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I must be such a sucker. A year or so back I bought the book Jpod by Douglas Coupland and hated it with a degree of hostility out of all proportion to its inherent quality, yet here I am shelling out good money for another one. I'd bought that first book largely on the basis of the author's reputation as a modern, zeitgeist surfing writer with a savvy appreciation of the turn of the century world. A reputation almost entirely earned with this break through novel; 'Generation X'. Unfortunately, Jpod was so annoyingly self-regarding, so out of touch with the 21st century that I felt almost personally insulted that I had been so duped - hence my disproportionate loathing. Still, once bitten - never learn is my motto and I resolved to go back to the source of all this trouble and actually read Generation X, the book that created a reputation and (supposedly) defined an age. No pressure then.
Actually, there wasn't much pressure at all to be honest. Preconception is a capricious beast and my high expectations had all been used up with Jpod to the point where I approached this book expecting to be let down and ready to sneer from the outset.
The problems with Jpod were manifold but can be summarised in three main areas. Self aggrandising: Coupland name checked himself in the first line and then introduced himself as a major character in the final chapters. Gimmicky: Coupland insists on replicating, verbatim, internet searches spam e-mails etc for no purpose except to waste pages. Arrested development: although set and published in 2006 the characters, IT workers who should have been a lot more Web 2.0 savvy, are stuck in some 1998 early dot com world. The effect of this was to make me want to pick up the book and punch it right in the face but (always a but), there were some redeeming features. When he got round to some proper narrative writing Coupland was able to show himself to be really quite talented and some of the characterisation and set pieces were genuinely funny. That, and the popular opinion into which I found myself flying persuaded me that I should give it another go.
So, there I was and here I am. A lurid pink edition of Generation X, freshly read, sitting in front of me and I am left to wonder was it any good or have I totally wasted another £7.99 (less my wife's 10% teachers discount).
Well, the good news is that I didn't waste my money and Coupland has gone some way to redeeming himself in my all-important eyes. This book is a lot better than his later effort, largely (although not entirely) free from gimmickry it is a more straightforward character piece, although to be fair it isn't strictly about the characters. To put it another way, did I enjoy it?
Yeeeeeessss (a drawn out, thoughtful yet reserved affirmative) but I enjoyed it more for what it was rather than what it is, do you see? That probably doesn't make a lot of sense but don't worry, I'm a little confused myself and I feel the need to work things out through the rest of this review.
This could take a while so for those that appreciate brevity I'll cut to my conclusion right here so that you don't need to read any further: this book is good, you'd probably enjoy reading it and I fully expect to read it again (and again) in the future. Four Stars.
For those others of you with the interest and patience to join me on what (I fear) may be a rambling journey let us continue.
Generation X is about three friends living in Palm Springs, California. Andy, Dag and Claire are white, college-educated middle class twenty-somethings. They have given up on their old lives, careers, family et al, to take a series of low rent jobs to support a low rent lifestyle defined by zero ambition and zero expectation. The fact that they have chosen to move to this perennial retirement town should not be over-looked. They fill their days telling each other stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing these stories define and underscore their lives and worldviews and reveal their real thoughts and intents. There is no plot as such, no start and finish, more it is a look at how a certain class of person live their lives. It is a snapshot in time and like a photograph it should be judged and measured with regard to the time it was taken. The book was written and is set in 1990, this is important so keep it in mind as we proceed.
The book primarily deals with 'Life Crises' and disillusionment, a curious late twentieth century development. It seems to me it all comes down to choices. Before the Second World War people didn't have choices, they'd slog their guts out all their lives and then die with precious little choice over career or lifestyle. After the austerity of the war years a boom spread across the western world as personal wealth, education and mobility increased. With these came a degree of anxiety as people asked whether they had made the right choices, made the most of their opportunities. The mid-life crises entered public awareness and a generation of 50 year olds got earrings and bought sports cars. By the 1980's the age of crisis and disillusion had reached the thirtysomethings made famous by that eponymous, whiney, show that was so inexplicably popular at the time. After a brief hiatus where Yuppiedom allowed everyone to be smug about their prospects and house prices another recession again brought down the age of disillusion to the range we find in this book, the mid twenties, where it is not so much a fear of making the wrong choices but a realisation that whatever choice you make it's all going to hell in a hand basket anyway. Incidentally, to bring this up to date I suspect that disillusionment is the new Original Sin and people are just born with it now, but that's another story.
At its heart Generation X is about this disillusionment. The three leads would appear to have all the opportunities that modern America can offer. From stable, pleasant families they are smart, articulate and well educated. They could, and indeed did, get good jobs that would have offered a certain amount of security and quality of life but all three walked away from their past to start new lives in Palm Springs. To call them drop-outs would be misleading, what they've done is step away from the ambition and competitiveness expected in modern life to scrape a living from a series of undemanding McJobs. They know that no matter how hard they work or how far they go they won't match the earning potential of the previous Yuppie generation nor will they ever have the spending power of their parent's Eisenhower generation and so they stepped off the treadmill for good.
