Helen Andrews’s insightful and hilarious Boomers has gotten me thinking about the whole idea of generations. For as long as I can remember, I have been averse to the very notion. Nearly every way of generalizing about people strikes me as more attractive and perspicuous than lumping legions together by their birth year.
But in truth, my own experience convinces me that the labels of generations are not unwarranted. When Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation,” I do not think she meant to consolidate those who came of age during the Great War into a grand character, but merely to observe that the war had done much to damage and disillusion the young in this way or that.
Andrews has more to say on the Baby Boom generation than I ever will. My parents were a decade older than the Boomers, and I’ve always been glad of it. The parents of my friends, I noticed as a boy, seemed to chase their lost youth in a mawkish spirit of freedom. Like a Cat Stevens song, they were already nostalgic for the youthful innocence they betrayed with their rebellion before it had had a chance to end. They put on tight clothes and lip-synched Rolling Stones songs before their latest purchase: the first VHS home video cameras.
I comprehend that one can think about persons in these broad typologies. I just do not think it wise to do so. Then again, perhaps I think that because I am a product of my own generation, Generation X. Having come of age at a time when Boomers were with a singular, enthusiastic, and unprecedented bravado celebrating their own uniqueness as a generation, I did not want any such silliness in my life. What they called a revolution, I saw as a brand. What they saw as high ideals, I saw as a rather smelly bit of nostalgia. But then came Douglas Coupland, with his novel Generation X, to prove that more than one generation could cash in on its own exaggerated self-regard.
I read Coupland’s book just the way it was meant to be read. That is to say, I wore a flannel shirt tied around my waist, had long stringy hair drooping before my eyes, and sat in a café, while my friends slouched about me drinking coffee and clouding the room with cigarette smoke. The novel’s protagonists appealed to me. Though they were young and educated, they had elected not for the upwardly mobile life of yuppies, but for inertia. They tended the local tiki bar or took up some other mode of underemployment, schlepping cocktails and occasionally paraphrasing existential philosophers.
I ignored the book’s subtitle, “Tales for an accelerated generation,” and rightly so. We knew nothing of the speed that has since descended upon us. We knew nothing of the War on Terror. Al Gore had not even invented the internet. Time stood still and was certainly not being driven anywhere. Time was mostly empty and waiting for us in our own modest way to fill it. The most pressing political question was whether Bill Clinton should have played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show.
To be Generation X was to know that you could “drop out” of society not for the sake of some radical cause, but because it gave you more time to sit around in your living room smoking cigarettes, reading books, growing your sideburns, and listening to Pearl Jam with your friends. Unlike the Boomers, we needed no alternative spiritual vision that rejected the superficial largesse of one’s parents. An interest in Kafka and a doubt that a suburban home was in financial reach, much less desirable, sufficed. And unlike the generations that have followed, we really could drop out. Phones still hung on the kitchen wall, cities had not installed cameras for mass surveillance, and the closest things to social media were zines: photocopied, stapled magazines put together mostly by college students. All the privacy one needed could be found in a dive bar, and all the companionship, too.
Coupland’s next novel was Microserfs. The internet had arrived along with Bill Gates’s glasses. Our age of dingy recession into goatees and lazy thoughtfulness was at an end.
Not long after Coupland’s Generation X was published, that legendary Boomer, Timothy Leary, came to town to try to get in on the grift. He was to speak during the interludes between acts at a daylong rock concert featuring a now forgotten lineup of bands. Generation X was, after all, the dawn of Lollapalooza. All the bands at this particular concert played punk, heavy metal, or ska music. It was the first time in my life that I “crowd surfed.” The concert went on so long that my parents thought I’d been kidnapped. When Leary took the stage, he began to intone in spacy, wandering sentences a theory he was trying to sell about the different generations. He began to list and define them in order.
He never made it to Generation X. The crowd began shouting for that aged hippy to get off the stage and let the bands play. He did. And then they did.
Is it a generational trait not to want to hear any more talk about generations? I hope not. But if Generation X has something to share, it is in part that the search for a good life need not entail generation-spanning currents of revolution, a merchandizing campaign, or an authorized sacred book. One needs only the capacity to stand back from all grand gestures and to seek refuge in a corner of the bar or coffee shop. This kind of retreat may have a way of freeing us from self-regard and vanity and allows us, in a condition that is two parts liberty and one part boredom, to feel reality bite.
James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.
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