Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Book Review - Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland

Cult bestseller tackles facing cultural fall-out in the post-nuclear age

Generation X, a term invented by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel of the same name, has gained popular usage to describe the twenty-somethings of the last two decades. Saturated by materialism and brought up to believe they could have everything, Coupland instead captures the tendency of a whole generation to seek liberty from modern life’s oppressive superfluity. The result is a novel fractured into snappy vignettes invented by the three central characters, whose own lives sink into stasis as they retreat from modernity.

Andy, our narrator, lives in a nuclear-age desert landscape, in a bungalow complex with his two best friends, Dag and Claire. All have been thrown together by their collective sense that modern life with its celebrity obsessions, disposable ethics, and plastic commodities, is hell. Each of them is on a personal mission of escapism. Dag, a reformed advertising executive, is the most erratic, disappearing for days at a time, while Claire tries to forget her long-term corporate-boy romance in their desert retreat. Meanwhile, Andy’s search for less-in-life dislocates him from his loving family and draws him closer to his two pals. All three have shunned their educated, middle class upbringing for ‘McJobs’, low-paid unskilled employment as bar attendants and shop assistants. When their physical separation from the corporate world fails to ease their sense of something lost they retreat further into invented and recalled folk-tales, all the time seeking a sense of the concrete in a world of entropic chaos.

Though the story-telling diversions are entertaining, not to mention necessary in a novel whose characters fail to really do anything themselves, they do tend to fragment the narrative somewhat. Footnotes on almost every page explain Coupland’s prolific pop-cult expressions that saturate the novel, ranging from ‘brazilification’ and ‘option paralysis’, whilst mini-slogans and meaningless cartoon frames in the margins add an element of novelty, maybe even an attempt at post-modernism.

This is a funny piece of fiction, in a pessimistic The Office kind of way; one that, after the laugh, prompts the question, ‘how did we end up here?’ Perhaps the most striking element of Generation X, however, is that all the pop-culture references remain relevant today, almost twenty years later. Coupland’s anti-modern message is truer than ever: faced with too many choices in consumer-driven culture, the twenty-something graduates of the iPod generation are retreating, and making none.

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