Amongst their story telling and slacker lifestyles the three characters also do a fair bit of moaning; moaning about their own lack of prospects, moaning about those younger than them having it easier, moaning about contemporaries who are doing well and have therefore sold-out, generally moaning about a lot of things really. By rights I should hate them but I don't, I like all three of them quite a lot. They might moan but they don't whine, they moan with a healthy sense of humour and irony and at heart are more critical of themselves than their would-be targets. They are entertaining and generous of nature, they understand that their choices are their own and may not be for everyone and they don't evangelise that their choices are the right choices.
One of my biggest fears when I started this book was that Coupland's love of gimmickry, so heavy handed in Jpod, would be present here as well and it was with sinking spirits that I saw footnotes on almost every page containing Roy Lichtenstein style cartoon panels and pseudo bumper sticker statements but in all honesty these aren't that intrusive and in some ways are representative of the characters progress and thoughts. The footnotes are also packed full of epithets and labels, each with Coupland's own definition alongside. Coupland is fairly obsessed with these and there are hundreds throughout the book and he seems determined to get as many as possible out there and hopefully to become commonly used. Two of these: 'McJob' and 'Generation X' itself have achieved this and many others come close or predict a different term in the future with the same definition. They can often be a little laboured and several don't really work but in their own way they are just as representative of the times as the rest of the book as this was an age when everything had to be labelled by the media. It was the age of the New Man, the New Lad, Downsizing, Post This and Neo That and there was a real competition to be the first to name a trend or movement. All of which leads me back to my earlier comment where I said I enjoyed it for what it was rather than what it is. Generation X is a period piece now, almost a historical novel and needs to be judged as such.
The world hasn't moved very far since 1990 but twenty years is still twenty years and much of the book is beginning to feel a little dated. Reading it for the first time now falls between two stools, it's all too recent to make it a retro piece but enough time has passed to dull its relevance. I recognise the book's commentary of the times as being right on the money and I'm kicking myself for not having read it at the time because its impact then would have been a lot more profound, despite that I can see me reading this again and again in the future and I can see new generations of readers discovering it for many years to come.
Generation X comes with a fair amount of baggage; it has been compared to the novels of Salinger and Fitzgerald for its era defining quality. This gives it a reputation that is hard to live up to but stripping most of this away leaves a work that is satisfying and highly enjoyable. He may not be as accomplished or skilled as those authors but this is an effective and well-written book. I'm glad I gave him a second chance and look forward to reading this again in the future.
I'm completely amazed that no-one has written an op for Gen X yet, so here goes!
The novel follows Dag, Andy and Claire, all mid to late twenty-somethings as they discuss life, relationships and jobs. Well, that's it, review over. Really. They do nothing else for the rest of the novel. There's no driving narrative, no great events, no twists. They sit around, have sarcastic discussions about TV, drink too much, talk about life.
Yet you still find yourself absorbed - it's thoroughly compelling. It is essentially a discourse - in the literal sense, as it is largely either dialogue or 'stream of conscious'/interior thought, and also in the sense that it's explaining and representing a generation - the X generation who won't have jobs or even careers for life, who have degrees and can't get a job, and who are likely to have a standard of living below that of their parents. Dag and his friends discuss and represent those frustrations, and the antipathy they feel both to the cultural norms of previous generations, and to the 'stress and money' culture of the Yuppies who also faced their concerns.
Coupland's skill in building characters is clear in this novel - they feel very real, in that they are all contradictory, often unpleasant and not easily likeable. He also shows his trademark awareness of pop culture, which fills the novel, and his understanding of both the generation X and the concerns and fears which face most twentysomethings. He doesn't show if he is capable of writing a compelling narative - personally, I feel he's only just started to, with the novels 'Girlfriend in a coma' and 'Hey Nostradamus' - but that's not the point in this novel; the meadering, discursive style of the book is an echo of the characters' and the generation's uncertain, aimless mood.
Negative points - well, it's a first novel, so there are rough edges, but not so many as most - the odd bit of clunky dialogue or description, but I'm being pretty critical here. A lot of people I lent the book to (ok, ok, I forced them to read it) found the footnotes definining generation X events and slang irritating. The thing which irritated me most was way the chapters are so numerous and brief - it can feel a little fractured and distracting at times, but the structure does fit with the tone and style of the novel.
Would I recommend this novel? If even the concept of the 'I love the 70s/80's' shows repelled you, then stay away - you'll hate the constant pop culture discussions. I'd recommend it as it's an innovative book, the first of its type, and is clearly an influence on a great deal of early 21st century writing - I have no doubt it will be an A-level syllabus book in 30 years time. It also is a good introduction to Coupland and to his later, and in my opinion, more interesting works -it introduces his style and tone well, without being his best work (I have a tendency to read an author's best work first, love it, then end up disappointed with everything of theirs I read later!)
Generation X was Douglas Coupland's first novel, it's been out in paperback for some years - RRP £7.99
Three twenty-somethings quit their careers to immerse themselves in a regime of heavy drinking, whilst working in dead-end jobs. Here they tell of their world through darkly, humorous stories.