Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991)
Generation X should top my mental list of reads that remind me why re-reading is important.
I read this book shortly after it was published, but I didn’t remember much about it at all.
And perhaps there’s a good reason for that or, more accurately, twenty reasons, because that’s how many years have passed since the author was struggling to get his first book published, and it’s nearly that many since I first read it.
But not remembering anything about something you’ve read?
Well, it recommends re-reading, doesn’t it.
I didn’t remember anything about Andy or Claire or Dag, their house in the desert or their Christmas holidays, or even that the book had characters; the only thing I actually remember reading were the definitions that appear scattered throughout, authoritatively printed in the wider-than-usual margins, in bold type.
That format must have caught the still-a-student streak in me because I’m pretty sure that I thought they were true, in fact, I can a-l-m-o-s-t remember memorizing a couple of them.
So I did remember the margins, the comics and the sense that this wasn’t a “real novel”; it was fragmented, it was multi-media, and the plot — or what served as plot — came from a bunch of different directions and scurried away again in as many ways or more.
And now is when you might think that I’d announce something like “But this time it will be different”.
I might insist and say this time I read slowly and attentively (with Canada Reads in mind), and that I even recognized the margin notes as humourous near-fact and snickered rather than memorized.
I might say this time I fully absorbed and comprehended Generation X and I’ll remember it a decade from now.
But, no. And I think that’s the point.
I don’t think I’m going to remember Dag and Claire and Andy a year from now, let alone a decade from now.
It’s not that they’re unlikeable (or, for that matter, that they’re likeable): they’re forgettable.
Claire “breaks the silence by saying that it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. ‘Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.'”
They’re just people getting through their lives. It’s the stories that these three tell each other that are memorable: the book itself is a succession of “isolated cool moments”.
But perhaps even more memorable than the stories themselves is the fact that they need telling, that these characters desperately need to construct meaning, for themselves and for each other.
What sticks after reading this novel is their sense of inertia, their feeling of suspension in lives unhinged, the sense of disconnect in the face of the need to connect.
Now the book is about Generation X, a term first used in 1964 to describe the “baby bust” generation which followed the “baby boom” generation, those born between 1961 and 1981, so chances are that most of us reading either are members of this group, or know someone well who is, and certainly when I was re-reading Douglas Coupland’s novel, I recognized elements of the lives of many friends and acquaintances who were born in that time frame in the experiences of Andy, Claire and Dag.
Whether these elements are rooted in human experience or limited to the experience of Gen X’ers, I’m not sure, but are the characters credible? Sure.
But does that mean they’re memorable? No, and I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Not even unusual. As Andy observes:
“You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.”
So perhaps memorable is too much to ask for. Maybe we need to adjust our readerly expectations. And, anyway, it’s not all aimless prose. There are moments of solidity.
Andy says: “These creatures here in this room with me — these are the creatures I love and who love me. Together I feel like we are a strange and forbidden garden — I feel so happy I could die. If I could have it thus, I would like this moment to continue forever.”
See, sometimes Generation X is really rather wonderful.
And then, he continues: “I go back to sleep.”
Maybe the point is that sometimes we need to adjust our expectations of books and sometimes we need to adjust our expectations of life.
And, anyway, there are those moments, those bits that stick.