Monday, June 8, 2009

Book 49: Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture

I had been destroyed emotionally by fiction before. Many times. It is an honored tradition in my family to ingest and take seriously all sorts of literary pursuits. Often the whole family will be sitting in the living room each reading silently. My girlfriend has occasionally had the gall to say that we aren't communicating at these points.

And while she is right in some ways, in other ways, those moments of shared isolation in a fictional world are as close as my family gets. I vividly remember riding up to a family get-together in either Wellesley or Newton. I was finishing up the Stephen King novella 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Prison' for the first time. At the last word I burst into tears. No one batted an eye. No one needed to ask me if I needed to talk about my own life. They took it on faith that I had been moved by what I'd read. That was what they wanted to know about.

So when I first read Douglas Coupland's masterpiece 'Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture' it went as deep as a rain drop sliding down into the desert sand. Each pore of my body seemed to soak up a bit of it until I was saturated.

I'd read modern authors before but somehow Coupland seemed to be the first person to really articulate what it was like to be me, to have grown up after the upheaval of the late '60's but before the technological advances of the new millenium. The world was in a kind of stasis through the late '80's and early '90's, as if it knew bigger badder bolder things were coming. So the present seemed hazy, unclear, vague. The moments that mattered were usually insignificant in the larger scheme of things, to the point that the highlight of a summer might be a chance encounter in a parking lot that wound up in a bar.

The protagonists drink, sleep with each other or don't, tell stories, recoil from what had been expected of them, and generally disconnect from anything but their disconnection itself. To connect would be impossible given the set of circumstances they found themselves born into.

Even the presentation of the book is modernity expressed. Now the sidebars and cartoons and random statistics placed in the margins of the fictional narrative might not even merit notice but in 1991 it had the written equivalent of Johnny Rotten sneering 'God Save The Queen'. You just didn't do that stuff. But Coupland did.

I know a lot of people who don't take him seriously. I know a lot of people who don't even know who he is. I know that his prose is not dense to any sense of abstraction, that to those who are into the DeLillo's, Roth's, Zadie Smiths and David Foster Wallaces of the world, Coupland is as lightweight as a windbreaker.

I won't do anything to dissuade those folks so I won't even try. All I'll say is that one night I was working in Rhode Island in a restaurant. We finished a long shift and wound up down on the beach that was just down the road. There were perhaps 15 of us and we had looted the cupboards and wine cellar to the point that we had a summer feast on a deserted beach all to ourselves. A bonfire was built. Intense conversation happened alongside frivolous hilarity and waiters/waitresses making out was ignored so that they wouldn't feel ostracized. Pockets issued forth bags of illicit drugs. At a certain point the conversation lulled and everyone simultaneously noticed a falling star. I can only remember the name of one of those people.

And somehow, in spite of our portable compact disc players and the advent of cell phones, we were still cave people huddled around a tiny fire trying to enjoy the simple fact that we were alive.

I think Coupland knew that this kind of experience was disappearing fast. I think he saw that we would be so connected via new means of communication that our isolation would dissipate. I think he wondered how positive that would be in spite of all the easy optimism it might bring. How we might channel ease of connection into numbness without even knowing it.

How he hinted that anything that was accelerating better not find anything blocking the path.