#3 – Generation X, by Douglas Coupland

I first read Generation X when I was fifteen (so, 1994), a blue collar kid in a blue collar town. I don’t remember much about it except for my reaction. I hated it. “Hate” might even be too mild a word. I don’t know that I’ve ever had as strongly negative a reaction to a book as I had to this one, and I’ve had some pretty strong negative reactions. My thoughts on it then could be summarized in this statement: yuppies who think they aren’t yuppies complain about how hard their lives are. But fifteen years is a long time, and panelist Roland Pemberton (aka Cadence Weapon) has chosen to defend Generation X on Canada Reads. I’ve revisited other books from my past with positive results, why not with this one?

And the verdict is in! I still hate Generation X. I still hate it a lot, in fact. But unlike fifteen years ago, I now more or less have the vocabulary to vent my spleen. Generation X is about middle class brats slumming it, rolling in the appearance of poverty like dogs roll in shit: to mask their scent. It allows them, Dag and Claire in particular, to be wry, judgemental, hipper-than-thou (but despite being hipsters, they’re not trying to be the cool kids, oh God no, not them) without ever having to do the real work of introspection. In one memorable passage, Dag describes the kind of person he believes he used to be:

“I don’t think I was a likeable guy. I was actually one of those putzes you see driving a sports car down to the financial district every morning with the roof down and a baseball cap on his head, cocksure and pleased with how frisky and complete he looks. I was both thrilled and flattered and achieved no small thrill of power to think that most manufacturers of life-style accessories in the Western world considered me their most desirable target market. But at the slightest provocation I’d have been willing to apologize for my working life—how I work from eight till five in front of a sperm-dissolving VDT performing abstract tasks that indirectly enslave the Third World. But then, hey! Come five o’clock, I’d go nuts! I’d streak my hair and drink beer brewed in Kenya. I’d wear bow ties and listen to alternative rock and slum in the arty part of town.”

I got news for you, Dag: you ain’t changed. (Pop culture imposition: every time I see “Dag” on the page, I can’t help but think of how Brad Pitt pronounces the word “dog” in Guy Ritchie’s film, Snatch.) He trades in the trappings of his corporate lifestyle for the nouveau-hippy trappings of a group he calls Basement People, but that’s all it is, an exchange of trappings. (“Basement People rent basement suites; the air above is too middle class.” Yeah, sure that’s why.) He does eventually realize that the superficial changes he made don’t work (“But basically, my life-style escape wasn’t working. I was only using the real Basement People to my own ends—no different than the way design people exploit artists for new design riffs.”), but he never actually makes a genuine change. I get the sense that we’re supposed to imagine that dropping everything and moving to Palm Springs to work a McJob is a genuine change, but it isn’t. Dag’s coworker Margaret once says to him “the only reason we all go to work in the morning is because we’re terrified of what would happen if we stopped,” and that’s all Dag does, all Andy or Claire does either, for that matter. Stop. Stopping doesn’t take you anywhere new, it just leaves you right where you are, except now genuine change doesn’t even exist in potentia.

The three of them are all stopped. They ditch their corporate suits for McJobs (“low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future”—but I didn’t really need to define that one, did I?), ditch one expression of conspicuous wealth (the accumulation of stuff and homes to put it in, like Dag’s old boss) for another expression of conspicuous wealth (services that the genuinely poor largely can’t afford, like international travel) and declare themselves on the road to change. Andy calls this shift the “poverty jet set” (“a group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence”), but unlike for the genuinely poor, there’s an implicit financial safety net beneath everything these three do. Claire gets regular checkups from the Baxter clan, her father so rich he’s moved on to an honest-to-God trophy wife. All three of them, despite their McJobs, rent houses (bungalows in a courtyard, but still) instead of apartments, skip work to travel (Andy somehow found the cash, all on his own, at the age of 15 to fly halfway across the continent to a small regional airport), make impulse purchases, have no student loans despite having college educations, and generally do whatever the hell they please without any apparent anxiety about money. Coupland’s characters treat poverty the way Republicans treat homosexuality. In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton wrote:

The likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not … cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.

