Generation X. (I Resist Adding a More Zeitgeisty Header.)

Yes, this is really about Douglas Coupland’s landmark book.

Generation X comprises people born between early 1960s and early 1980s. Thus I am perfectly average Gen X, and I re-read this book once in a while.

As for the content I cannot do better than the blurb:

Andy, Dag and Claire have been handed a society priced beyond their means. Twentysomethings, brought up with divorce, Watergate and Three Mile Island, and scarred by the 80s fall-out of yuppies, recession, crack and Ronald Reagan, they represent the new generation – Generation X.
Fiercely suspicious of being lumped together as an advertiser’s target market, they have quit dreary careers and cut themselves adrift in the California desert. Unsure of their futures, they immerse themselves in a regime of heavy drinking and working at no-future McJobs in the service industry.
Underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable, they have nowhere to direct their anger, no one to assuage their fears, and no culture to replace their anomie. So they tell stories; disturbingly funny tales that reveal their barricaded inner world. A world populated with dead TV shows, ‘Elvis moments’ and semi-disposable Swedish furniture.

Not much is happening – summarizing the few milestone of the main storyline of that framed novel would constitute a spoiler. Please note that I really do like the book although I am not at all into pseudo-intellectual non-storyline fictional movies that win prices at obscure European movie events.

In order to demonstrate what the stories told by the protagonists are like, this snippet might be instructive:

The first chink of sun rises over the lavender mountain of Joshua, but the three of us are just a bit too cool for our own good; we can’t just let the moment happen. Dag must greet this flare with a question for us, a gloomy aubade: “What do you think when you see the sun? Quick. Before you think about it too much and kill your response. Claire, you go first.”
Claire understands the drift: “Well, Dag. I see a farmer in Russia, and he’s driving a tractor in a wheat field, but the sunlight’s gone bad on him – like the fadedness of a black-and-white picture in an old Life magazine. And another strange phenomenon has happened, too: rather than sunbeams, the sun has begun to project the odor of old Life magazines instead, and the odor is killing his crops. The wheat is thinning as we speak. He’s slumped over the wheel of his tractor and he’s crying. His wheat is dying of history poisoning.”

I can’t hardly resist adding disclaimers about what the book is not. In my opinion it is not or not primarily: a sociological analysis – not even a disguised one, clever pop-culture references loosely strung together, or some new age late hippie inspired story of young people trying to “find themselves”. It is not just a critique of consumerism and related unnerving jobs in marketing.

Probably the whole book is about things that are not. Not what they seem. Not what they have been intended to be. It is about Gen X’s denial or envy of their boomer parents’ values and social security, and their denial of their considerably younger siblings who are cooler and more career-oriented. Using today’s clichés they dislike Gordon-Gekko-style yuppies as well as over-motivated Gen Y who overtake them.

I believe it is about a generation stuck in a cultural void – quite literally and somewhat voluntarily. The three protagonists move to a community that is pictured as barren and eerie – an artificial setup, like Seahaven in The Truman Show, but more gloomy. It hosts mainly retired baby boomers whom the three of them serve in their McJobs. I apologize to the residents of Palm Springs – but this is literature, not journalism.

The location allows Dag for taking a trip to the Nevada desert and returning with a jar of Trinitite as a present for Claire – who freaks out, considers it Plutonium, and has her apartment sanitized in the most paranoid way after the jar breaks accidentally and little green beads of Trinite are scattered across the floor. I remember the cold war just vaguely. I was maybe like the protagonists – stuck in my petty but yet existential problems, not appreciating world politics. Probably because of that I feel that  hilarious Trinite episode covers the feeling of a generation about nuclear war better than political analysis.

Coupland has often attributed great talent in capturing the zeitgeist. Ironically, chapters called I do not want to become a target market, did probably allow for even better dissection of Gen X by marketing experts.

He captures the zeitgeist by tracking it down to the most mundane commodities. To bumper stickers, ads, and to all kinds of junk that nonetheless triggers that grand feeling of an era. We are the generation tuned in to one or two TV stations only – our brains had been synchronized by washing powder ads featuring chirpy housewives or by crude animated cartoons sans Pixar-style 3D and texture. I remember clipping bumper stickers denoting the car-free day in the aftermath of the oil price shock.

