Monday, December 31, 2007

Book Project: Generation X

In 2007 I set out to read a book each month recommended by someone whose literary tastes I admire, and then sit down and discuss the book over his/her beverage of choice. These are the results.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
By Douglas Coupland
Read: January 2007

The first book I read in 2007, Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, turned out to be the worst book I’d read in 15 years, and possibly ever, and it nearly derailed my whole ridiculous Book Project. My ex-girlfriend* (henceforth to be known as “Fran,” not her real name) recommended Generation X and then declined to participate in any discussion because her Rules-reading girlfriends convinced her that this project was just an elaborate ruse to rekindle our relationship. Sigh.

Rather than give up and throw in the towel, I continued reading and cobbled together this review from two e-mails Fran sent when she recommended the book.

This wasn’t the first time a friend recommended I read Coupland. In college I picked up Girlfriend in a Coma and thought it depressing and shallow, but I was open-minded enough to give Coupland a second chance, partly because when I mentioned that I wasn’t keen on what I had read in the past, Fran wrote, “Not sure I would have been mature (jaded) enough for GenX in college… find it excellent now, though…” The ellipses are hers, nothing has been excised. Fran overuses ellipses the way Coupland overuses italics. He emphasizes everything in Generation X.

Suddenly my book project had become an opportunity to measure my growth as a person since college. Perhaps I wasn’t jaded enough in college to appreciate the ennui of Coupland’s writing. I had read and enjoyed The Stranger, Crime and Punishment, and On the Road in high school, all of which explore existential issues, but maybe those classics were more accessible and less mature than Generation X.

Girlfriend covered some of the same themes (giving up, living in the suburbs, accepting mediocrity, choosing comfort over striving for goals) as Generation X, and I suspect a lot of Coupland’s books recycle the same ideas of self pitying inactivism (ask me if you need a definition) and post-college ennui. In chapter 5 of Girlfriend, Coupland writes, “At what point in our lives do we stop blurring? When do we become crisp individuals? What must we do in order to end these fuzzy identities—to clarify just who it is we really are?” Boo hoo. The shallow character doesn’t have an identity. Even in college it seemed to me that most people who define and clarify themselves end up settling for less than what they could achieve (as opposed to those who never clarify themselves and keep striving). Clarified people are boring. They’ve stopped looking, stopped living. Crispy individuals think adventure is trying the new entrees at Chili’s. Personally, I hope I never stop “blurring,” seeking new experiences, and declining the baby-back ribs.

Am I missing the satire? Are these characters intentionally bland to skewer slackers? Does it matter? It is as if Coupland created them solely to help the reader feel better about the lack of ambition, adventure, and accomplishment in his/her boring life. Misery loves company, so to speak. If you’re looking for a book to make you feel better about your own failings, this is it. Champions of Generation X claim it accurately reflects the prevailing mindset of the X generation. To which I respond, it only mirrors the chronically boring whiners.

Contrast the losers in Generation X with the miscreants dreamed up by Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, The Acid House, Ecstasy) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke). Palahniuk’s characters struggle against a society that doesn’t feel like their own; they don’t sit around sulking in the suburbs, lamenting their lot in life. Hell no! They get out there and carve a maladjusted, destructive, sleazy, base, and slightly demented niche for themselves. They’re getting busy living instead of getting busy dying, to paraphrase Bob Dylan. And that’s another thing. Palahniuk’s characters get bus-ay while Coupland’s characters are not sexy in the least. Overthinking leads the characters in Generation X to be unhappy and undersexed (to the point of asexuality). I don't know who Coupland modeled his characters on, but they don’t reflect the era I came of age in.

Fran writes, “In college, I was happy go lucky… now I know a bit more about the angst that the characters describe… I can appreciate it… and the jargon in the margins is hilarious.”

That’s “hilarious” without any Amy Sedaris-esque sarcastic inflection (hilarious). Hilarious? Coupland knows nothing of comedy. Something is only funny if you don’t (have to) explain the joke to the audience. Coupland defines terms he uses in the margins for dimbulbs who can’t decipher the meanings from the context of the writing. Perfect example from page 85: “I’ve got my own demons and I’d prefer not to have them trivialized by your Psych 101-isms.” Do you need a definition for “101-ism”? Well, Coupland thinks you do: “101-ism: The tendency to pick apart, often in minute detail, all aspects of life using half-understood pop psychology as a tool.” Was 101-ism really an unknown concept in 1991 when Generation X was published? And what exactly is so funny about that definition? Coupland commits another comedic fallacy; he repeats “jokes” multiple times in the book. One character describes himself time and time again as a lesbian trapped in a man’s body? C’mon. It wasn’t funny or original the first time. Now it’s a t-shirt slogan.

