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Book Review – “Generation X” by Douglas Coupland

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(From the archives of My Documents)

The alphabet might be running out of letters for American civilization since Douglas Coupland popularized the phrase “Generation X” in his 1991 novel of the same name to describe the information-laden, status-obsessed culture of post-war adult children. The conclusion of the Generation alphabet offers an eschatological prediction for the most recent generations due to their waning sense of initiative, i.e. the Generation Y’s – those who witnessed the transition to Internet culture and now champion the shortcuts that technology offers – and the Generation Z’s, the sleepiest of generations, perennially breast-fed by the Internet and sedate from being overly-nurtured with information. The characters in Coupland’s novel are dubbed members of the “X Generation” because they feel without roots, similar to how Malcolm X adopted his namesake as a refusal of the surname handed to him by white culture, choosing “X” to stand in for a forever blank space. Coupland’s characters are refusing the legacy that has been handed to them by the Baby Boomers and their collective mentality of steady job + porcelain family = life success, but it leaves them feeling nomadic, or – more appropriately – homeless, forcing the characters to dabble in everything without settling in anything. They work when necessary, but don’t establish careers, instead working what Coupland coins as “McJobs,” or “low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job(s) in the service sector.”

Instead of maintaining and pursuing goals, narrator Andy and his roommate friends Dag and Claire spend their time telling each other stories (some more non-fictional than the allegorist would like to let on), escaping through the narratives of others to distract from the apparent stasis of their own personal narrative arcs. Coupland even structures the novel as a frame narrative to mimic this generational need of fiction to blanket the ennui of day-to-day life. Stories and the little action present within the novel can be considered a distraction from deleterious thoughts, and Coupland once again embodies this idea structurally by adjoining the text on each page with prodigious margins in which he presents his invented Generation X nomenclature, single-frame comics, and propaganda-like slogans (i.e. “YOU ARE NOT YOUR EGO”), each graphic serving as a distraction for the reader. When considering the novel as a product within the context of consumer America – a culture of cardigans and ski vacations, where creative minds focus their energy on advertising and peddling products to the masses – it becomes evident that Coupland is forecasting the trend of stunted growth in American youth due to their immersion in commercial culture, which strips them of an identity altogether by bombarding them with testimonials about what their identities should be. Young people are turned into statistics, and everyone is conditioned to crave his or her slice of the pie chart.

Andy and his friends can’t decide what they want to be, and they are exhausted from the decision-making process. So, the joint decision by Dag and Claire to move to Mexico to open their own bed-and-breakfast at the end of the novel seems more parts impulsive Generation X logic than convenient deus ex machina. The novel concludes with Andy driving to Mexico to join his friends. On the way, he stops in the town of Brawley to ogle a burning field, which has become a traffic-halting spectacle. After observing the carbonized black soil of the scorched field in contrast with a “jet-white” bird circling over the field, Andy is scratched on the scalp by the bird’s talons, a proverbial knocking of the head, whereupon he is subsequently mauled by a group of mentally retarded teenagers who pat him heavily, yet affectionately, on his back and then all over his body in an effort to heal him, sending Andy into an asexual ecstasy of human touch. This is perhaps Coupland’s not-so-subtle hint to the reader that all these apathetic, malaise-ridden youth might need is the earnest, agenda-free physical touch of their peers, which gives substance to some spectral, emotional void that exists between them and their middle-class families. The root of all problems for Coupland’s brooding characters is a typical middle class affliction: they are provided for enough to remain comfortable throughout life, but their achievements are never worthy of an academic lecture or television interview. As Coupland writes, “it is the price paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.” Through their paltry, middle-class trials, Generation X-ers have always remained (voluntarily) voiceless. Douglas Coupland simply took the initiative to start speaking for them.

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