But for Andy, Dag, and Claire, poverty is something to try on while they’re figuring out what they want their real lives to look like, it’s a lifestyle choice. They are, as I said above, middle class brats, and they’ve confused ennui with disenfranchisement, with philosophy and morality. When I think of these three, my blood boils, and the lyrics to Pulp’s “Common People” spring to mind (“if you called your dad he could stop it all”), followed immediately by The Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia”:

Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz

On your five-grand stereo

Braggin’ that you know how the niggers feel cold

And the slums got so much soul

I worried for a moment that I’m being to harsh on these three, but I don’t think I am. In Coupland’s clever marginalia, the definition for “McJob” ends with “frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one,” and while none of our little Gen-X trio would ever consider them satisfying careers, neither do they have an inkling of the real stress and anxiety inherent in such jobs for people who work them because they have no other choices, no notion of the compromises that have to be made when they are the only way you can get by. But like David Foster Wallace’s narrators, they have no problem ratcheting up the irony and making fun of such people’s tastes, their choices, their property. They’re like the present-day hipsters that make racist jokes (the men in women’s jeans so tight that at least they’ll never be able to breed and v-neck t-shirts so deep you can see the unwashed hair on their navels) who aren’t really racist, they’re just being ironic. Puhleaze. Gag me with a spoon already. When Dag tells his boss off, saying,

“[…] do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our own grimy little shoe boxes and we’re pushing thirty? A home you won in a genetic lottery, I might add, sheerly by dint of your having been born at the right time in history? You’d last about ten minutes if you were my age these days, Martin. And I have to endure pinheads like you rusting above me for the rest of my life, always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed-wire fence around the rest. You make me sick.”

I can hear every one of the customers in Larry’s bar, or the cashier and the fat man in Dag’s nuclear attack story, giving Dag, Claire, and Andy the same speech if they could overhear them telling their stories in the desert, camping out at the site of other people’s failures largely because it’s kitschy, or because they can gawk ironically at the ruins of middle class privilege, which they largely still enjoy (but pretend they don’t).

You might say I found representations of class in Generation X problematic.

The vast majority of these problems are, I grant you, in Part One, but Andy’s brother nails it in Part Two when he says that he’s afraid of how Andy is living only on the surface of life. Andy believes himself to be seeking depth, a way out of what he finally admits is a middle class existence he feels trapped by (and it’s even admitted, finally, that Dag is truly different in his McJob from most, not at all trapped in it, though there’s no real significance to the admission; Coupland seems to present it as simply evidence of greater spiritual worth), but all he’s really doing is using clever phrases, and worrying about things, even if only to want fewer of them. As for Claire, well, I can understand her a little better after her Christmas in New York (pursuit of a compelling and physically beautiful lover who was with you largely for reasons unknown which eventually turn out to be a kind of metaphysical boost who, upon receiving that boost—or realizing it will never come—makes for the nearest exit? check), but dowsing rod aside I can’t picture her as anything more than a chain-smoking fashionista who talks at people instead of to them. Every one of Coupland’s characters is repulsive, but it’s not until Part Two that they even become characters. I can picture Holden Caulfield reading Part One and tossing the book aside as full of goddamn phonies, though I get the impression that they’re actually meant to be little micro-Holdens (not that that would have been any better).

I’m not particularly crazy about the style of Coupland’s prose. It seemed to work for me in Microserfs, a novel I loved, so it baffles me (as it did fifteen years ago) why I can’t make it work for me in Generation X (or Life After God, for that matter). It seems both flat and unbearably precious at the same time, like DeLillo circa White Noise without the resignation, or Chuck Palahniuk circa Fight Club without the anger (and regardless of his faults, Palahniuk’s irony and hipsterism isn’t nearly as self-righteous as Coupland’s—”Irene smokes“) and the sense of humour. Coupland likes to use full, formal names for things that are instantly recognizable to nearly anyone now living by more casual ones (“Hollywood, California” “the Pop artist, Mr. Andy Warhol”—Christ, why not “Andrew”?), and the effect is grating, like he wants to connect to the reader with the cultural touchstones, but is worried that they might be unhip so he’s telling us that he doesn’t really mean it. And the italics. What the fuck is that about? As a literate human being, I don’t need the author telling me where to place the stress in a sentence.

And the lists! All those extraneous nouns and adjectives and adverbs. An example:

Edward’s dinner became whatever he could microwave from the local Circle K nuke ‘n’ serve boutique—a beef-and-bean burrito, say, washed down with Polish cherry brandy, the taste for which he acquired during a long, sleepy earnest summer job spent behind the glum, patronless counter of the local Enver Hoxha Communist bookstore.

Something like this works for DeLillo because, as I mentioned before, of the resignation; it becomes an almost penitent litany for him. It works for Palahniuk as an expression of rage or energetic black humour, and it works for somebody like David Foster Wallace because he overwhelms you with it, making it seem like the only way to extract any meaning at all from banality. In Generation X it feels mocking, and I feel like I’m the one being mocked. (I don’t imagine Coupland is actually mocking his readers, but I just can’t shake that feeling.)