As much as I disliked this book, it wasn’t completely irredeemable. Something clicked around page 100 and I began to understand these lonely, frail, damaged people. They feel alone, which is very human, and their idea of telling stories (even self-indulgent, affected stories) as a way of searching for meaning in life is intriguing. Suddenly the promise of this being the worst book I’d read in 15 years started to wane. It was still the reigning champ, but its victory was no longer a knock-out, but a decision, and with 79 pages remaining even the decision was in jeopardy. I even stomached this hackneyed sentiment on page 129: “Nothing very very good and nothing very very bad ever lasts for very very long.” Bravo, Coupland, you managed to dumb down “This too shall pass.”

Then on page 147, the punch-drunk boxer righted himself from the ropes and rediscovered his ability to suck ass, and claimed the championship belt with this haymaker of shit:

“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.”

OMG. What a fucking douche. This passage sealed the book as the king of self-pitying writing.

Spoiler alert: From this point forward, the novel barrel rolls into an anti-climactic finale in which the narrator receives a loving, gentle beat-down by “a dozen or so mentally retarded young teenagers” (177). Again I say, what a douche. This is the kind of bullshit creationism someone who has never worked in the mental health field would invent. I worked with developmentally disabled adults for three and a half years, and the beatings I took were never gentle and the broken bones and bites that required a tetanus shot are evidence to that fact. No, the type of violence enacted upon me is best described in Retardation: A Celebration:

“And while they might not be as strong as apes, don’t lock eyes with them. Don’t do it. Puts them on edge. They might go into berserker mode, come at you like a whirling dervish-all fists and elbows. You might be screaming, ‘No! No! No!’-all they hear is ‘Who wants cake?’ Let me tell you something. They all do. They all want cake.”

Finally, I was insulted by the packaging and shitty copy editing of the novel. The editors didn’t run a spell check or Coupland forgot to define “husbnad" on page 153. Despite his character’s stance against shopping malls, Coupland’s true anti-environmental nature is revealed by the Gen X’s wasteful design. I’ve worked in publishing, and I recognize that authors do not have complete control over layout and design, but the deliberately wasted space in this book is pretentious. After all its griping about the evils of shopping malls, the packaging of Generation X is a shopping mall: big, bulky, square, with lots of unused space inside. Coupland eschews paragraph breaks on the first page of each chapter, choosing to use paragraph character marks instead. Why? Affectation. Perhaps my indignation over wasted paper is a symptom of what Coupland calls on page 127 “Paper Rabies: Hypersensitivity to littering.” Right, Dougie, we should just tolerate the jerks who come in from the suburbs to drop trash in the city.

Generation X is pop cynicism for the suburban mall reader (and the person who needs Cliffs Notes to explain written passages). A partial list of authors who better capture genuine angst includes the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs), Charles Bukowski, and Henry Miller. Bret Easton Ellis did the whole jaded young people thing better, smarter, and earlier with Less Than Zero with one major difference: Ellis’s characters are rich while Coupland’s are impoverished (financially and developmentally).

As I read Generation X, I was reminded of the film Kicking and Screaming (not the one starring Will Ferrell). Again, like Less Than Zero, the characters in K&S are affluent, but their snarky conversations, wallowing, and post-college stagnation resemble the characters in Generation X. Spoiler alert: The Kicking and Screaming kids eventually get off their asses and do things with their lives.

In summation: On a 10-point scale with 0 being absolute shit and 10 being a masterpiece, I give Generation X a 1.5 for its factual inaccuracy, lack of redeeming characters, wasteful design, and overuse of italics.

*Fran recommended other, better books in the past, but this is the one she recommended in 2007. I can't discount that this recommendation may have originated from spite. The previous worst book I had read was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

For Those About to Spank Rock

"My hip hop dick can bang like rock and roll."

City Paper's methodically compiled and scientifically formatted list of the Top 21 Albums of 2007 hit stands today. I put Okkervil River's The Stage Names at #1, but could've dropped Spank Rock and Bennie Blanco's EP in the top spot.

It’s rare when a tribute surpasses the original, but Bangers and Cash, a very obvious celebration of the raunchy lyrics and lifestyle of the 2 Live Crew, is superior to the rhymes it pays homage to. It does for dirty hip hop what Black Star did for old-school hip hop: proves that it is still relevant, mainly because it tempers the testosterone with a brilliant guest spot from Amanda Blank.

Warning: This video contains lewdness and breasts.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Well, Turn It Up, Man!

Keep the volume down for the first 10 seconds, then turn it up for this jem:
"Remember the good old days? War, protests..." "Going to jail."
Not sure how The O'Jays made it on this compilation.