I had some thoughts on the novel that launched Douglas Coupland into existence in the literary world.
Generally speaking, we are obsessed with talking about Millennials. We are obsessed with talking about the failings of the new generation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that no matter who you are or how old you are, the ‘kids of today’ rhetoric has been around for years and years. Generation X was the name for post-WWII, pre-1980s ‘Millennials’. What is it about us as a species that has, in essence, caused us to devolve to be partially discontent with evolution; with change? What encouraged the explosion of capitalist society and ‘the grass is always greener’ mindset? With every passing generation and with the coining of every new term
that is but a poorly masked expression of distaste at an objective sense of entitlement, we are suffering. The 60s and 70s, the Gen-Xers, were the purveyors of drug culture and of the American Dream – the belief that life could be better. Today, teens and those in their 20s and 30s are still set on this idea that someone, somewhere, has the right idea on how to get ahead in this capitalist society. Does that make us entitled? Hell no. Our society literally feeds off the anxiety that is induced by consumerism (I mean, fear of missing out is an actual, acronym-ed buzz word). Having money isn’t enough for anyone anymore because they’ve either had to work too hard to get it, or perceive someone else as having gotten their money too easily, and thus this impacts on their ability to enjoy it.
This isn’t a rhetoric on the state of economy or interpersonal perception. This isn’t me dragging or tearing apart an outlook that is as ingrained a part of our society as rampant homelessness, which people experiencing it are unable to prevent and those who aren’t are capable of turning a blind eye to. It’s an observation. It’s happening all around us. Resentment and anger. Nobody has enough, but to give the people more means those that thrive from the reapings of capitalist society need to charge more to stay ahead. It’s a never ending cycle of needing and wanting more than what we have, because we’ve been conditioned to need more, even when there’s people out there who need enough – but even enough isn’t enough, as there is no definitive measure for ‘enough’. Enough isn’t good enough. We aren’t comfortable. We can’t afford, physically or mentally, to be comfortable with enough. It’s dangerous. It’s uncertain.
I read Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture about two years ago now, as one of my first Coupland novels
(and incidentally, the first novel Coupland wrote). Set in Coachella Valley (Which is almost synonymous with celebrity culture due to the rise in popularity of Coachella Festival), it focuses on six Generation X-ers (though one of them is considered to be a Gen-Yer in retrospect). In a nutshell, Generation X is quintessential transgressive fiction. Each of the protagonists is stuck in a place they don’t want to be, in a world they are disillusioned by, and they drop everything to leave it. Andy, Dag, Claire, Tobias, Elvissa and Tyler were all dreaming of a better world. It’s not a new phenomenon. For years young people have been pigeon-holed by a hierarchy which dictates that money = happiness, and that wealth was the sum of the American Dream. I think that no matter where we are in the world, we have been tainted by that message. We are not content with just ‘getting by’. We are not content with existing and paying bills and answering to The Man. A lot of that comes from Generation X; a lot of our parents are Gen-Xers. And yet, we are the Millennials they look down on. We are the Millennials they condemn for being entitled and for wanting more, when really they are the ones who made us. I remember being in primary school and being surprised one day at how everyone wanted to be something. Doctors and nurses and scientists and vets and writers; jobs with academic reach. The sky was the limit. We never grow out of that. We are constantly chasing fulfillment that we were ultimately promised from a young age that was to come to us in the form of achievement. Except. Nobody signposted what ‘achievement’ meant. We are still floundering in a sea of wants and hopes and dreams and desires. We’re being pushed and shoved and made to think that there is more to life than what we’re making of it, then being condemned for not knowing how to express gratitude for what we have. In a way, Coupland was trying to demonstrate an insight into the actual mindset of a group of Gen-Xers that hadn’t been dictated or suggested by someone older. How successful he was in doing that, I am still uncertain.
Humans have always been obsessed with suffering. So hung up on the suffering of their own self-importance that they invented gods to serve as a moral compass in order to prevent the collapse of societal building blocks, and thus introduced norms for people to operate by. They validated their obsession with suffering and good vs bad by creating
often outlandish parameters in which a person can be good, or deserving of suffering. Coupland refers to self-imposed religion (‘me-ism’) which serves as a moral guideline on how an individual believes life should be lived (though often that me-ism becomes you-ism, as occasionally individuals fail to see that what works for one person is not necessarily a fail-safe life plan for all). For a mere and potentially maximum 80-100 years, individual humans walk the planet and as time historically wore on, more and more was expected of them in that time that escapism was desperately sought by our ancestors. The idea of finding ambitious, career-ladder-climbing jobs was replaced with a desire to leave them, and instead to seek ambitious futures for their children to then attempt to live vicariously through them. That escapism is a horror chamber to seek, as no matter where one runs or where a person disappears to, one cannot escape the thoughts inside their own head. I guess Coupland really showcased that element of the human condition in Generation X. Andy went to an AA meeting, where the attendees were required to cough up a proverbial lung in order to validate their reason for being there. It was less about acceptance of a problem than it was Coupland demonstrating that the world demands other people’s disaster in order for it to keep turning, if only to reassure that things aren’t half as bad as they seem.
In that same vein, Gen-X, and this generation, suffer this morbid fascination whereby a person simply must fall in love in order for life to be worth living. I guess in an effort to combat that sense of non-achievement or under-achievement a lot of us carry , we teach each other that love is the most important element of a fulfilling life. Love conquers all. With Claire and Tobias, and in a way, Dag and Elvissa, they became entrenched in this notion that falling in love with someone tortured and mysterious and notably different is the key to happiness. We know that this is a trope. We know that all the TV programmes and films and books and songs about finding an incredible love are just things fed to us because they’re universally accessible. Humans need some form of love to survive. Shakespeare was doing it not too long ago
okay very long ago. Semantics, people, semantics! and it became the staple of the white man’s novel, which trickled down to become the staple of everything. How many times have you heard someone say that they were ‘happily single’ and caught yourself thinking that they couldn’t possibly be? How many times have you said yourself that you were happily single and had someone suggest that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t? I’m not for a second saying that you can’t be happy alone many thrive on their own company, and it’s a hard task getting to a point where one is comfortable enough with themselves to overcome a need to try find themselves in someone else but what I am saying is that this idea of what love does for people is so deeply entrenched in happily-ever-after bullshit that we’re conditioned to believe as soon as we’re able to talk. We believe we need it. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy era has a lot to answer for, as so many people remain convinced that the answer to all their problems is wrapped up in the problems of someone that needs to be ‘saved’ (I have a lot of thoughts on MPDG being a euphemism for BPD, but that is another blog post entirely). Tobias was overly enchanted by Claire because she was so ‘different’ and interesting in her own right because of how violently she rejected his lifestyle, but she in turn was enchanted by his materialistic obsessions and ability to flit in and out of her life in whatever manner he saw fit. He didn’t want to be around her, per se, but he saw her as the key to escaping from the city-slicker, sleazy existence he led back in New York. I think if I’d been given a euro for every time a guy had seen me as someone that could ‘fix’ their problems within life, I’d be able to fund a proper website without needing advertising to pay for it. That’s not the point of love. I’ve always seen it said that the point where you want someone more than you need someone is the place you get to when you know that the relationship is going to last.
The ultimate point of Generation X, and the bit that stuck with me most, is where the characters are left. Hanging in the balance. Dag and Claire moved on, and Andy is still stuck. We can condemn ourselves and our actions as much as we like, and we can ignore the condemnation from Generation X. The only thing we can’t do is run from what’s inside our own heads.