Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

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

After 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.

Right?

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?