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Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
by Douglas Coupland
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the first major work of a important and thought provoking voice., 29 Sept. 2012
Back in 1989 a little known Canadian writer called Douglas Coupland (pronounced Copeland), took off for the Californian desert city of Palm Springs to write a handbook for the post boomer generation, or at least that's what his publisher thought. It turned out Coupland had other ideas and "Generation X" was his first attempt at fiction. The story goes that when he turned in the manuscript his publisher was aghast and it was only at the prompting of younger staff whom identified with it that it was finally published. In time the book became a huge success, and in what is probably the biggest irony in a book seemingly defined by it, the title became the term used by marketing and the media to identify a generation whose motto could easily have been the title of one of its chapters: "I Am Not a Target Market".

Whilst Coupland denied he was ever the spokesperson for a generation or that Gen X was ever more than a collection of attitudes and behaviors, I think he captured something important. His words resonated with young people of a certain age who didn't identify with the boomer mentality and looked for cultural markers that more closely matched their own experience.

I first came across Gen X a decade ago in a London bookstore, and it certainly provided welcome relief from the rain and rigors of day to day living. Sometimes it's scary to see how tenuous the thread of meaning is in ones existence, in those days held together by little more than a few good books and the odd day spent goofing off work. I'm put in mind of a day many years ago; I was at Heathrow Airport, a regular haunt for me then, and I realized I would not remember the endless, crappy days spent doing meaningless jobs, so unimportant were they in the overall scheme of things. It was the occasional days off, promoting a process, fostering a feeling and nurturing a nascent belief in a better way of being that I would remember, and so I have. Having said all that I've never understood why the best things in life seem to exist on the periphery, but maybe that's just the way it goes....

So here I am now having made my escape; I'm at the "chokingly hot hill" of West Palm Springs Village, 3 hours from where I now live in California and 15 miles from downtown Palm Springs, hanging out at the corner of Cottonwood and Sapphire, site of the "picnic from hell" enjoyed by Andy, Claire and Dag early in the book, where they told bedtime stories of the accelerated culture in which they lived in an attempt to make sense of it. I always wondered if I'd make it here and now that I have, I'm given pause to wonder who else has been here for the same reason; to pay homage but also to see what came up for them. Who would have guessed I'd be here a decade later? Life can surprise you.

Actually, hanging out is too generous a word to describe my brief visit; it's absolutely one of the most depressing places I've ever seen and I leave almost as soon as I arrive. Strangely enough, in the 20 years since Coupland was here it's probably changed for the better; there are new homes, some of them even quite nice, but they are plunked down randomly in a kind of uniquely awful semi urban desolation. With its lack of sidewalks, busted up and broken down gravel roads intersected by rutted dirt tracks hacked out of the arid wasteland, it makes the average trailer park look like the height of desirability. What kind of affliction would drive anyone to live here, save for cheap land?

Standing here in this failed 1950's housing development I look eastward towards more promising vistas, a land of almost perfect desertification forgotten by rain and civilization. It's a different world out there in the desert and one that draws as much as repels, a seemingly promised land of escape and freedom far from the cool green dampness of my youth, yet the contrast is so shocking everyday living there might become a form of self imposed regret.

So, what does Generation X and its characters have to say about life both then and now? Times have certainly changed as have the available choices; doing jobs beneath your ability as in "occupational slumming" just to be ironic seems dated in a world where widespread unemployment means if you can even get a "McJob" you'll probably take it. Whilst the characters seek escape from their dysfunctional families and boring careers, they live in a kind of half world, not quite brave enough to cut the ties completely and lacking the ability to move on and define life on their own terms. One always gets the feeling they have simply opted out for a while but could opt back in at any moment, something that would be harder to do these days.

I have to say though that I admired their spirit and understood their desire for time out; to think about life, dream of a different future and question the values around them even as they recognized the unlikelihood they could change them. Perhaps this kind of thing is a rite of passage, a duty of each generation to question the one above it, but I sometimes wonder if my generation was different.

Defining generations is difficult but the post boomer generation, of which I am a part and Gen X characterizes, covers roughly those born during the 60's and 70's. We reached adulthood in the 1980's and saw leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dismantling social assistance and sensed that the world was changing. With real wages stagnant since the 1970's we would be the first generation unlikely to surpass the living standards of our parents; the social contract had been permanently broken. What that means today is if you're an in demand developer with the likes of Facebook and Google competing for your services then that freedom to choose is great; the rest of us though are screwed and have been sold down the river. We have the freedom to choose between lots of poor options and need two incomes to even dream of buying a home. Our middle class fathers might have been company men with all the compromises that entailed, but they could at least support their families and retire with the comfort and security of good pensions, something that will be denied to us. Whilst I never wanted to sell my soul and be a company man, it would have been nice to know that it was still an option.

This I believe is what gave the book some of its bite; the way in which despite their meandering lives full of irony and post apocalyptic stories, the characters gave voice clearly to these types of concerns. If you were never likely to be that successful economically or allowed access to the means to do so, then the yardstick of success by which previous generations judged was less important for you; you had to find meaning and purpose in other ways. This is a message with even greater relevance today, and after such a meaningful deconstruction of intergenerational issues the ending chosen for the characters was a bit of a letdown, but in leaving it open Coupland allowed his characters to live on in memory in their hazy, timeout world, their questions all the more potent for being unanswered.

I've read a lot about Coupland to find out more about the background to the book; what he was trying to express, and his perception of his creation years later. I was fortunate to find a series of articles and an audio interview conducted by the Guardian newspaper in the UK last year. Coupland makes an interesting interviewee, but what struck me most was the palpable emotion in his voice as he looked through the book for the first time in 18 years. It became clear the reason he'd never gone back to it was what it brought up for him; the rawest of emotion. The kind of bone-crushing, soul-sucking loneliness I also experienced once in my life and like him have never forgotten; who'd want to be reminded of that? He also talked movingly about the characters he'd created; how you live with them as parts of yourself and how when you finish a book those characters die; his voice trembled as he wished them well.

Coupland has been variously described as a chronicler of our times and a post modern transcendentalist, and he went on to confirm his talent for defining the zeitgeist and for good timing with "Microserfs", which came out the week Windows 95 was launched. Since starting this essay I've dived further into the Coupland oeuvre and enjoyed "The Gum Thief", "JPod", "Life after God" and "Shampoo Planet". One can see how his style has developed and his story telling abilities have improved, yet the razor sharp wit and biting satire of Gen X have not been surpassed. His later books flow better and often have a kind of inspired lunacy and cultivated pointlessness, but for me Gen X has stood the test of time both as a snapshot of social trends that still have relevance today, but also as the first major work of a important and thought provoking voice.
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