Wednesday, January 18, 2017

History will ignore you

But I get this feeling —

It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we're middle class.

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 since. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.

And any small moments of intense, flaring beauty such as this morning's will be utterly forgotten, dissolved by time like a super-8 film left out in the rain, without sound, and quickly replaced by thousands of silently growing trees.
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland — I've been meaning to read this book since 1991, and then again in 2010 when it was a Canada Reads selection and I came into possession of a copy exactly as pictured here.

More recently, we were severally drunk, in my kitchen, and someone was bemoaning the fate of the Gen-X-er, and I wondered how this could be, said bemoaner being a full decade younger than myself. And it was decided to read the book so as to know once and for all who was truly of generation X.

What came as a surprise is that the novel's narrator is almost a decade older than me.

Still, the angsty apathy, the pessimism I vehemently declare to be realism, is something I very must relate to. Or related to. As a gen-x-er of a certain age, I feel like I've grown out of it. Or rather, having acknowledged the hopelessness of where I sit, socioeconomically, historically — that hasn't changed, but I am no longer mired in the problem of it. Millennials, on the other hand, have not "grown out of it" yet, and I get the feeling that they are unlikely to.

[Whatever happened to Generation Y?]

There's not much of a plot to Generation X. I'm tempted to call it a collection of loosely connected short stories. The novel, such as it is, pivots around Andy, Dag, and Clare, who tell each other stories, primarily (solely?) for entertainment, AA-style, without judgment.
"I firmly believe," Dag once said at the beginning, months ago, "that everybody on earth has a deep, dark secret that they'll never tell another soul as long as they live. Their wife, their husband, their lover, or their priest. Never.

"I have my secret. You have yours. Yes, you do — I can see you smiling. You're thinking about your secret right now. [...] Just tell me. You may be able to help me and not even know it."
[What's your secret?]

Stories get told, and then several times we see glimmers of the "real life" that inspired those stories. Or maybe the stories inspired reality. Or maybe it's all just stories. It's easy to call the earth-colony space-poisoning incident a story, but Irene and Phil, neighbours who live permanently in the 1950s, are presumably real, even though both environments share details like a brandy snifter filled with matchbooks and a freak jaws-of-life event.

Some bits struck eerily close to home, in an entirely insignificant way.
I'd sooner have died than admit that the most valuable thing I owned was s fairly expensive collection of German industrial music dance mix EP records stored, for even further embarrassment, under a box of crumbling Christmas tree ornaments in a Portland, Oregon basement.
This on the tail end of a visit to my mom, wherein I found a crate of vinyl — including German industrial music dance mix EP records — that I'd long ago assumed my brother had pawned off. But there they were in the basement crawlspace (Sandinista! mislabeled), behind (not under) a crumbling box of Christmas tree ornaments (who knows what shape the ornaments were actually in) once temporarily stored there by a now deceased friend of the family. I mean, who even has records anymore? Except of course that suddenly, people do.

[What's the most valuable thing you own?]

Apart from the aimlessness of the characters (and of the novel), this novel leaves me with an overwhelming sense of Cold-War nuclear-arms-race paranoia. Remember The Day After? How scared we were? This book like a madeleine recalls the dis-ease that hovered over the land.
Although their background orbits are somewhat incongruous, Claire and Elvissa share a common denominator — both are headstrong, both have a healthy curiosity, but most important, both left their old live behind them and set forth to make new lives for themselves in the name of adventure. In their similar quest to find a personal truth, they willingly put themselves on the margins of society, and this, I think, took some guts. It's harder for women to do this than men.
[Is that true, that it's harder for women? Is it still true?]

One chapter is titled December 31, 1999 (I remember that day), and another, much later is January 1, 2000 (that day is hazy). Taken at face value, the intervening text may be understood to have happened overnight. And all that came before... Has it been years of roaming through dead-end jobs and meaningless parties? A lost decade? [I had a lost decade.]
"What one moment for you defines what it's like to be alive on this planet? What's your takeaway?"

[...] "Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don't count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you're really alive."
[What's your takeaway?]

I will spend time puzzling over some of the questions the novel incidentally raises and never really addresses, more so than I will considering the actual novel.

[What's my takeaway? How many of those first thoughts that come to mind were bought experiences?]

I loved the sidebars: slogans, definitions, and cartoon panels, all complementing the themes of the main text. I wish there were more of this kind of thing in book publishing. However, I hated the squareness of the volume, which made it tough to read while commuting; the text doesn't have the gravity to demand that kind of space. And the paper quality is shit for flipping — I had to rub pages to separate them at every turn. It's not a lay-flat beautiful book, and it's not a "disposable" newsprinty comic book, which is too bad, because either form could complement this content really well.

Conclusion: This is a generation-defining novel only in the most literal way. It no longer feels fresh, but maybe as a generation we're just tired. The voice is unique only insofar as it sounds just like every other self-aware and ironic writer since the late 80s. But Coupland does have a knack for tapping into a particular slice of the gen-x zeitgeist. "I was feeling homesick for the event while it was happening."

I'm looking forward to discussing the book with my fellow gen-x-ers, debating whether we are or are not, and I have the perfect cocktail for it: it'll be "washed down with Polish cherry brandy, the taste for which he acquired during a long, sleepy earnest summer job spent behind the glum, patronless counter of the local Enver Hoxha Communist bookstore." Ahh.

Article: Generation X: The young and restless work force following the baby boom
Review: I read the book and wondered where I was
Bonus: Ready, Steady, Go!


Look at this Cast Iron Cookware said...

I cannot exist without this book--even though I'm not of Generation X, this book could not be more applicable to growing up in the modern age. This book really is amazing and I highly recommend that everyone and anyone read this book, you will not regret it! It's filled with beautiful moments and bizzare happenings. Just...beautiful!

Stefanie said...

OMG! The Day After! I watched it by myself and it scared the crap out of me! I'm Gen X too. Never got around to reading this book though I always meant to. Seems like it might still be worth it? Love the article you linked, it made me laugh, yes, yes, I regularly had poptarts and while I didn't get a swimming pool, my best friend who lived two houses down from me did :)

Isabella Kratynski said...

I think it's worth reading, not for the stories themselves necessarily (which are good), but to see how it's become part of something bigger than itself. Lots of readers seem to agree that it could've been written last week.