Image Credit: Abacus, 1996
To say this book inspired a generation sounds like a terrible cliché. But in many ways, it did. It inspired but also named a generation – Generation X. Splitting people into groups and labelling them is one of society’s specialities, and this doesn’t stop for birth cohorts. From baby boomers to millennials, these strange names we give to age demographics are hard to escape. Vague in their descriptions of who they refer to (I can never work out if I’m a millennial, a GenY, GenZ, post-millennial or iGen) what these terms aim to encompass is how the events of a certain period of time broadly affect those living through it.
When Douglas Coupland published his first novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991, he was not the first person to use that term. He was, however,the person to popularise it, offering a description of what it was the twenty-somethings of the 90s were feeling. Over educated, under-employed, the product of families where traditional American values are beginning to wane who are seeing the development of technology right before their eyes, they’re living in a state of anomie. Stuck somewhere in between the pressure of having too much expected of them and the sense that society assumes they’re incapable of achieving any of it, they’re waiting to find out the new norms.
Nearly 30 years on from its publication with a new generation as the twenty-somethings of society, it doesn’t feel like much has changed. This novel focuses on the lives of three main characters, narrator Andy and his two friends Claire and Dag, who have moved to the southern California desert to escape the pressures of corporate America. Taking the form of a framed narrative, these characters each tell their own stories throughout the main plot of the novel.
In the first part of the book, Andy describes the ritual the three have of taking it in turns to tell what they call 'bedtime stories'. With the same policies as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the other two are not allowed to interrupt the story or offer any criticism at the end. While some seem to be true, some blatantly fiction and many of them impossible to tell, these stories seamlessly blend into the chapters of this book, each telling something about these three people’s lives and the generation they exist to represent.
What these stories manage to do however, is not just tell us about Coupland’s understanding of the problems and experiences of this generation but to raise a larger point. The point that fiction can so often tell us far more than fact,as it is through these stories, the facts they omit from them and the facts they make up,that we really see what this generations’ lives are like.
There is one particular line in this book that sums this up for me and that is when Andy says 'History does not record my response.' Easy to skim straight past, whenever I read that line it reminds me of the famous Walt Whitman quote 'We were together. I forget the rest.' They both say so much, without really saying anything at all.They show how it is as much the details of our lives that we forget or choose to omit that hold as much meaning as those we remember.
As Claire says early on in the novel 'It’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments, either our lives become stories or there’s no way to get through them’.We shape those stories not only through our actions but through the way we record them.There is as much to read into what we choose not to include as there is in what we do.
Perhaps for our generation, whatever we’re supposed to be calling it, it is not sitting around in the desert telling 'bedtime stories', but it is through posting on social media that we exercise this control over our own narratives.There is as much information in the photos we don’t post, and the captions we don’t write as the ones that we do. We condense our lives quite literally into stories, be that on Snapchat or Instagram, but the limited elements that we remember or choose to share are of course not the full picture. It is through our omissions that you can really begin to see what our generation represents. When Coupland wrote back in the 90s that we 'tell stories to make our lives worthwhile tales in the process,' he could have been writing about us.