Being a member of said generation, I've always been reluctant to read this book. I've heard it described as brilliant, flawed, pretentious, irritating, moving, and plastic. I think that 'charming' and 'smart' are the two words that best define it for me, even though it's hard not to see its flaws.
A series of stories about a group of young people in Palm Springs, telling each other stories while they work pointless McJobs and glory in cultural wreckage. The book's strength is mostly in its moments-- the definitions and epigrams on the margins of the pages, the stories that the characters tell each other, and the tiny observational zingers about the American nature that are the hallmark of Coupland's writing.
I'm glad I read it.
on December 1, 1999
Gorgeous and funny, this book has really got something intangible that can't be captured by the trillions of Time and Newsweek articles about the slacker generation and this, their "Bible."
It is a fairy tale type book with a set of post-modern lessons, taught by twentysomething, burned-out friends. It is just right for anyone who's grown up next to a nuclear power plant and freaked out when they test the meltdown sirens, or for anyone who has been stuck in an awful temp gig and fantasized about dropping out to work at a McDonalds and drink gin at noon. There is just something so appealing about the journey of the protagonists that you can read it and feel like you've escaped from life too.
Always funny, very ironic, and filled with droll slang ripe for appropriation, this book is a fantastic vacation on paper.
The media, always groping for sound bites to make generalizations more palatable, grabbed the title of Coupland's first novel and ran with it like an Olympic torch. Henceforth, anyone born between the late 1950s and the early 1970s were dubbed "Generation Xers". Obviously this media hype boosted the novel's visibility to heights it may otherwise not have reached (the book had difficulty finding a publisher in Coupland's home country of Canada). It also created a rather false generalization of its own. One based on a misunderstanding of a literary device. Fiction may have created fiction in this case.
Coupland claims that he never intended to speak for his own, or any, generation in this book. He took the "X" in the title from Paul Fussell's hilarious and intentionally inflammatory book "Class". In its final chapter, called "The X Way Out", Fussell discusses people who attempt to evade the rigid American class system. These people attempt to work outside this system and avoid, in Fussell's words, "...some of the envy and ambition that pervert so many." Arguably, Coupland's "Generation X" presents portraits of three "X people": Andy, Dag, and Claire (Coupland uses this phrase only twice in the book in tandem with the Japanese phrase "shin jin rui" or "X generation" which represents a generation "purposefully hiding itself"). They have escaped (though not completely) by moving to Palm Springs and working less ambitious jobs than their school mates. They also share stories with one another on a regular basis. Why they do this gets printed explicitly in the following passage from the book's first chapter: "Either our lives become stories, or there's just no way to get through them." Throughout the book Coupland contrasts these "X" characters with those still struggling with "the system" (such as Claire's obsession Tobias, Elvissa's friend Curtis, and Andy's brother). Plot isn't really the point here. The novel represents more of a character study of the "X people" more than any exercise in roller coaster narrative adventurousness. The book's major highlights come from the stories told by the characters. The book's ending packs some emotional surprises. Did Andy finally find, out on that field, a meaningful moment in and of itself? Do Claire and Dag (and soon Andy) really escape "the system"? And does it matter? The book does raise some good questions. And overall it's an entertaining read.
The book also experiments with the presentation of the traditional novel. Definitions or neologisms line the margins of the novel like medieval gloss. Term such as "McJob", "Veal Fattening Pen", "Conspicuous Minimalism", "Bread and Circuits", and "101-ism" dot the story and give a text-book or anthropological feeling to the text. Apparently the book intends to instruct as well as entertain. Cartoons (some looking like a hybrid of "Mary Worth" and Roy Lichtenstein) and diagrams add spice to the look of the book, as well as provide a pictoral context for some of the chapters and stories. The overarching picture gets painted not only with text but with pictures and definitions. Though this approach is refreshing, it can also be distracting at times. But overall it adds to the fun of the book.
The one place Coupland may have gone too far was with the statistics at the end. They shove the message down the reader's throat a little too strongly. Especially following the moving ending of "the story" that precedes them. Placing these figures in the margins throughout the text (or in the white spaces at the end of chapters) would have probably lent more subtlety to the numbers (though "subtle" doesn't describe this book at all).
