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A Flourish of Style With Little Substance
on 7 June 2012
Come up with a catchy title, Generation X, and chose a topic that gives a sense of significance, alienation, or to paraphrase the beatnik edict turn on, tune in and drop out; and hey bingo you have a novel that will attract attention and there I say critical praise. That is exactly what Douglas Coupland has done with Generation X. It is a hip, cultish type novel that wears its heart on its sleeve right from the outset, there is a hint in the title, and then for another 200 plus pages hasn't got much else to say apart from a pretence to being a great debut novel.
It is the early 1990s so Coupland presents us with three characters: Andy, Dag and Claire, in their late twenties, all of them want to look back on the 1980s and even before the 80s and distance themselves from the ramification of the entrapment of climbing the capitalist ladder that the 80s engendered. Disillusioned with the way of the world as they experience it they drop out of `mainstream' society to lay about in California. Here they can drink, picnic in the Californian desert with dogs to accompany them, reflect on a spoiled world and tell stories.
Based on the above premise the novel quickly arrives at its conclusion and then thereafter has very little to of significance to tell the reader. The novel is narrated in the main by Dag and his narration holds a number of stories within the main story together. We get short descriptive passages of each of the three main characters past experiences. But these very short descriptions of various experiences do not add up to much. At best the stories reveal slight insights into the odd behaviour of the characters.
Perhaps there are some compensating features of the book and hence the reason why I gave it two stars rather then one. There are some humorous and insightful observations. An example being a reference to the effort some people make to buy their own home all too often clearly beyond their means. The narrator tells us: "When someone tells you they've bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality. You can immediately assume so many things: that they're locked into jobs they hate; they're broke ... that they no longer listen to new ideas." Another example in this vein is: "the only reason we all go to work in the morning is because we're not built for free time as a species. We think we are, but we aren't." Although these observations are insightful, I nonetheless could not stomach the cynicism that indeed runs right through the novel.
The novel is littered with footnote definitions, brief advert like blurbs and brief graphic fiction sketches. They don't really add much to the novel. Indeed, the final straw for me was the definition given for "Obscurism". It said: "The practice of peppering daily life with obscure references (forgotten films, dead TV stars, unpopular books, defunct countries, etc.) as a subliminal means of showcasing both one's education and one's wish to disassociate from the world of mass culture." Well I am glad we are not all going out of our way to dumb down.
The novel failed to engage me because from the outset one knows that it is premised on the idea of a generation that has become alienated from modern society. This does not leave much to discover or learn about the human condition. All that is effectively left to glean from the novel is how Coupland tells his story.