I read Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland in my final year at university. Written and set in the nineties, it is about a generation on the margin of a new millennium. And that it right where the characters reside, on the border of civilisation. The three main characters have very little to say for themselves, making ends meet with their ‘McJobs’, revelling in their mutual resentment at what the western world has become and spending the majority of their free time in the California desert exchanging nonsensical stories. This does not sound like the makings of a good book, I know.
However, the story and its messages have haunted me for over a year now. There is nothing special about Andy, Coupland’s main character and narrator. He leads the framed narrative, leaving room for the imaginations and frustrations of other characters. There is a sense in this book that people’s main concern lies with the history of every single person they meet, even more so with their own place in history. Andy mocks how this obsessive nostalgia becomes a commodity, employed as an advertising tool.
My tutor asked us to look at the book cover, how the colour was postmodern. I didn’t really understand why at the time, thinking it had something to do with the Sex Pistols and being garish. It does to a certain extent, but it is also lends itself to the hyperreal, the loss of identity, destruction and irony. The postmodern movement cannot be plotted on a linear timeline of history, it is chaotic and disenchanting.
I admit that I’m deviating from Andy, but his voice in the book embodies all of these ideas, doing so in a way that makes them easy to swallow, and that’s saying something. The easiest way to describe it is by using the Disneyland analogy that is dotted around various essays on postmodernism. A place that is magical and nostalgic and timeless all at once, yet overall, completely artificial. Theorists argue that this Disneyland culture has seeped into everyday society, making it no longer a temporary space to visit but a way of life. Andy and his friends escape this in the wasteland, the only place that allows room for original thoughts and new experiences.
Generation X is still relevant today, if not more so. Coupland anticipated the loss of a natural order of things, you only have to look at social media to understand how individuals can construct an artificial image or history of themselves. I find postmodernism a difficult concept to understand but it’s definitely worth pursuing, and this book is a great starting point. I certainly relate to Andy, I always feel an urge to locate history, or to suspend it. Yet I also succumb to narrating my life online, or at least a version of it, censoring the bits I’d rather forget. These ideas inspire a lot of my writing today and I’m grateful that Coupland informed my thinking on the subject, it has definitely broadened my outlook on the social and historical context of now.
The V&A held an exhibition, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion’ two years ago, and this video tackles some of the bewildering themes associated with the movement.