Or it is just me and my treasure trove of precious memories of dreadful 1970s architecture: Green linoleum floors, orange 1970s wall coverings, and not exactly energy-efficient buildings. I had grown-up in a 1960s apartment building, went to a badly insulated 1960s school (we protested when the curtains moved in spite of closed windows, at 15°C room temperature), and I from graduated from a university built in the 1960s. We did not protest as the generation before us nor did we indulge in the cap-and-gown pseudo-tradition-as-an-event that Gen Y has rediscovered.

(I suppose this does not make a lot of sense to non-middle-European readers. For German speaking readers I’d like to recommend the German variant(s) of Generation X – Generation Golf – named after the car).

Douglas’ pseudo-scientific definitions are legend. He did not coin Generation X, but for example McJobs – and many other terms that entered the urban dictionary, such as:

Historical Slumming: the act of visiting locations such as diners, smokestack industrial sites, rural villages — locations where time appears to have been frozen many years back — so as to experience relief when one returns back to “the present”.

Clique Maintenance: the need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: “Kids today do nothing. They’re so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain.”

Overboarding: overcompensating for fears about the future by plunging headlong into a job or life-style seemingly unrelated to one’s previous life interests; i.e., Amway sales, aerobics, the Republican party, a career in law, cults, McJobs,…

Now Denial: to tell oneself that the only time worth living in is the past and that the only time that may ever be interesting again is the future.

Mental Ground Zero: the location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall.

101-ism: The tendency to pick apart, often in minute detail, all aspects of life using half-understood pop psychology as a tool.

Occupational Slumming: Taking a job that is beneath a person’s education or skill level as a means of retreat from adult responsibilities and/or avoiding possible failure in one’s true occupation.

Option Paralysis: The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.

Obscurism: 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”

Having typed all these, I found that there is a Wikipedia article on all Gen X neologisms already.

Doesn’t these lend themselves to be turned into status messages and memes on social networks? This is probably self-irony at a new level as Coupland’s characters, detached and intellectual as they may seem, just long for turning their lives into more than a series of unconnected cool events. That’s the whole point of their exercise in story-telling.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I have not, as of yet, read the book but must say that, as is often the case, your review has left me curious. For now, though, I’ve got a lot of open, unfinished books that need to get read first.
    I will take issue of one thing you mentioned, though. You have described yourself as a “perfectly average Gen x” individual. From what I’ve seen, you’re certainly not average :-) LOL
    In an unrelated manner, I thought of you yesterday. Several software developers close to me were experiencing no end of frustration with SSL and certificates in relation to a Java build they were working on yesterday. It occurred to me that troubleshooting the issue was something you could have helped with. They tried just about everything before giving up for the day. I told them that maybe a good night’s sleep would help.
    Funny–as it turned out the problem did get solved, but in a weird way. After one of the guys updated the related JAR files the problem solved itself. None of them still knows what was the cause :-) Java–gotta love it!

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice – I thought of “average” in a way I should have defined more precisely ;-) I was just born right in the middle of the Gen X time interval.

      it’s funny that you mention certificates and SSL as I have just starting reading a very technical book on the subject – but could not put it down because it is at the same time so witty and irreverent (by a computer scientist who is legend in the PKI community). Actually, I wanted to take a break from psychology and Kahneman … but stumbled upon a very well-researched chapter on decision making and psychology in that said security book… including lots of references to the same experiments Kahneman has done or has quoted in his book. It seems the author has evaluated all of contemporary psychology to understand why end users click away annoying security messages.
      I might get back to it in one of next posts!

  2. Whow … I loved the listing of Gen X neologisms. I’ll see if I can use them in polite conversation or, better yet, in one of my lectures this coming week (what a challenge). My absolute favorite is 101-ism … and I can already tell that I’ll have ample opportunity to use it. Option Paralysis is good as well and applies to many folks that I know. Sounds like an interesting book … although you don’t make it sound as if the prospects for Gen X are very good. What will be of them? D

    1. elkement says:

      The book has sort of a happy ending. I did not describe it in order to avoid spoilers and because you could probably also interpret it in terms of history repeating itself. But comparing with another book by Coupland I love – “Microserfs” (about developers leaving a well-known software company) – and the way he treats his protagonists I tend to say the ending is intended to be a positive one.
      It’s also difficult to boil down the spirit of a whole generation to some common traits (at the global level!). From skimming some articles about the book and Coupland it seems he later said he really did not intend to characterize a specific generation. That’s also how I have understood the book – it’s art and it is rather about questioning some prevailing clichéd opinions and life-style choices… in a subversive way.

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