In a world after history (or at least after History) but before Toy Story, the War on Terror, PowerPoint and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, three twenty-something friends, Andy, Dag and Claire, abandon the pursuit of middle-class affluence and move to the edge of the Californian desert. Their modest hope is, as Claire reflects, that their lives might ‘become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them’.1 Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture is, however, replete with the fear that the scale and speed of globalized reality exceeds the human gift for storytelling. ‘I don’t know,’ reflects Dag, ‘whether I’m just upset that the world has gotten too big – way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it’.2 This phrase might be the most prophetic sentence in the novel. In the three decades since its publication, Coupland’s debut has been associated with all manner of ideas: post-youth culture; the pervasiveness of consumerism; apocalyptic fears coupled with moments of epiphany (or ‘isolated cool moments’); the prevalence of McJobs in a world of default economic insecurity. Yet, for me, the novel’s focus on the fundamental human need for narrative remains its most powerful legacy. The attitude to story-making is, however, complex and ambivalent. Andy, who narrates his friends’ stories, confides that he came to Palm Springs ‘to erase all traces of history from [his] past’.3 Similarly, Dag talks about a desire for a ‘clean slate’.4 This rhetoric of new beginnings resonates, consciously or otherwise, with American Romantic desires for solitude, newness and a purpose that is not determined by bureaucratic, corporate or nationalist stories. Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau would, I think, like this group of storytellers, though they may not have been keen on sharing a Palm Springs bungalow with them.
The sensation of feeling storyless is a frequent trope of Coupland’s work in the noughties and nineties: in Polaroids from the Dead (1995) he names it ‘denarration’ and a plethora of his protagonists experience a yearning for a kind of story-like existence.5 Liz Dunn, for example, the lonely and eloquent narrator of Eleanor Rigby (2004), reflects that ‘[l]ike anybody, I wanted to find out if my life was ever going to make sense, or maybe even feel like a story’.6 This melancholic sensibility is not restricted to those born in the 1960s or 70s. In All Families are Psychotic (2001), for example, Janet Drummond, born shortly before World War II, expresses regret that ‘she was unable to remember and reexperience her life as a continuous movie-like event.’7
From the weird vantage point of 2020, this desire for life to resemble a linear narrative seems wonderfully innocent. In one sense, life has never seemed more like a story, though a distinctly dystopian one that seems uncannily familiar from countless films and post-catastrophe novels. Yet I wonder if that specific longing for reassuring and authentic teleological order has become less credible and more fictionalized than ever. In the early 1980s, Michel De Certeau, French philosopher of ‘everyday life’, observed that the contemporary world was, increasingly, a ‘recited society’: ‘it is defined by stories (récits, the fables constituted by our advertising and informational media), by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitations of stories’.8 And this ‘recited society’ has, to borrow a phrase, accelerated beyond all ordinary ways of measuring time. Conflicting narratives – social media feeds, 24-hour news, online shopping cycles, the relentless marketing of things we don’t need – are everywhere. If the children of Andy, Dag and Claire wanted to escape consumer culture, they might need to do more than move to the desert. It is harder to find solitude in a world of smartphones, instant connection and Wifi. In terms of employment, the kind of McJobs taken by Coupland’s highly educated storytelling circle may seem positively utopian compared with today’s still more precarious and exploitative gig economy.
Generation X may appear to be gently apolitical. Yet the withdrawal of its community of storytellers from consumer culture is more than a middle-class, quietist call for a retreat from the messy world of human relationships. To tell a story is a political act that demands both deceleration and attentiveness. These ‘tales for an accelerated culture’ are aesthetically playful and ethically profound. If our lives on earth are to be sustainable, even joyful, they cannot be bound to cycles of productivity, economic growth and endless waste of resources. I don’t read the novel with a warm glow of (legislated) nostalgia but with the sense that it is a profoundly future-oriented text and one defined by its resistance to the idea that a successful life is marked by individual prosperity that costs the earth.
This is one of six pieces in “Thirty Years of Generation X,” the latest installment in the Thinking With series. Explore the other pieces here:
Thirty Years of Generation X / GenXRountable / Andrew Tate
Thirty Years of Generation X / Generation X Rewind / Makoto Fujimura
Thirty Years of Generation X / Isolated Little Cool Moments: the Life/Death of Irony in Generation X / Mary McCampbell
Thirty Years of Generation X / Generation Extreme / Shumon Basar
Thirty Years of Generation X / McJobs and Veal Fattening Pens: Work and Futurity in Generation X / Diletta De Cristofaro
- Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus, 1992), 10.
- Coupland, Generation X, 5-6
- Coupland, Generation X, 41.
- Coupland, Generation X, 36.
- Douglas Coupland, Polaroids from the Dead (London: Flamingo, 1997), 179.
- Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby (London: Fourth Estate, 2004), 3.
- Douglas Coupland, All Families are Psychotic (London: Flamingo, 2001), 12.
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. by Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 186.