"Generation X" had an impact (regardless of its literary status, which remains controversial). It represents a great first novel, and it's very fun to read. Some may find it cynical, or loaded with youthful idealism or unproductive dropout-ism. And maybe they're right. Or not. Either way, the reader has to ultimately decide on the value of the content and message of the text. But in the end, the book "Generation X" represents more than a mere media catch-phrase.
on August 2, 1999
"Generation X" is not great literature. It's not a handbook for any particular generation, nor is it at all a bad read. The book, published almost ten years ago, tells the story of three people in their 20s who have left their high-paying jobs to hang out in Palm Springs and tell stories. The title has been appropriated by every aspect of the media to label a group of people it wasn't even intended for. I don't think that's what Coupland had in mind when he wrote it, nor do I believe he ever suspected that this simple piece of fiction would draw such venom from people who expect it to be some kind of mystical guide, then label it "pretentious" and "boring" when it doesn't meet their expectations. "Generation X" is to me a highly entertaining, humorous, sometimes frustrating tome...all the qualities I look for in a good book. It may not be the 90s "Catcher in the Rye," but it did speak to me.
on December 11, 2001
Douglas Coupland is a superb writer that seems to always know the right words at the right time. This particular novel Generation X, goes deep into the lives of three young people that are searching for some meaning in their lives, for a simple explanation. Andy, Dag, and Claire work worthless jobs, known as McJob's. A McJob is, "A low-pay, low prestige, low-dignity, low benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one." The three are overeducated young people who have fled to the California desert to try to capture some concept of life in their little bungalows. While searching, they manage to create a unique lifestyle that is different and intriguing in its own way. They drink like there is no tomorrow and they love to tell stories. A hot story topic choice is the end of the world, usually with nuclear weapons or the atomic bomb. It gives you enough of each of their lives to be jealous.
Andy, the protagonist, is a very realistic and plausible character. He does nothing that is unfathomable. The novel is based on complete formula fiction, and has an original plot that must be interpreted. It stays away from the Hollywood stereotype theme, the boy meets girl, fall in love, etc... The theme is developed with an apparent meaning. Coupland openly shares and describes his views on what consumerism has become in America. He talks about how our culture today gives us nothing to go on, and how we sometimes feel alienated. Therefore, we are a society based on consumerism because it is the only thing that is given to us to identify ourselves with. Andy, Claire, and Dag create their own lifestyle in the desert because of how they are excluded from the outside world. People can only identify themselves by what they posses, and how much of it. It is an unfortunate problem that has appeared in America's society that is trapping young adults.
From: not one to be labeled
So where did the term "Generation X" come from? Before it became a buzzword fad? Before it became a label, oversimplified and over-generalized marketing term? Unwittingly and not by choice, from Douglas Coupland, who authored this unique book, which was written and published in 1991. The chapters of this book say a lot about the theme and the mentality of the characters in "Generation X." Here are some of the chapter titles: I Am Not a Target Market, Dead at 30 Buried at 70, Shopping Is Not Creating, Purchased Experiences Don't Count, Define Normal, MTV Not Bullets, Quit Your Job, Our Parents Had More.
There is an "individualist" tract in this book within the confines of the circumstances that this cohort (age group) is culturally and economically confronted with. How does this cohort (age group) accept, reject, or redefine its values living under this paradigm and these circumstances? Conditions which will continue throughout their lifetimes?
Sometimes latent consternation and cynicism appears between the lines with these characters more than they are presented in an explicit way. But I don't think it is "angst" or "angst of a new generation" because that concept is another marketing term, and can be applied to the previous generations of the 1960s, 1920s, and throughout the annals of history. Who created that (marketing) angst label, I don't know. But people who use it have been reading, and definitely WRITING too many of the modern-day pop rags like "Rolling Stone," and watching too much T.V.
