A To Not Quite Z

Rereading Douglas Coupland’s  Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture reminded this baby boomer how important and, in its way, groundbreaking the book was when published in 1991. Not that it received much attention, despite its title,  at release. No major reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker or The Los Angeles Times (somebody please prove me wrong about this). Only culture critic Robin Abcarian of the LA Times seemed to catch on and then, months behind the book’s release, only in light of his second novel.

The book was different even in its design. It’s use of margin slogans and illustrations separated it from the previous generation of literature. Also in the margins were the defining terms of the times, such as  “MCJOB: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who never held one.” And “NUTRITIONAL SLUMMING: Food whose enjoyment stems not from flavor but from a complex mixture of class connotations, nostalgia signals, and packaging semiotics.” Even its off-beat size (8″x9″) made it stand out.

But writers, particularly those interested in marketing, were quick to catch on to the idea of Generation X that prior to the novel had been the province of punk rock and those unable to find a suitable label for any generation of teens that came after (and sometimes including) the boomers.

Coupland defines the subject generation  not quite a third of the way into the book when Andrew tells the story of his working at a “teenybopper magazine” in Japan and seeing the alienation of its same-age generation, those for whom the prevailing culture, as one of his Japanese colleagues puts it, “murder my ambition.”

“…shin jin rui — that’s what the Japanese newspapers call people like those kids in their twenties at the office —  new human beings. It’s hard to explain. We have the same group over here and it’s just as large, but it doesn’t have a name — an X generation — purposefully hiding itself. There’s more space over here [in the U.S.] to hide in — to get lost in — to use as camouflage. You’re not allowed to disappear in Japan.”

This disappearing act is less related to generation than to class (see “McJobs” and “Nutritional Slumming” above). Near the end of the book, Andrew sees this invisibility being shared by his entire family. He’s lit hundreds (“maybe thousands”) of candles in the family living room for the holiday celebration. The effect is revelatory, “the normally dreary living room covered with a molten living cake-icing of white fire, all surfaces devoured in flame — a dazzling fleeting empire of ideal light.” But once the candles are snuffed, life reverts to normal. And that’s when the true revelation rises.

“But I get this feeling —

“It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we’re middle class.

“You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happiness es are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.”

While Coupland is credited with painting the alienation of a certain generation, he’s also defined it for all contemporary generations, a definition that speaks to class struggle and middle-class envy leading to unfullfillment. Some of this class consciousness exists in  Generation A but its alienation is a separation more from nature and emotional experience caused by a dependence on technology, much of it pharmacological. Telling stories is central to both books but there’s a difference. The stories in A are all about plot. In X, they’re all about character. In X, Coupland explains story-telling in terms of “the letter inside us,” an idea he credits to Rilke, and that “only if we are true to ourselves, may we be allowed to read it before we die.” He also uses Rilke to define the separation from reality felt by the alienated, a theme that pervades both books.

Coupland’s excellent first novel, badly misunderstood when it first came out (by this dumb bunny,  too)  spawned a curse of generational considerations, mostly on the negative side of opportunity and abundance, that we can’t seem to escape. Film critic A.O. Scott bemoaned (enough whining!) this curse in a piece that references Sam Lipsyte’s timely book The Ask. Scott suggests that Generation X –those slackers — are having a mid-life crisis.  But what they’re going through — what most of us are going through — is more like Coupland’s middle-class invisibility. How can you be someone, at any age,  when no one can see you? Generation A is not only less of a novel for its failure to make the label stick (“Generation A” comes from an address given by Kurt Vonnegut at Syracuse University in 1994) but also for making its five central characters circumstantial celebrities, something that will never happen to X‘s Andy, Claire and Dag, midlife crisis or not.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Leave a Reply