on 2 March 2009
Okay, let's be clear. I'm the exact demographic for this novel. And I recognised pretty much all the references it makes. And I like witty cynicism. Hell, I've even been to Palm Springs. So it isn't as if I "didn't get it" or that it somehow "went over my head".
I can live with the fact that there's no plot, no character develops or changes, or that there is no pace or drive to the narrative. The problem with this book is that, like Coupland's other efforts, it is less than the sum of its parts.
The cynical, I-always-see-through-marketing-hype style grates very early on. All three of the characters basically sound the same, act the same, and think the same. There is no spark or conflict between them - they all agree on pretty much everything. The smug "I'm cool because I'm deliberately a slacker" attitude is morally and ethically empty - it's a dismal anti-choice that teaches the reader nothing about anything.
Bits I enjoyed? The small definitions at the bottom weren't bad, in the same way they would (and really should) have been if they'd appeared as minor asides in a daily newspaper. Some of them seemed forced and shoehorned into an arch definition. And occasionally, when Coupland trusted himself not to play a smarmy, wisecracking slacker, the description can work well.
Overall, I wonder if there's simply something about books that claim to `define the zeitgeist', or `capture the mood of a generation'. This didn't. It didn't get close - just ramming product names into the narrative and then saying how stupid they are, doesn't say anything of any consequence at all. But then, I hated Catcher in the Rye as well, and everyone tells me I'm a philistine to hold such a view. This book didn't speak to me of my place, time, life, attitudes or habits. It was just three annoying people in the desert, feeling inordinately pleased with themselves for no particular reason.
on 24 November 2002
I can't remember how many times I've read Generation X now. Not an obsessive amount, but every so often I need to re-read it as a kind of "touching base." On Saturday, as I packed to spend the weekend at my parents' house, where I grew up, I felt the need for something familiar, easy to read and touching, that would leave me comforted yet introspective.
But this is just my relationship with the book. The main narrative concerns three late-twenty-somethings living in a southern California resort town, somewhere anonymous in the desert. All are working in no-responsibility jobs, none have any idea what to do with their lives. Having grown up with the Cold War they're always expecting an apocalyptic end to their world of sun-baked desert and faceless industrial shopping malls.
Their conversations and rented bungalows are scattered with references to previous post-war decades in which everything seemed more certain and whose pop-culture seems like an escape from that of today. As the years pass since the book's publication it's becoming apparent that the world in which its set is just another past decade whose sayings and culture are ripe for ironic vultures. But every time I read it I find something that's relevant to my world (if "Legislated Nostalgia: To force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess" doesn't hit I Love the 19x0s where it hurts, I don't know what does).
If you can, forget the whole Gen X thing that floated around back in the nineties, which is far too much baggage for this little story to carry. Well, "stories" would be more appropriate. There's little plot here, but the characters spend much of their time telling each other romantic and doom-filled (and impossibly eloquent) tales; thankfully this is Coupland's forte.
This could all sound a bit earnest and it is in places, but I can forgive the characters their occasional self-importance because their stories and lives never fail to get me where it counts, in my easily-touched heart.
on 24 April 2005
I have read all of Douglas Coupland's fiction and think he is an immensely thought-provoking and inspiring author. "Generation X" was the first of his novels I read and I have to admit at that time I didn't really get into the book or enjoy it much. However, I then read "Life After God" and loved it. It was only after reading several of his other novels that I decided to have another go at "Genereation X". What a revelation! I have to say that I don't understand why I didn't enjoy it the first time. It is an amazing book. The narrative is full of inciteful observations about friendship and finding meaning within modern Western society. It is a book I have now read several times and it never ceases to amaze and amuse me.
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.
Douglas Coupland created the name of an entire generation in "Generation X," with his look at the lives of disaffected twentysomethings, in lives that lack an indefinable something. Witty, incisive and intelligent, Coupland's debut is still an outstanding read long after the original twentysomethings are twentysomething no more.
Three twentysomethings -- Andy, Claire, and Dag -- first encounter each other in the California desert, far from their original homes. All three are "underemployed, overeducated, intensely private, and unpredictable," and they are adrift in life -- they want meaning in their lives, but they don't know what it is or how to find it.