In the dialog and story the characters display some form of cross generational material envy, but they don't always project a complete rejection of materialism in this book. However, I don't see sour grapes either. Make sense? Like many others, I added too many outside influences of my own perceptions and experiences into this book. This is a story. Characters. Their stories, their lives and philosophies, are in this book. It's not about a generation, but I believe it is about a particular sub-culture that exists within a generation. To stereotype millions of people born over a several year period and pigeon-hole them into what they allegedly think, buy, feel, like and dislike is to paint with too broad of brush.
Coupland never intended to do this, but those who absconded with his title for this book, certainly did.
For those of us who read "Gen X" years after it was released in 1991, our minds have already been diluted and our thoughts and perceptions have been influenced by the progression of the 1990s decade and the media representations of it. Today in 2003, with the massive exporting of American jobs overseas, higher rates of taxation, declining wages, high job turnover, and increasingly longer work-weeks, this book can reflect today, and it can reflect other generations. There are many of this book's characters in our world today--and they are in their 40s and 50s now. Their physical circumstances are the same, but their mentality is different. Their minds have already been molded.
For a person to be an individual who chooses to live their own life (rare today in America) they don't have to reject mainstream society nor the major cultural norms of it. They simply have to embrace what they like, believe in, and want in their lives and do it. Often, people think that real-life folks who live like the characters in this book are "rejectionists" in some form when in fact they are not. They are simply living the way they want to. And, in the instance of this book the characters' lives follow along a different path that most people follow. Everyone's interpretation is different. But Copeland and these characters reflect a setting and environment, that includes the mentality and actions of a lot of people, and not just those of the Gen Xers, when he wrote this 12 years ago. A lot of the latter Boomers (b. 1950 or later) are experiencing similar phenomena as Dag, Andrew, Claire and Tyler.
Written in 1991 it's just as relevant today in 2003, because the economic fundamentals are still the same, minus the brief interruption of the short lived techie and dot.bomb boom. A temporary bubble that made a lot of people think that things were going OK, or even getting better. Well, things are still progressing as they were when this was written.
There are many definitions to terms at the bottom of the pages of this book. There are many great ones. Here are a few:
Air family: Describes the false sense of community experienced among co-workers in an office environment (page 127).
Yuppie Wannabees: An X generation subgroup that believes the myth of a yuppie life-style being both satisfying and viable. Tend to be highly in debt, involved in some form of substance abuse....(page 104).
Ozmosis: The inability of one's job to live up to on'e self-image (page 30).
Brazilification: The widening gulf between the right and the poor and the accompanying disappearance of the middle class (page 13).
Expatriate Slopsism: When arriving in a foreign travel destination one had hoped was undiscovered, only to find many people just like oneself (are there); the peeved refusal to talk to said people because they have ruined one's elitist travel fantasy (page 200).
Tele-parabilizing: Morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots: "That's just like the episode where Jan lost her glasses!" (page 138).
on August 4, 2006
Did you ever know someone whose life was just "perfect" ?? Someone who went to college, got married at age 23, found a great job with valuable stock options... Someone who settled down in a house in a nice city at age 25 or 26, started a family a year or two later, and who now seems to "Have it All" ?? Well, after World War II, this happened to JUST ABOUT EVERYONE in the Silent Generation, and it happen to MOST in the boomer generation, and it's happening to JUST ABOUT NO ONE in Generation X. This books speaks to members of Generation X and describes the suffering and coping mechanisms for these people.
This book, now 15 years, is about a generation that was sold down the river by its elders - Generation X. The book describes 3 young people, Andy, Dag, and Claire, who visit palm springs and tell stories of their lives and of their friends who are suffering in life. The author Douglas Coupland is actually telling stories from Vancouver British Columbia, one of the first cities in North America to be sold out to foreign economic colonizers from Hong Kong (who escaped to Vancouver to avoid the 1997 mainland takeover.) In this city, the worst 1100 square foot fixer-upper house costs a third of a million dollars, or 10 years of take-home pay for a mid-career household. Economic success is impossible in the physical confines of the city - the system is rigged against everyone except rich immigrants and the existing upper class of blue-collar boomers who purchased homes in the 1970's and 1980's. Many aspects of the book (such as "Reverse Sabbatical", "McJobs", etc.) reflect the severe economic conditions faced by high-achieving intellectuals who go nowhere economically in that city.
In my grandparents generation, all you had to do was to go to college. In my parent's generation, you needed to go to college and become a successful professional. In my own generation, you need to co-found a startup company and be among the 10% of founders who can sell off the company or have an IPO. Do you notice something here? Yes, it's getting more and more difficult to be marginally successful in America.
Because Gen X'ers find that traditional paths to success - hard work, taking chances, saving and investing - don't work any more, they resolve to live like their parents by either living WITH THEIR PARENTS or by borrowing money endlessly and hoping for a miracle. Fiscal irresponsibility is at an all-time high, and has squandered everyone's future!
In this environment of perpetual economic slavery, Coupland counsels Generation X'ers to break free of the traditional career models that have been rigged by their elders for failure. Coupland counsels us all to re-examine what is success in our life and how to achieve it. This book is a call to enlist in a class warfare between gen-X'ers and their elders! In many ways, this book is similar to "The Razor's Edge" by W. Somerset Maughen or "The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living", in other words, redefine your notion of success in the world, while waiting for our evil society to implode in upon itself, which must surely happen in the near future ...
on December 7, 2002
It was with a sense of ironic nostalgia that I picked up a copy of "Generation X" in the used bookstore last month. I enjoyed reading it almost a decade ago as I ran from/toward my post-college life in a city and climate I had never lived in before. The fact that the three principal characters were doing essentially the same thing I was struck a few chords of identification back then. Andrew from Oregon, Dagmar from L.A. and Claire from the country club world make a fun Platonic threesome, "dropping out" of society by working "McJobs" in Palm Springs. Though slightly younger than the narrator's younger brother, Tyler, I recognized much of the existential angst of growing up in a throwaway, mass pop culture. And I am also old enough to remember the constant threat of nuclear holocaust (or nucular, as the undereducated pseudo-cowboy occupying 1600 Pennsylvania would have you believe--see p. 165 for definition of "Obscurism") which permeates the novel.
The world has improved in some ways since this book came out in 1991 when college grads were being welcomed by the worst economic environment for entry-level positions since the Great Depression, but don't tell that to the poor kids graduating next May. Over the last decade many GenX'ers found out that yes, they could do better than their parents after all, but then narrator Andrew Palmer would be quick to question the definition of "better."
Every generation thinks it's so tough and that the whiny young kids of today have it easier than they did. The intelligent social observer will appreciate that challenges DIFFER from generation to generation--it's the lucky ones, not necessarily the weak ones, that don't have to fight wars to save the world from Hitler, stop the red menace in the jungle, or comb the deserts to keep the oilmen in power and SUV drivers in their high and mighty heated seats. Generation X is a marketing term pretty effective in its day; it's also a demographic that will be running your world in the next ten to fifteen years. "Generation X" is a curious and entertaining novel. It's an insightful commentary about those who want to overcome the vapid and exploitative advertising culture that helped shape their characters whether they liked it or not. It's worth the re-read, and if you haven't, it's worth a first read.
on September 30, 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 February 9, 1999
One of my pet hates is having a book thrust upon me accompanied by the assurance; "Oh, you'll love this one". That is how I came by this one in particular. The offender who gave me it to me was in fact my uncle, one of the true members of the Generation X - born 1965, twenty years younger than his brother, over-intelligent and unemployed, so I conceded that he must know what he's talking about and gave in. When I read the book though, its lazy beauty enthralled me; from the meandering commentary about his friends to the beautifully simplistic style of his intermittent short stories. This is not a mere novel, it is an insight into the psyche of the younger generations without the cloying pretension of his later novels. I'm not saying that such novels as 'Girlfriend in a Coma' and 'Life after God' are bad, it's just that they are Douglas Coupland under the influence of fame and fortune trying to recapture the pure vibe and resolution of his début - Generation X. This is the only book that I have tried to force onto my friends, and I'm not afraid to be a hypocrite about it. Just read the book, that'll explain it much better than I can.