coupland just shrugs and mutters something about a backlash and X not being the last letter of the alphabet