Provocations: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland; Suicide Blond by Darcy Steinke. This combined commentary and book review was first published in “The Wichita Eagle” on Sunday, January 17, 1993 on the editorial page. It was announced by the somewhat downbeat minor headline: “It is this generation of kids that forms a young and medium adult wasteland of academic failure, political apathy, hate crime, shallow commercialism and shopping malls.” It is up to the reader in our present absurd and dangerous political and social climate to judge my opinion. But, what I thought was bad, has surely gotten worse.

An Update: X’ers Beware; Future is Grim. Again, this commentary and perspective was first published in “The Wichita Eagle” on Sunday, January 17, 1993. It’s take on the Millennial Generation is perhaps a bit caustic given present realities. It isn’t so much that this generation has “dropped out” as it is that the social and political system has ruined their chances at a decent life. Still, consumer and financial capitalism looms as an important adversary of social and economic justice, a fair spread of economic benefits, and a healthy and happy society. Maybe the X’ers weren’t as bad as I thought. For example, crime has dropped to historic lows and illegitimate births have dropped as well. But the future certainly was worse in other ways.


Capitalism and the postmodern age…in which the deep underlying materiality of all things has finally risen dripping…

Frederick Jameson, “Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”

An American born in the late 1950s or early 60s has, by now, witnessed more than 18,000 murders on television and seen 350,000 commercials. More than any other statistic, more than statistics on divorce, falling real income, rising crime and illegitimate birth, these two facts seem to define the postmodern era in social terms. And it is this 13th generation of kids born in the Republic, called X’ers for short, that forms a young and medium adult wasteland of academic failure, political apathy, hate crime, shallow commercialism and shopping malls.

On the job, these kids are basically scavengers from what the baby boomers have left behind, temp-world slackers, hustlers who take McJobs—defined as low-pay, low-prestige, low-benefit, no-future work in the service sector. Boomers often consider these jobs satisfying careers, but no boomer has ever had to hold one down. On another, cultural level, X’ers inhabit a flattened milieu of anonymous condominiums, townhouses, ruined inner cities. The defining technology of this new age is television, and its simulacrum for knowledge is quick-fix information, sound bites and the collective psyche.

Dropouts All

 Urban X’ers are unmarried teen mothers and idle teen fathers, hip-hoppers and violent gang members, dropouts all. In the suburbs these kids are at the mall buying clothes and jewelry, along with their franchise fast food, and some are shopping for a mom and dad who aren’t at home anymore, or never were. These kids live in a world much more pshycially and psychologically dangerous than anything their parents, boomers, ever knew. They are trying to separate sex from disease and death. An X’ers real future is much more bleak than any other generation in the history of the Republic, a future of lowered job expectation, reduced standards of living, poor health care, rotting infrastructures, voraciously violent schools and streets. Kids today curse, carry guns and have babies at high rates.

And of course, X’ers have a real reason to consider themselves part of a benighted postmodernism that has devalued childhood and sunk a whole generation into poverty and near poverty (one in fine kids is poor). Wherever X’ers try to rear up they are squelched by a preachy and more powerful boomer generation—witness the first act of a new boomer regime at our local public radio station, to ax an alternative music program run, ragtag, by and for X’ers.

In a sense, X’ers have been “generationally cleansed.” The national budget provides for the elderly and boomers first and foremost. Two percent of our national budget is spent on education, next to nothing on childcare. And, too, X’ers are threatened by the multinational corporate climate that emphasizes cost and effectiveness to the exclusion of training and longevity.

X’ers are subject to psychic pressures as well. Good or bad, television does flatten reality, creating a mask of filmic image without density. One need only think of the endless miles of malls, video arcades, housing complexes and theme parks to realize that a serious devaluing of image is going on. When considered along with the death of religion and the absolute sway of commercialism, is it any wonder that X’ers feel themselves abandoned to the ravages of capitalism? Images are being pedaled here, a high-speed detergent of information.

An ode to the postmodern age


            Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.

