The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Generation X by Douglas Coupland

This book was one of the titles I was challenged to read last year by AR who recommended it. I bought it then but have only just got around to reading it.

Three young people in their twenties in modern day America have moved away from the rat race to re-write their own lives by moving to the desert and forsaking the conformist lifestyle. Andy, Dag and Clare enjoy being with their dogs, taking picnics and telling stories.

Andy is the narrator, and he reviews how they all came to be there and their relationship with each other as well as the fantastic stories they tell each other. It is filled with humour as well as pop art pictures and even its own glossary of phrases invented to describe the emptiness of present society that produces cliched inhabitants. The book is short with chapters of only a few pages, so quick to read.

Often the writing is more social comment than fictional novel, and it took a while for me to warm to the characters. Their observations are interesting, funny, and scarily accurate, but this can come over as a bit clever and smug. We worked it out, have all the answers, and left the losers behind. But do they have all the answers? Are they living the perfect life?

As the novel moves forwards it seems that the threesome are still looking for something...more. Each of them have flurries back into the life they turned their back on. None of them stay but I got the feeling everything was transitory. No one reaches a point in life where they have nothing to learn, however much they feel they know it all. There are other characters, friends who visit for a while, but they serve as types to illustrate what the three have left behind.

There were some beautiful moments that I loved. The chapter where they all tell of what the earth means to them was a particular favourite. Remembering her most poignant moment from when she was twelve, Clare says...

' brother Allan yanked at my sleeve because the walk signal light was green. And when I turned my head to walk across, my face went bang, right into my first snowflake ever. It melted in my eye. I didn't even know what it was at first, but then I saw millions of flakes - all white and smelling like ozone, floating downward like the shed skin of angels. Even Allan stopped. Traffic was honking at us, but time stood still. And so, yes - if I take one memory of earth away with me, that moment will be the one. To this day I consider my right eye charmed.'

It was after this chapter, where the characters seem to move from merely frivolous and a little immature, that I found something to connect with. Later on, when Andy revisits his parents for Christmas, it was one of the saddest accounts of generational awakening that I have read.

Not everything in this book had an impact, but the chapters that did have stayed with me. Towards the end of the book the cleverness made way for quite a lot of sadness, and although upbeat, and even a little sentimental, the ending held no promises.

I would recommend this to anyone who loves modern writing that takes a cynical view of Western society. The closest authors I could think of were Chuck Palahniuk and Carl Hiaasen. This one has a more poetic slant, and is less ascerbic.

To look at Douglas Coupland's website use the link.

To read an interesting article Generation X to Generation Next by Laura Slattery use the link.

The Guardian Book Club has some good discussions about the book too.

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