In which Netty’s talking ’bout her generation …

May 5, 2010

Generation (n): 1. The whole body of individuals born about the same time. 2. The age or average lifetime of a generation; term of years (commonly 30) accepted as the average difference of age between one generation of a family and the next (The Macquarie Concise Dictionary).

Generation X: The generation born after the baby boom ended, with earliest birthdates used by researchers ranging from 1961 to the latest 1981 (Wikipedia).

Canadian author Douglas Coupland was born in 1961, and he published Generation X (Tales For An Accelerated Culture) – his first novel – in 1991 at the age of 30. According to my research, the term first appeared in the 1950s to describe the post-WW II War generation, and was later used as the title of a 1965 sociological study of British teenagers. In a nice piece of synergy, Coupland has said he named the book after the late 1970s English punk band Generation X, whose lead singer, one Billy Idol, named his band after his mother’s copy of the 1965 book.  Of course. But it was Coupland’s book that popularised the term and hurtled it into the bosom of popular culture.

They say a first novel is generally its author’s most autobiographical, and it is worth noting that Coupland, like his characters in Generation X, was a dispossessed, pre-millennial 30-year-old living in California’s Mojave desert when he wrote it. For a book that is widely regarded as a touchstone for a generation, nothing much really happens in Generation X. It is largely the story of three thirty-year-olds, Andy, Dag and Claire, who have moved to Palm Springs to essentially “drop out” of society – but unlike the way a previous generation of 1960s hippies would have “dropped out”. They work in “McJobs” – defined as a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector – Andy and Dag as bartenders and Claire as a salesgirl in cosmetics at a department store (high-end, natch – Chanel, darling).

Andy narrates the story, in which the reader gradually learns the back story of the trio, their families and how they ended up in the less exclusive part of Palm Springs, essentially a spa city in the desert, populated by ageing, monied former celebrities. They live in small bungalows in a complex, like a low-rent, ironic version of Friends (which the book predated by several years). They work, they drink, they tell each other stories. And that’s basically it, in a nutshell. Oh, there’s an arc and an ending, of course, but the narrative gently meanders towards it. None of this, by the way, is a bad thing. In fact, it’s all quite fitting, really, for a generation supposedly defined by its lack of, well, everything.

The other notable thing – besides the story, of course – is the book’s presentation, the likes of which I don’t really previously recall encountering (at the time, I’d just started reading William Burroughs – perhaps if he was first being published in the 1990s, his books might have looked a bit like this, too). My copy of Generation X is an original large paperbook format with wide margins which are scattered with a glossary of the exceedingly clever, generationally on-the-ball terms used throughout the book, slogans and little Flying-Fish style cartoons, some of which I recall photocopying and pinning up to my own “veal-fattening pens” – defined as small, cramped office workstations built of fabric-covered disassemblable wall partitions and inhabited by junior staff members – over the years.

Righto, on to me then. I read Generation X when it first came out. At the time I was some 10 years younger than its characters – now, upon re-reading it, I’m some 10 years older. For me, one of the most interesting things that’s coming out of the “Revisited” section of ANRC10 is how much we remember of a book and how the ensuing years since the original reading have changed it for us. I loved and identified with this book when I first read it, but it has sat untouched on my bookshelf for some 20 years since. It appears to me now like a very small time capsule capturing an era, albeit in a very American circumstance – so much has changed, but then again so much hasn’t. But overwhelmingly, after re-reading it, I really, really want to know what Andy, Dag and Claire are doing now (so on the so-slim-it’s-barely-worth-saying chance that you’re reading this, Doug, how about revisiting your old buddies? And don’t worry about Bret Easton Ellis having already beaten you to the punch with this concept).

So for those of you my age – indeed, my generation – who have read it previously, it’s well worth reading again. For those of you my age who haven’t read it, well, where were you the first time around? And for those of you the next generation down – yes, I’m talking to you, Generation Y, although in Coupland’s world you’re referred to as “global teens”, the Y term not yet having been coined – read it, and then let me know. Coupland’s most recent work, published last year, is a tome entitled Generation A. Christ, have I really been alive long enough to have not one, but two generations succeeding mine? Time for another glass of wine then …

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