Better Late Than Never: Thank You, Saddam!

Douglas Coupland's Generation X is one of those books you always read about but never actually read. Maybe that makes it the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time.

Just kidding. Generation X is totally not like Fifty Shades of Grey. For one, X is a serious novel. For another, it's square, and Shades is more rectangular. Well, I guess it's not quite square, but it is an odd size: 8 1/4 inches by 9 1/2 inches. And the characters use heavily italicized dialogue, like this because I think Coupland means to make them sound like Lovey Howell or something.

That said, at one point while reading both books, the reader might be tempted to put the book down and exclaim to no one in particular something along the lines of, "Holy Christ, these people need a national fucking tragedy in the worst goddamn way." And thank god Saddam Hussein finally invaded Kuwait when he did, because if it weren't for him, then American troops wouldn't be stationed in the Arabian peninsula and Saudi women wouldn't be driving around in cars and all the sexually frustrated future jihadists would have nothing to be upset about and then the Cole wouldn't have been bombed and aspirin factories wouldn't have been bombed and the Towers would still be standing today and most of all, these three jokers in this goddamn book would probably still be hanging out in Baja California playing with each other's hair for the rest of their adult lives.

Which is to say, thank you Saddam, for saving us from ourselves.

Of course, it's not Coupland's fault that this really exceptional generation turned out to seem like such whiny navelgazers 20-plus years later. It's not his fault that these characters had the freedom and resources to not only get careerish jobs but actually turn their backs on those jobs. It's not his fault that a twentysomething today might look at these entitled pieces of shit and think, "Holy Christ, these people need a double-dip recession in the worst fucking way." No, it's not his fault, but at the same time you're kind of thinking that someone somewhere should have had some perspective, you know?

Now you could argue that Coupland may be fully aware of how unlikeable these characters are and that's the point of the book except that I don't think it's the point of the book. It doesn't read like a Flannery O'Connor-style takedown or a Neil LaBute-esque pillory. I think you can tell when the writer is critical of a character and this isn't that (plus, his own biographical details seem to match up too well with the characters).

The ironic thing — and I think this might be actual textbook irony and not just Alanis Morisette irony — which is to say that it's the Reality Bites definition of irony (which is when everything threatens to roll in on itself) — is that for all the distrust of the media and mass culture and whatnot in X, Coupland's book really sucks up to the whole zeitgeisticism of the era. We actually have a term for that in the 2010s, which is "fuck you."

The problem with contemporaneous periodizing is, one, periodizing is kind of a dopey OCD way to look at time, and two, time doesn't have to treat you well. The Lost Generation has scoreboard compared to these nitwits.

Here are some things, in no particular order, that scream "time capsule" about the book:

  • How expensive long distance was
  • The sniglets in the margin
  • The intellectual foundations for "first world problems" (sometimes also sloppily/imprecisely/offensively referred to as "white people problems")
  • The protagonist's weird obsession with physical fitness

OK, so that's out of the way.

I think there are some other aspects that make the book seem less important in retrospect. One of the most striking things is how poorly whatever countercultural/anti-mass market impulses of the 1980s translated to today. The slogans in the margins in fonts that look like photocopied 'zines are ridiculous when you think about how fully youth culture has embraced big business and technology today. People — young people, 25-54 people, whoever and everyone — seems to care like not at all that Facebook basically owns your privacy. That's a sea change. It's like Douglas Coupland never happened. Can you imagine countercultural kids in the 1980s embracing a publicly traded company in the way that a gazillion weirdos deify Steve Jobs? You forget, until you read a time capsule like X.

And to expand on the technology angle, one of the more salient points of the book seems to be that absent strong familial bonds and a strong faith in career, young people are left floating and make new random families with other similarly rootless young people. I think that's there. And if it's not there then it's a fuckload more interesting than the other salient point, which is that cubicles are somehow bad for your health: If I had access to a photocopier and an endless supply of Microgramma typeface Letraset, I'd write something along the lines of, "Get The Fuck Over Ourselves" or "Lay Off Yourself" or "Like All Good Things In Life, You Eventually Have To Pinch It Off."

Which puts X of a piece with Bowling Alone, another book I always read about but never actually read. And like Alone, X seems really moot — what people may lack in real families these days they more than make up for in virtual families. No one today seems that rootless or moody or rootlessly moody because no one ever has to be. No one today is wanting for self-expression, self-reflection or whatever you want to call it. And no one has to worry about a cubicle because you're probably working shit freelance assignments from home. Tom Friedman pwns you, you Gen X pussy.

Meatball and Goober started this meme the other day about how my problem is somehow that the perfect ends up being the enemy of the good, which is fine, whatever, I don't care. But the mediocre and inane is also the enemy of the good, and without picking too much on Coupland's book in particular, which I don't think merits a come-to-Jesus about shit being either perfect or good or even just OK, I think of something a professor said to his classes about building a solid argument holds true here: A table needs four legs to stand, otherwise it's not really that useful as a table. Which is to say, even though he was a Yuppie asshole, I don't think Tobias was all that bad in the end. But maybe I just didn't get it at all . . .

Posted: July 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , ,