Voice in the Wilderness

It’s hard to be the voice of a generation when your generation doesn’t need you anymore.

Sam Octigan

Do you have what it takes to be the voice of a generation? The voice steps into a forum—literature, film, television—dominated by older artists and explains the mindset and dilemmas of people in their late teens and 20s to their baffled elders. Whatever the voice’s complaints (and complaining has always been a mainstay for voices of a generation), it’s assumed that anyone even a decade or two older has no inkling of what the rising generation is going through—that’s how fast the world is changing. It’s an entirely modern phenomenon: A medieval European peasant teen or 20-year-old Tang Dynasty nobleman didn’t need such champions, because they expected their lives to be a lot like their parents’.

Electing yourself the spokesperson for your entire age cohort is presumptuous, and nowadays much of that cohort—especially anyone else in it who thinks he or she should have a shot at the gig—will grill you mercilessly if you try. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald might have gotten away with representing the lost generation that came of age between the world wars, and J.D. Salinger managed to forge, in Holden Caulfield, the epitome of American adolescent disgruntlement for decades of young readers, but the screening process has gotten more rigorous over the years. Recall how the buzzards descended upon Lena Dunham when she jokingly had Hannah Horvath refer to herself as “a voice of a generation” in the first episode of Girls. The last shoo-in I can recall was Douglas Coupland, whose Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was greeted as a generation-defining work with relatively little skepticism when it was published in 1991. Unlike many voices of a generation, Coupland is still at it; he recently published Bit Rot, a collection of miscellaneous writings that demonstrates just how hard it is to sustain VoaG mojo into midlife.

Rereading Generation X is a chastening experience for a reader like me who can recall nodding emphatically over its overly large, square pages before passing her dog-eared copy along to a friend back in the day. (So much is Coupland’s novel a product of its time that today you can only purchase it in printed form, not in e-book or audio.) Coupland gave Gen X its name and identified what are still seen as its signal traits: cynicism; irony; a melancholic sense of having been sidelined by the major forces in social history; and, above all, a mistrust of corporate culture in all its forms. (One of the novel’s chapters is titled “I Am Not a Target Market.”) “We live small lives on the periphery,” the novel’s narrator explains; “we are marginalized and there’s a great deal in which we choose not to participate.”

On a revisit nothing stands out quite so painfully as the book’s ambient self-pity and whininess. “Our systems had stopped working,” one of the characters moans, “jammed with the odor of copy machines, Wite-Out, the smell of bond paper, and the endless stress of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause.” Coupland’s trio of friends is in flight from temp and corporate jobs where they worked in “veal fattening pens” (cubicles) under the sort of boss the author dubbed a “bleeding ponytail: an elderly sold-out baby boomer who pines for hippie or pre-sellout days.” These Gen Xers haven’t themselves sold out (the narrator’s pal Dag quit a marketing job to become a bartender), but they’re peeved nevertheless at how little money they have. “Do you think,” one of them fumes silently at a bleeding ponytail, “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?”

Coining neologisms was and still is one of Coupland’s things. He’s kept at it, as Bit Rot testifies, although to the best of my knowledge the only one of his coinages that’s caught on is “Generation X” itself, which was lifted from the name of a punk band. One piece in Bit Rot is a list of unviral words and phrases like “detroitus” (“the fear of Michigan”) and “ebulliophobia” (“the fear of bubbles”). An unanticipated upside to being closely identified with the Eeyore-like outlook of Generation X is that it comes with a premade explanation for why no one pays much attention to you. Still, Coupland’s decline in relevance, even to someone speaking from the proud periphery, can’t be fun.

The fate of a voice of a generation seldom is. Salinger went into full-fledged retreat from the public eye in 1965, and writers ranging from Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation) to Britain’s Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia and the screenplay for My Beautiful Launderette) as well as the once-celebrated trio of New York City novelists known as the Brat Pack (Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz) have had small luck repeating their past successes. You can strike the jackpot by capturing the Zeitgeist, but it seems to be a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza. Coupland is no exception; a couple of millennials on Slate’s culture desk had never even heard of him.

Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland

Thomas Dozol

Voice-of-a-generation experience rarely translates into voice-for-the-ages work once the writer reaches maturity; if youth is your franchise, why would you ever want to grow up? In Bit Rot, Coupland is up to more or less the same stuff he was up to in the 1990s: dashing off superficial observations about airports and the latest technology (in 1991 it was VDTs—video display terminals; now it’s smartphones) and ideas he had for businesses that would have made him rich if he’d ever done anything about it. Meanwhile, the internet has emerged as the ideal venue for the proliferating reflections of young people disaffected by their lot in life. In 1991, newspapers, magazines, and books rarely presented the perspectives of recent college graduates working shit jobs and wondering what to do with themselves. Generation X was a revelation because the kind of people Coupland wrote about didn’t have a platform on which to publicly vent their alienation. Now they have more platforms than anyone can count. Not surprisingly, everything in Bit Rot has the half-baked texture of a Facebook post (“I sometimes wonder what selfies would look like in North Korea”), because nearly everything that Coupland has ever written settles at about that level. Fortunately for him, Thought Catalog wasn’t around to compete with him in 1991.

The great drawback to becoming a celebrated voice of a generation is that it encourages writers to believe that whatever idle thoughts drift through their minds on the way to conferences in São Paulo are automatically of interest to the world at large simply because they thought them. (Being invited to conferences in São Paulo doesn’t help diminish this narcissism, either.) Then, as the voice of a generation ages and his point of view becomes less remarkable, he must come up with new ways to present himself as the deliverer of dispatches from an underexplored frontier. For McInerney and Ellis, this took the form of writing novels from the perspectives, respectively, of a party girl and supermodel terrorists. Coupland, by contrast, has adopted the tactics of a cultural futurist: visiting Maker Faire and keeping up with the fads in Japan.

Bit Rot occasionally lands a smart quip: “Minimalists are actually extreme hoarders: they hoard space.” But these are overwhelmed by glib nonsense, like Coupland’s theory that millennials don’t vote because they find analog voting tools “archaic” and an excruciating mock screenplay for a time-traveling reality show called George Washington’s Extreme Makeover. For a one-time fan of Generation X, I found this dispiriting. Was Coupland ever any good, or did my craving to see a life like my own described on the page blind me to his shortcomings? Did I fail to realize how annoying the characters in the novel are because I myself was equally insufferable? Perhaps the fate of all voices of a generation is that their readers will grow out of needing such voices. And however appealing the fanfare (and cash) likely to be showered on the next voice of a generation, do yourself a favor: Get yourself a small life on the periphery instead.

Bit Rot by Douglas Coupland. Blue Rider Press.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.