Generation X ends with the sentence, “I can’t remember whether I said thank you,” but it’s not a question worth asking. Of course he didn’t. I know that I’m going to be in the minority by not enjoying this book, and that’s okay. It wasn’t completely without merits, but the problems I saw with it, particularly in terms of class representation, were deal breakers for me.

Generation X was my fourth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge, and my first book for Canada Reads. Next up is Century, by Ray Smith.


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. Fabulous review, and so well thought-out. You articulated the annoying things about the book much better than I could have done — so far it’s the only Canada Reads book I haven’t finished.

  2. August,
    I’m glad you posted this–though I still don’t agree with your reaction to the book, I understand now more what you’re reacting to. And I definitely agree with some of your points, especially regarding money and McJobs:
    while none of our little Gen-X trio would ever consider them satisfying careers, neither do they have an inkling of the real stress and anxiety inherent in such jobs for people who work them because they have no other choices, no notion of the compromises that have to be made when they are the only way you can get by.
    That’s so well-expressed. Yes, these are middle-class people trying on poverty like a stylish hat, and they aren’t really engaging with the lives they have claimed to want. But the question is, I think, who knows this? The characters don’t–does Coupland?
    Although middle-class, I was certainly very far away from the these characters the first time I read this book–and really, all the subsequent times. But for me, that freed me from the need to relate to exactly how these guys went about things.
    To me, and this remains true though I first thought it as a teenager, this is a book about realizing that stuff doesn’t make you who you are, and neither does lack of stuff–to me, Andy’s motivations are not a camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle question. These characters learn that a basic engagement with other humans–telling stories to your friends–cements a real life.
    Shallow redemption, maybe–but for shallow characters, a good start.
    I totally get how this book could piss you off now, and I didn’t before. Thanks for explaining.

  3. Not a problem, Rebecca. I deleted the extra two. I’ve been having some problems with the backend of the site lately, and I think the comment thing might be part of that. It’s certainly taking long enough for comments to even be processed. :/
    I’ve been thinking about your comments, and I think it’s very difficult, possibly impossible, for me to look at these characters other than through the lens of class. Despite a brief flirtation with the middle class for a few years in my late teens/early twenties, I’ve been stuck in McJobs (at least as far as income goes) for half a decade, and not at all by choice. To see my situation treated the same as a pair of pink capri pants or a taxidermied chicken is extremely offensive. My life is not a tourist attraction. While I was writing the review I actually started to wonder if this was what folks from some marginalized groups might feel like when they talk about appropriation of voice. I’d done work with that concept in school, but it was just an abstract concept to me, something thought and not felt. Being neither a woman nor a minority (well, not a visible minority, anyway) there is this assumption that I’ll never experience or have a visceral understanding of discrimination, and I’ve been unduly privileged in the sense that the assumption is mostly true (so I don’t want my next statement to be taken as suggesting my experience is equal to, say, racial, religious, or sexual discrimination). But class discrimination, it turns out, is still widely practiced here in Canada, and I’m finding that the older I get the more open it becomes. I’ve been told by human resources personnel at more than one business here in Toronto that despite going to graduate school, I don’t qualify for entry-level white collar work because I once worked on a factory floor. I’m not even kidding, that was exactly the reason given. “We can’t help someone with your kind of work experience,” was a popular employment agency refrain. Additionally, in my home town, both my mother and myself have walked into stores and been told by the staff–by people who know us, at times–that we could not afford to shop there, and should not even bother looking at their stock.
    But all that being said, I think you’re right that it blinds me to some nuances of theme and character development in Coupland’s book. Your statement, that “[t]hese characters learn that a basic engagement with other humans–telling stories to your friends–cements a real life,” seems perfectly reasonable to me. The problem is I think that my other reaction will always be so strong that I’m never going to be able to connect with that aspect of the book.
    And I hope folks–as I’m sure you do–realize that by calling Andy, Dag, and Claire “middle class brats” I’m not referring to all middle class folks. (I was going to say “some of my best friends are middle class,” and it would be clever and everyone would laugh, but actually, almost all my friends are middle class, and they are great people.)
    Anyway, thanks very much for your comments. I think it’s great when folks with different views on a text can exchange ideas; I always learn something from it, and I think that’s pretty cool.

  4. “And the verdict is in! I still hate Generation X. I still hate it a lot, in fact. But unlike fifteen years ago, I now more or less have the vocabulary to vent my spleen. Generation X is about middle class brats slumming it, rolling in the appearance of poverty like dogs roll in shit: to mask their scent.”
    Succinct, accurate, and well-written to boot.

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