X Marks the Angst
ANDY, CLAIRE AND DAG, THE PROTAGONISTS of Douglas Coupland’s new novel, are twentysomething, jaded and very ironic. They sip cocktails, bemoan their lives and cruise around the California desert in a beat-up Saab. They see themselves as both products and victims of a disposable culture where the yuppie is lord of all he surveys and they can’t get a piece of the action.
Disaffected youth rebelling against establishment smugness isn’t exactly a hot new literary idea, but it is one that needs updating every decade or so with a new label and new slang so that the alienated can feel part of a tribe. In the ’50s there were the Beats, in the ’60s the hippies and in the ’90s, according to Coupland, there is Generation X. The stragglers of the baby boom, Xers believe that all the good stuff is taken, leaving them to coast along in “McJobs” (“low pay, low status, low future”) toward a future of “Lessness.” But not Less Than Zero. At least the Xers, as Coupland portrays them, have a dark, self-aware humor not found in Bret Easton Ellis’s disturbing paean to their disaffected big brothers and sisters.
The book seems to have struck a chord. Since it was published last spring (the Washington Post called it “a funny, self-conscious tale”), 70,000 copies of Generation X have been printed, driven mostly by word of mouth. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer asked for readers’ responses and received a respectable 120 replies. One fan, 26-year-old Heather Coen, defined her generation’s ethos thus: “We leave the overachievement to the elder siblings, the prison cells of those office jobs to the thirtysomethings, and we live off Mom and Dad as long as the umbilical cord will stretch.” Another Seattle resident, who signed himself Brian D. Blank, 29, wrote: “I’m cynical. I’m wary. I’m tired. This book has helped me realize just how many of ‘us’ there are.” The shared cultural experiences that bind the Xers together—such as total recall of The Brady Bunch—”is like a secret password or handshake,” says Coupland. “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.”
Interestingly his book began as an attempt to let everyone else in on the secret. Coupland, now 29, had been collaborating on a cartoon strip called Generation X that ran in a Toronto business magazine when he was commissioned by a New York publisher to write a lifestyle guide for his generation—something like The Official Preppy Handbook. Instead he began writing fiction, and the glossary of Xer slang (see box) joined his illustrations and assorted slogans as margin notes.
Born in Germany, where his father was stationed with the Canadian air force, Coupland grew up in Vaneouver, addicted to TV like every true Xer. After dropping out of college, he began to study art and dabble in journalism, traveling to Japan, Italy and Hawaii before taking a “bottom-of-the-food-chain” job at the magazine. It was there that he honed his ironic perception of the Xers as an underclass oppressed by their yuppie elders. “Our office cubicles were like veal-fattening pens,” he says. “There was just no dignity.”
With a small advance for Generation X, Coupland moved to Palm Springs, Calif., to write because “it seemed to be the most futuristic place I’d ever seen. You have a ruling class of old people, enforced leisure and no middle class.” He departed from the handbook format and began inventing characters because “I really wished I had people to hang out with,” he says.
Now back in Vancouver, Coupland lives alone in a sparsely furnished apartment surrounded by his own sculptures and mixed-media collages. The success of Generation X has given him some unfamiliar financial security, and that’s a relief. “When you’re 27 or 28, your body starts emitting the Sheraton enzyme,” he says. “You can no longer sleep on people’s floors.” He has received a “high five-figure” advance for his second book, Shampoo Planet, about the generation after the Xers, kids Coupland dubs the Global Teens. “They had hippie parents. They love corporations and don’t mind wearing ties. To them, Ronald Keagan is emperor. I’m actually quite in love with them. They’re so much more optimistic.”
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Vancouver