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Toby Banks

Generation X

There are few more depressing sights than those horrible 'ironic' postcards that take up all the space in bookshops. Happy fifties families, dads with pipes and hats, and a desperately unfunny caption along the lines of 'Sod the washing up, darling. I'm off to see the Chippendales'. But there's a whole cottage industry producing these things, so someone must buy them. It was only a matter of time before these consumers were allocated an official lifestyle label: post-baby boom, post-yuppy, post-whatever. Now Douglas Coupland has done the honours, and being a serious guy, he has come up with Generation X, the title of his novel-cum-manifesto. Similar themes are pursued in films from France (World Without Pity--Le Nul Generation) and America (Slackers).

So who are Generation X? As far as I can gather, they are middle class, educated and feeling the pinch economically. They don't like capitalism, but they reject any collective alternative too. They don't believe they can make a difference, so they don't try. They have no 'material' aspirations, and subsist on the fringes, taking a succession of 'McJobs' ('low-pay, low-prestige, low- dignity, low-benefit, no-future jobs in the service sector'). Well, that's the story. Not really a generation, but certainly a way of life in studenty circles over the past 10 years: frustrated would-be writers, film-makers and artists, all talking loud and saying nothing; desperate to make a statement, but without any ideas or convictions to declare.

The name Generation X comes ready-wrapped in several sets of invisible quotation marks, having been the title of a sixties vox pop of disaffected youth, then knowingly appropriated by a group of art school punks a decade later. Now a further generation's worth of irony has settled upon it like a layer of dust, burying any connotations of rebellion. Second time around it suggested a sneer, tops; today it's more like a raised eyebrow.

Coupland writes of America, but the same self-conscious ennui is obvious here, as the past is endlessly recycled. Nostalgia has now regressed to childhood, as Watch with Mother, Thunderbirds and the rest fill the video shops. (In the book, the narrator's happiest moment is when the friends get ready for bed and tell stories over mugs of Horlicks). Conversation revolves around trivia and kitsch. Alternative comedians get by on reminiscences about old TV ads. Enthusiasm is expressed only for the things that matter least. It is the right-on version of upper class insouciance, where minor inconveniences are exaggerated ('absolutely ghastly!') while disasters are understated ('a bit of a bore', 'not too funny').

Coupland's characters personify these traits. They are three platonic nineties friends living in self-imposed exile in a small town in the Californian desert. One is called Dag, which will amuse readers in Australia, where it is a term for the congealed matter that sticks to the back end of a sheep. They won't find much else to amuse them, though: this crowd's idea of a good time is sitting around telling morose stories, through which they share fears and try to find meaning in their aimless lives.

All they end up doing is trawling through the junk that clutters their minds, with advertising and consumer products their only terms of reference. They are prone to making casual remarks like: 'Katie and I bought this tub of Multi-Whip instead of real whip cream because we thought petroleum distillate whip topping seemed like the sort of food that air force wives stationed in Pensacola back in the early sixties would feed their husbands to celebrate a career promotion.'

The narrator's friend Claire does amusing things like dressing up as 'a Reno housewife' for his appreciation. This sort of thing continues for page after page until you forget that these people are pushing 30. It's like reading a self-obsessed teenager's diary, in which no off-hand remark is too trivial to be talked up into a bon mot and lovingly recorded for posterity.

The minutiae of everyday life is reassembled on the page like a mosaic, as though by piecing together the entire surface of life, a profound underlying truth will be revealed. In fact the opposite happens: the more the friends wallow in their appreciation of tacky consumer products and trashy popular culture, the more they cut themselves off from society. Having gone to the desert to escape, they spend their time obsessively discussing the people they pour scorn on. Their working class neighbours are described in a typically dismissive way: 'It is their oversize brandy snifter filled with matchbooks I think of when I make oversize-brandy-snifter-filled-with-matchbooks jokes.'

'Squirming' in X-speak is not what you do when people make 'brandy snifter jokes' (no, you had to be there, it was hilarious...). Here it means 'discomfort inflicted on young people by old people who see no irony in their gestures'. This failure to appreciate their fine sensibilities can become exasperating: 'Our parents' generation seems neither able nor interested in understanding how markets exploit them. They take shopping at face value.' As opposed to seeing shopping as an ironic gesture, that is. One character is so upset by the thought that he has to pull over at the roadside to think about shopping malls.

Apart from giving you an insight into why your grandparents grumble about student layabouts and bringing back national service, the most striking thing about Generation X is how their arrogance is matched by stupidity. As they plod laboriously to their banal conclusions about life, they pat themselves on the back and bemoan the lack of intellectual equals. Coupland tries to distance himself from the characters by placing 'attitude road signs' in the margins, little asides to let us know that he's really an amusing guy who knows all about their problems. It really won't wash. Anyone who can offer earnest definitions of phrases like 'Emotional Ketchup Burst' and 'Clique Maintenance' is clearly suffering from a bad case of his own diagnosis (101-ism: 'the tendency to pick apart, often in minute detail, all aspects of life using half-understood pop-psychology as a tool').

However much you try to hide from life, you eventually come in for some hard knocks. Just as Douglas Coupland was languidly taking his place on the bookshop shelf, Joe Hawkins was putting the windows in: someone has decided it's time to reissue the old Skinhead books. Now what kind of example is that to set young people?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992

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