Disgruntled by the soulles pop culture, they've all left the world behind in favor of a non-rat-race life. They take up unrewarding minimum-wage "McJobs," and form a little Platonic circle that tells stories about themselves and the future, giving insights into what drove them to that place in the first place.
"Generation X" is one of those rare books that takes on the problems of youth with genuine intelligence. No matter how many curmudgeons say that "kids today have it easy," each generation has its own problems and challenges, including ones of the soul. It's those problems that Coupland seeks to address here.
That intelligent edge has gotten the book labelled pretentious, but if anything it lacks pretension. Coupland is frank and upfront, both about his "slacker" protagonists, and in the attitude he has toward the world. He tackles the insecurities and dissatisfactions of youth, and how the people who came of age in the early 1990s struggled with the concept of a society in flux. They were too old to be innocent, too young to be fully benumbed.
Coupland's writing is rougher here than in his later novels like "Shampoo Nation" and "Girlfriend in a Coma." But it has his usual wry zing and offbeat style, stripped down to a mass of details and thoughts, and the ability to look at how the masses worry about things that don't really matter. He's cynical and dark in places, but has a certain downbeat optimism as well.
Douglas Coupland's debut has a languid, downbeat beauty about it. And the insightful "Generation X" is still a modern classic, with something to say to any generation.
on 1 July 2002
Don't even bother to read my humble review...go and buy this book RIGHT NOW! By far Coupland's finest novel. If you are already a fan, I assume you've already read Generation X as it is essentially the foundation for all that is Coupland. If you haven't read any of his books, this is certainly the way to start, if you want the full impact of Coupland's unique style of expression and imagery. If, however, you'd prefer a more subdued introduction, go for All Families Are Psychotic or Shampoo Planet, but at some point everyone must read Generation X! The images and stories Coupland incorporates into this novel are a combination of beauty, sadness, loneliness, humour and pure imagination. Unbelievable, that's all I can say - read it.
on 23 April 2007
Coupland is a master of these kind of fin de siecle novels. Generation X is not plot or character driven - it is really just a collection of rambling thoughts on what it means to be twenty something in the early nineties. It is packed with wry observations and simple truths. It is hugely analytical and shows the complex thoughts of the so called apathetic young people of today - for although this is aimed at twenty somethings in the early nineties it is just as relevant today. Another author could have made this seem overly cynical but Couplands masterful use of irony pulls off the subject spectacularly. One of the novels major plus points is the newly coined phrases and definitions set across the bottom of some of the pages - they were all so clever and true and many people of a certain age and state of mind will be able to relate to them so easily. I think this book would appeal to deep thinkers and people who don't need to read something fast paced in order to keep their interest.
on 29 September 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.
on 2 October 2000
Wow. Never before have I read a book like this. One week after finishing the book and finding nothing extraordinary about it I found myself thinking about it more and more until eventually I just had to go back and read it again. I found myself sharing qualities with the main characters as well as being the butt of their criticism. I myself found in the characters traits to both like and dislike and this two way evaluation helped to create a level of interaction that continues long after finishing the book. This book is a brake in the Ford Ignorance. Use it!
on 1 June 2005
I enjoyed this book, it is a light read, and all the more compelling because essentially nothing happens. Despite their eccentric personalities and life-choices, the characters are believable for this reason in so far as they are the mouthpiece of alienation and the lack of a coherent world-view.
Despite the other review, this book *is* an attempt at characterising post-modenity, and explicitly so. More specifically it is a very 90s trendy post modernism and its characters belong to the nineties world. This is a good thing in itself, but already makes the book somewhat nostalgic for me only nine years later, and will date its relevance considerably in the long term.
Especial pleasure came for me when nearing the end, I realised (without giving anything away) that the three central characters with their McJobs (a nod to Ritzer I think), complaining to one another and terminal lack of ambition are despite everything....happy. At least so long as they have the company of other like minded people to tell their bedtime stories to.
Incidentally the footnote definition of 'bambification' kept me laughing all day.