American Culture

I read the book and wondered where I was—Review: Generation X by Douglas Coupland


genx-coverAfter eighteen years, I finally got around to reading Douglas Coupland’s Generation X—the novel that literally defined my generation.

In a way, that makes Generation X sort of like the Moby Dick for Gen X-ers—one of those novels that one should read because it’s a Classic-with-a-capital-C. It’s Important. It’s defining. It’s about me.


Published in 1991, Generation X tells the story of three unfulfilled, uninspired twenty-somethings who float through life, tell stories to each other, and experience a nagging sense of being adrift in their own lives despite their best efforts to ground themselves. You can almost hear U2 belting out “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in the background.

Being young means getting old, and middle class means boredom. “You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you,” Coupland writes. “It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile….”

Because the characters are so unfulfilled, the story itself felt unfulfilling. It left me wondering “What’s the point”—although that, in itself, is the point. Twentysomethings in the early nineties were wondering what the point was to their own existences even as they felt both smug and dissatisfied in their own hipness. They wanted less in life yet they wanted more out of it, too. (I wonder if twentysomethings today feel the same way.)

“What’s the point?” sounds like something straight out of Beckett, but Coupland doesn’t seem to think life’s absurd. He’s not asking a rhetorical or unanswerable question. He characters really do want to know what the point is. They don’t like feeling as unmoored as they do.

The book managed to tap into that zeitgeist, which I partially identified with, but there was much more to the book that I could not identify with. The characters felt too disenfranchised, too resentful of the baby-boomers, too intellectually superior. I thought the book did a better job of labeling my generation rather defining.

Or, perhaps the book really just defines the older half of the Gen X generation. In 1991, cubicle farms and corporate America and disposable marriages meant nothing to me. I didn’t feel resentment toward baby boomers who’d suddenly turned into The Man whom they’d railed against in the sixties. I didn’t feel angst about my own unrealized potential or disconnected from my own dysfunctional family. I’d not made my way in the world long enough or far enough to have those struggles. Hell, back then I was even a die-hard Conservative.

All that aside, Coupland is a helluva of a writer. He turns a phrase and captures a sentiment as well as any of the best writers of his (my) generation. The book was endlessly quotable, and Coupland packed it with plenty of worthwhile ideas to chew on (in my mind, always the hallmark of a good book). The epilogue was as beautiful a thing as I’ve read in a long, long time.

But after years of listening to the hype about Generation X, I felt a little underwhelmed. That’s my fault, I guess, for expecting a mirror instead of a book.

What have others seen when they’ve read it?

15 replies »

  1. . . . unfulfilled, uninspired twenty-somethings who float through life, tell stories to each other, and experience a nagging sense of being adrift in their own lives despite their best efforts to ground themselves.

    The only difference between them and Baby Boomers at that age, such as myself, is that the BBs got credited with a degree of political consciousness or rebellion that, in truth, most of them completely lacked. It was just sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. As with the Gen Xers.

  2. I agree that the designation of Gen X is too broad. Copeland was born in 1961. I was born in 63 and feel that the bleak attitude was shaped by our early exposure to the Vietnam war, Nixon and then experiencing Regan’s cold war in our teens.It was the mindset that birthed punk rock.

  3. It is relevant to note that Coupland has since described the three protagonsists of his novel as part of the fringe of Generation Jones, whose mindset later became the mainstrem of the next generation…GenX.

    Coupland, Obama, and others born in 1961 are right in the middle of Generation Jones (born 1954-1965). A national poll looked at this exact issue a few months ago, and found that those born in 1961 overwhelmingly felt they were part of GenJones, not Boomers nor GenXers

    • Please, for the love of all things sacred, let go of this Gen Jones thing. It was, and remains, a marketing hook.

      I’m sure a lot of people born in 1961 – as is the case with ANY cusp group (and I was born in 1961, as well) – feel some ambivalence about their place. When you artificially cobbled a faux gen together that puts them squarely in the middle, yeah, it’s going to resonate. But you can do the same thing with ANY birth year.

      Gen X began in 1961. You want the definitive treatment, go read Howe and Strauss’ 13th Gen.

  4. Howe and Strauss is good stuff. I’ve heard of the Gen Jones stuff, but I can’t say as I know where the name came from.

  5. Indeed, Sam. On the other hand, a person born in 1961 will have had a significantly different experience than one born in, say, 1973. Eg. the difference between really experiencing Reagan and mostly just remembering him. Perhaps the problem is (and i doubt that this exists in the serious literature, only the popular application of it) expecting a generation to be near monolithic in behavior, attitude, etc..

    I also think that Russ makes a very important point that goes with that…that is, the gap between perception and reality.

  6. Sure, if you were trying to artificially create a faux generation around a phenomenom like Obama, you could put him in the middle of the generation to make it resonate. In this situation, however, that point is completely irrelvant, since the GenJones birth years of 1954-1965 were determined several years before Obama became known nationally.

    Read Strauss and Howe for the “definitive treatment”? Are you joking? While S&H’s work becomes increasingly discredited and irrelevant, GenJones becomes increasingly popular and established.

    “Let go of this GenJones thing”? In your GenX-obsessed dreams. What you underestimate is how determined many of us who support the GenJones construct are. There is an inevitability to the GenJones movement; whether you like it or not, Boomer/Joneser/Xer is here to stay.

  7. i read the book in ’91 — when i was 21. i’ll agree it was very quotable, but it defined my and what i perceived as my generation about as much as taco bell defines “destination restaurant.”

    to be honest, i cannot recall the story of the book, only my recollected perception of it. i identified with none of the characters. i was not in the “jet set” and cared little about money. i’m sure i’ve got my copy sitting in a box somewhere, probably riddled with mold and filth after carrying it around for nearly two decades because of it’s supposed “worth.”

    it spoke neither to me nor about me.

    of course, in retrospect, it probably said more about my generation than i believed it did at the time.

  8. If Pontell’s theory is so “ridiculous”, why do so many credible and influential people strongly believe in and support it? David Brooks (New York Times), Karen Tumulty (Time Magazine), Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune), Jonathan Alter (Newsweek), Roland Martin (CNN), Michael Steele (Chairman, RNC), Chris Van Hollen (Chairman, DCCC), Stuart Rothenberg (Roll Call), Juan Williams (Fox News Channel), Howard Wolfson (Political Advisor), Mel Martinez (U.S. Senator [R-Florida]), Carl Leubsdorf (Dallas Morning News), and Peter Fenn (MSNBC) are among many who have publicly expressed their belief in the GenJones construct. Should we believe them, or someone with an unknown blog with a tiny readership who bases her arguments on obviously unresearched emotional feelings rather than an informed take on the actual facts?