Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Into The Time Machine: Generation X author Douglas Coupland Eviscerated Back in 1994

Did anyone but myself read Generation Ecch! by Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman? Sadly, I believe the answer to be no. Here’s their take, circa 1994, on the Coupland problem:
The most Ecchcruciating novelist of them all has to be the smug Canadian whose book made “Generation X” the catchall catchphrase that it is today. If Douglas Coupland is the “voice of a generation,” then Kerouac’s cadaver is in perpetual rotation.

Generation X is the story of three disaffected and sensitive children of the eighties who forswear the trappings of conventional society—the profit motive, the meaningless labor, “the odor of copy machines, Wite-Out, the smell of bond paper”—and choose to live on the margins. And where would that be? you might ask. The Bowery? Compton? Haight-Ashbury? Seattle?

Nope: Palm Springs, California.


Trouble is, the fables that spring from Coupland’s diminutive imagination move at a snail’s pace, and don’t come close to making characters’ “lives worthwhile.” We are graced with kitsch-ridden morality plays or retrofuturistic parables about fantasy lands like Texlahoma, the place where it’s always 1974 (so that explains Ross Perot’s haircut). These piddling little homilies serve to explain, ad infinitum and over and over again, what exactly is so disenchanting about mainstream American life. Dougie places the blame squarely on processed cheese.


One of the many reasons why Generation X is such a bad novel is that it wasn’t conceived as fiction—Coupland’s publishers originally commissioned him to pen a Preppie Handbook-style Ecch guide. Before he even wrote the first page Coupland decided that such a book was unworthy of his extraordinary talent.

Nonetheless, the book’s Ecchcyclopedia roots are visible in the only vaguely redeeming portion of Generation X, those pithy pseudo-dictionary entries that appear in the book’s margins. Here Dougie uses a made-up lexicon to describe genuine Ecch phenomena. The best-known example would be “McJob”—“A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector.” Thus, a stultifyingly bad book becomes margin-ally interesting.


Coupland’s work documents the emptiness so familiar from the work of his bratty predecessors, but in his world the emptiness has become so profound that it’s lacking in even the good stuff. At least books like Bright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero and even, God help us, Fast Sofa offer a certain vicarious joy in the excessive follies of their morally bankrupt, drug-taking, moneymaking, sport-fucking characters/symbols. But Generation X is such a negligible book that one has to believe it’s something like A Brief History of Time or Foucault’s Pendulum for Ecch, a temporarily hip book to be glanced at but not actually read.

What links all the Ecch authors (aside from artistic mediocrity) is their consistent attempts to portray a generation to itself without any special insight, aesthetic integrity or provocative narrative. The tone and attitude of these books do more than simply hold a mirror up to Ecch—they are Ecch, with all the generation’s worst characteristics expressed as literary form, style and content. Just because one is writing a story about a pop-culture-crazed world doesn’t mean it’s sufficient to make pop-culture references the sum of one’s imagining of that world. Just because nothing seems to happen in real Ecch lives doesn’t mean nothing can happen in a novel about those lives.