Boomer Backlash


From Los Angeles Times (June 12, 1991)

by Robin Abcarian

Please. Don't call Douglas Coupland the voice of his generation although with every newspaper and television interview, every magazine story, every laudatory book review, it's going to be a hard label to shirk.

It's just that they've already placed that mantle on the shoulders of Brett Easton Ellis, who has obviously accepted, what with his talkin'-`bout-my- generation essays that pop up all over the place. Frankly, Coupland despises the idea that anyone would presume to speak for him or his peer group, whose good ol' days roughly coincided with those of "The Partridge Family."

But Coupland, 29, has plenty to say for himself. And some, like Publisher's Weekly, say he could teach the 27-year-old Ellis a thing or two about how to say it.

"Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" (St. Martin's, $12.95) is Coupland's first novel, a succinct and groundbreaking portrait of that increasingly spotlighted, embittered group born between 1961 and 1971. Sometimes it is called the lost generation; sometimes the baby busters. Whatever the nickname, it is a post-`80s generation of young adults that has been handed not just an empty platter but a platter empty of possibilities. To Generation X, the older baby boomers have already taken all the good stuff_the good jobs, the good real estate, the good luck.

Two years ago, when Coupland began the novel, the flow of now-familiar solipsistic essays by young, ironic writers explaining to the world who "we" are and why "we" are so misunderstood was barely a trickle. Two years ago, Generation X was still the demographic equivalent of the muffled sounds of someone trying to escape a locked trunk. When Coupland would talk about his work in progress, people didn't know what he was talking about.

"They would say, `Oh Doug, you are just off on that weird high horse,' " he said. "I was told by more people in positions of power and authority that Generation X simply did not exist, that it was all in my mind, that I was simply a baby boomer and that's that! Demographically, yes, but mind set, no way."

No way indeed. As we know from last summer's cover stories in Time ("Laid back, late blooming or just lost?") and Fortune ("Today's young managers are nothing like yuppies"), this is not a group that pines for marble floors or cares to master the intricacies of no-load mutual funds. Instead, it thoroughly resents the world it stands to inherit. It loathes the hippie-turned-yuppie of the `80s, the clogged corporate ladder and the misguided optimism of its smug younger siblings.

Generation X holds McJobs ("low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future"), belongs to the poverty jet set (well traveled but destitute), is ironic as a matter of reflex and doesn't necessarily believe that the future is a better place. It is overdosed by information and has trouble filtering it.

"If I can lapse into a circuitous, McLuhanesque diatribe here," said Coupland, "The X Generation . . . wants to know what information is, how it's classified, where it goes, its historical reference. . . . They format their information differently than pre-Xers. They like synopses, they like encapsulations. It's not surprising to see that that is the direction a lot of newspapers and magazines are going."

Because he doesn't want to sound like a spokesman (but can't really help it), Coupland edits himself as he speaks: "We are worry warts_Oops! First person plural. Strike that! There is a tendency to worry too much. You've got too `darned' much information_put darned in quotes if you ever use it_way too much information in our brains. We extrapolate. You project your own worries and you can maybe make too much darkness where there is light."

In the novel, Andy, Claire and Dag have fled to Palm Springs, where they work at McJobs and sit around their bungalows drinking too many gins-and- tonics, telling stories.

"Either our lives become stories, or there's just no way to get through them," says Claire.

Why tell stories?

"For members of the X Generation, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to talk about love or loneliness or fear without worrying about sounding corny or without worrying about being made fun of because we are all such masters of the art of knee-jerk irony," said Coupland.

"But obviously we feel these things intensely, and the fact that we are not expressing them means that they are all the more bottled up waiting to explode. Only by telling stories are the characters able to see how they feel."

The moral bankruptcy of the older boomers is a recurring theme in the stories. So, for instance, Dag's story about leaping off the career ladder climaxes at the moment he tells off his "bleeding pony tail" of a boss. ("Bleeding pony tail: a sold-out baby boomer who pines for hippie or pre-sell-out days.") Dag yells:

Do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand-new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our own grimy little shoe boxes and we're pushing thirty? A home you won in a genetic lottery, I might add, sheerly by dint of your having been born in the right time in history. And 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 really make me sick.

The novel was conceived as a series of fictional vignettes that would be presented in a handbook form, a road map through the emotional hills and dales of the X Generation. But when Coupland began writing, what came out on the page was a novel. Traces of the original intent linger in the margin, in the form of slogans and capsulized definitions of phrases dreamed up by Coupland to explain Xers to those who don't get it right away. His editor calls these graphic devices "thought bombs."

Coupland worried that St. Martin's would reject the novel because, after all, it had bought a handbook.

"They never asked to see it while I was writing," he said, "so I handed in a novel. To Jim's credit (Jim Fitzgerald, executive editor of St. Martin's), he didn't take me to court. I am not sure what went on at St. Martin's after I handed it in, but everyone had read it and there was a big debate. The junior staff in the company were my staunch supporters. I owe everything to them."

Fitzgerald, in his 40s, confirmed that there was some behind-the-scenes discussion about the book.

"There was great support from Generation Xers and a little concern from people who were older_the marketing staff," said Fitzgerald. "I said, `You either get it or you don't.' There are still people here who don't get it."

Coupland grew up in Vancouver, the third of four sons ("I am Peter Brady"). His father, a doctor, and his mother (whom he described as a "comparative theologian," although she does not work outside the home) are, he reports, happily married.

"They are Eastern Canadian, and they came to the West Coast like so many people to simply unyoke themselves from the past," said Coupland. "We lived in a new house in a new suburb. Communications with the East were kept to a minimum. They just didn't want us being raised with the burden of history."

He studied to be a sculptor in Vancouver, Japan and Italy and, after college, studied Japanese business science in Honolulu.

"That was my mid-20s crisis," said Coupland. "All the people in the program were from Stanford and New York, and I was this goofy art student. It was like, `Gee, a sculpture degree_hey Doug, that's really food on the table!'

"I thought maybe I should put my Japanese to more use, so I got into the program. Then I realized it was not my temperament. I did end up interning in Tokyo. . . . I was making outrageous money, but it was all happening in a vacuum. There were no friends, no family. It just made no sense whatsoever, so I left. Another phase of my life abandoned."

After Japan, Coupland wrote about art for magazines, first in Vancouver, then in Toronto. When he discovered fiction, that was it. "It had awoken something inside me, and once it woke up, I literally had to stop doing magazine articles," he said. "I had to do the fiction."

He took his advance to Palm Springs and spent a year writing "Generation X."

Coupland will finish his second novel this summer in Vancouver. He is moving there from Montreal at the end of the month because he hates the humidity. The book, titled "Shampoo Planet," is about the generation that follows Generation X, the ones who Coupland calls "Global Teens," "Benetton Youth" or "Young Republicans in Love." It was bought by Simon & Schuster.

"One thing I have noticed when meeting these kids is that they all have 500 brands of shampoo, conditioner and mousse in their bathrooms," he said. "I call them `shampoo museums.' The one really unifying tribal link with these kids is really good hair."

And fortunately for the purposes of fiction, there is a darker side to the Global Teens, far darker than the overtly bleak Generation X:

"They're nice kids," explains Andy in "Generation X." "None of their folks can complain. But in some dark and undefinable way, these kids are also Dow, Union Carbide, General Dynamics and the military. And I suspect that were their AirBus to crash on a frosty Andean plateau, they would have little, if any, compunction about eating dead fellow passengers."

"Shampoo Planet" should be available for consumption in the spring of 1992