Another “now appearing in relief” review here as I finish the complex and engrossing After the End of Art by Arthur C. Danto – a book that I will review this weekend and that is proving in its reading that good scholarly writing is as much its own reward in the way it stretches our thinking as bad scholarly writing is – well, too ubiquitous to discuss in this forum.
So here is a review of another book that I finished last fall not so long before I compiled the 2013 reading list and began this project of blogging all my reading for this year. The book is by an author I’d been meaning to read for a long time, one who is, at least to outsiders like Boomers and Millennials (I know – oh, dear lord, not that generational crap again) if not the, certainly one of the premier spokespersons for Generation X: Douglas Coupland. Coupland’s most famous work is called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and gave us both the term now used to denominate the post-Boomer cohort as well as another important term now in the vernacular: McJob, used to describe the sorts of dead-end retail and service jobs in which many in his age group found themselves stuck.
That work certainly established his reputation as generational spokesperson. But I happened upon one of his later works, The Gum Thief (bought, ironically enough, in one of the sorts of places where McJobs are found – a Dollar Tree), a novel that explores the relationships between Gen Xers and the cohort who’ve succeeded them, the Millennials. In the course of the work (told, as are most of Coupland’s works, in a series of journal entries, letters, emails, and other ephemera of the way we live now) we learn that Roger, the aging, alcoholic Xer going through an ugly divorce, and Bethany, the dispirited Millennial playing at being a Goth and trying to do something “big” with her life, find much that they have in common.
What really matters, however, more than the human relationships in the novel (in an odd coincidence of the sort one finds in novels, Roger discovers that Bethany’s mother DeeDee is an old high school classmate – they even go out on a date – though both are damaged enough emotionally that it is easy to see that their forming a relationship stronger than the typical Facebook friendship is impossible) is Coupland’s exploration of the bond that forms between reader and writer.
Roger’s journal, which he keeps in the work room at the big box office supply store where he and Bethany both work at – what else? – McJobs, becomes their source of initial connection and eventual friendship. Thanks to Roger’s interestingly quixotic but terribly derivative attempt to write a novel that he calls Glove Pond, and Bethany’s attempts, once she discovers his work, to give him both reader-response criticism of the most literal kind and encouragement that is meant both sincerely to prod him to continue writing and as admonition to herself to “do something,” Coupland is able to work the reader around to an understanding and critique of the writer’s process – and the reader’s role in the transaction that is the literary experience.
Roger’s novel Glove Pond is not, to be kind, a good book. It lifts heavily from, primarily, Edward Albee’s classic drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but also from some of the more classic of John Cheever’s fiction crossed with the occasional moment that smacks more of Raymond Chandler than anything else. It is a hell of a mess. I know Coupland had a blast writing it.
But the quality of Roger’s effort is not the point to his or Coupland’s novel. What is the point, and it’s one that Coupland makes well, is that any/every writer is trying to do one main thing: connect with his/her audience and communicate at least something of what it is to be human. Despite their generational differences, besides the “ick” factor (for Bethany, anyway) of Roger’s relationship with her mom, despite Bethany’s Millennial sense of entitlement and expectation of instant gratification, they are both people trying to live – and tell, their stories.
As he does in other works such as Eleanor Rigby and Generation A, Coupland looks at the two looming forces that he sees struggling against each other in that “accelerated culture” that he first depicted more than 20 years ago: ever encroaching existential loneliness and the power of writing and reading each other’s stories to defeat that loneliness.
The Gum Thief argues that any effort to “use our words,” as a kindergarten teacher might admonish us, is a positive blow against being consumed and destroyed by that loneliness.
That’s a pretty positive message from the generation who also gave us snarky.