Jameson, “Postmodernism”

Any writer, who confronts the postmodern age with its technological emphasis, or defining feature, being video and acoustical forms, had better be ready for a tussle. Douglas Coupland is one of a group of younger artists working in the postmodern idiom. The group includes Brett Easton Ellis, Nancy Smith and Ian Williams, not to mention Martin Amis on the English side. In “General X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture”, Coupland has written a brilliantly hilarious and quite often horrifying and illuminating ode to the new postmodern age, replete with visual jokes, cartoons in the martins and side-panel definitions. “Generation X” even has a statistical table highlighting the social and cultural bottom line of the age, e.g.: percent of U.S. budgets spent on the elderly, 30; percent spent on education, 2. All in all, “Generation X” is a postmodern object in itself, comic-book size, breathlessly pop-artish and relentlessly self-depracatory.

Ostensibly “Generation X” is the story of Andy, Clair and Dag, X’ers who’ve quite dead-end jobs and moved to Palm Springs “for the weather.” All three of these X[ers are on the rebound from world history and on the run from their families, each unable to utilize an education or to come to terms with their obligations to Boomer America. These three temporarily stable wanderers tell each other stories and hold down McJobs just to get by. One of the characters, Dag, says, “I started to find humanity repulsive. At least in this state I felt there was no possibility of being an ideal target market anymore.”

Thus, Coupland sums up the thematic unity of his book: If it is impossible to find an essence in postmodern life, at least it’s possible to give up pretense. And for Coupland, and his characters, this means refusing to pretend that families aren’t either dysfunctional or debilitating, that politics isn’t hypocritical, that the past has no lessons. Mimicking the ontological ethos of television, these X’ers stay on the surface of things, where the truth swarms like maggots on dead flesh.

Unlike Ellis’ ground breaking “American Psycho”, “Generation X” is not an indictment. Also, “Generation X” is good and great fun. It is hard not to be sympathetic to our three protagonists as they write around Palm Springs on warm nights. And Coupland’s sidebar definitions are, perhaps, the most fun of all. For example, Historical Underdosing: To live in a period of time when nothing seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines and TV news broadcasts.

A condition of underdosing

 It must be admitted that nothing much happens in “Generation X,” but then that is the condition of underdosing. Coupland’s point is to offer an inside view of the postmodern generational and social drift, and to do it in a visually exhilarating way, competing with television, as it were. This wonderfully artful book may have been created with the reading-shy in mind given its large print, visual aids, airy story and pop-up books feel. But this book is deadly serious, and may foretell the future of books in general. As Coupland says, “When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality.” In the postmodern age, books may be just like houses.

The flip side of Coupland’s coin is “Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press), by presumed enfant terrible Darcy Steinke. This slim volume, unlike “Generation X,” is poorly written and thin as a cloth coat, full of inept metaphors and lousy diction. However, Steinke does put her finger on several postmodern conditions that affect the psyche of X’ers.

Her protagonist Jesse is a good-looking 29 year-old ion love with Bell, who is a bisexual, leaning toward males. Jesse drifts around the Bay Area (like many X’ers, she is educated and not employable long-term) in a haze of drugs and alcohol. She is haunted by her mother who Jesse wishes weren’t “so needy, so depressed, so unhappy.” She is, as is the case with so many X’ers, detached, in real terms, from her past, and form the past of her country, social class and ethnic group. Needless to say, these wanderings and musings are geared to creating the basic postmodern point that life is now almost entirely collectivized and sex is the only, and most dangerous, language available.

Why bother?

 The ultimate confrontation in “Suicide Blonde” is the interface between love and relationship. In fact, the central question in this book, and for many X’ers in general, must be; Relationships are a big hassle, everybody is so unfocused, so why bother? Unfortunately for “Suicide Blonde” as a work of art, the question must be also, why bother?

            The world meaningfully loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin…

Jameson, “Postmodernism”

By now the artistic and cultural outline of the postmodern age can be discerned. In the work of artists like Beckett and Pynchon, and in the critical approaches of Foucault and Derrida, groundwork for the assessment of this new age has already been laid. But it would be a mistake to consider this kind of academic distancing as unimportant or unapproachable by ordinary men and women. In everyday life the postmodern looms, and the change of consciousness affected by electronic technology is every bit as revolutionary as that brought about by the invention of print.

As citizens of the world we all must learn to analyze and understand late multinational capitalism and its despotic overlay of world markets with unrelenting consumption. We must guard our flattened horizons that are the result of cable TV, themed housing and homogenized habits—of war packaged for video, bureaucratization, and fractional selfhood. In this struggle, as always, awareness is the first step forward freedom.

Given the X’ers’ current plight, freedom, much less prosperity, is very far away indeed.