© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
March 29, 2013 6:18 pm
In a few days I turn 50 and my email inbox is starting to ping with requests for quick interviews hanging on the hook: “Gen X turns 50.” There’s a part of me that always knew this day might come – and may come again at 60 and 70. But what I only ever really wanted from the media age-wise, and what I never got, was to be included in one of those essentially cheesy “Twenty-in-their-Twenties” articles that are stock-in-trade of lifestyle magazines. I know, but it’s what I really wanted, and unfortunately when I finally did something that might make me worthy of a “Twenty-in-their-Twenties” article, it was too late: Generation X was published two months after my 30th birthday on March 1 1991; I had to live with the fact that magazines don’t run articles on “Thirty in their Thirties”. By your thirties you should be doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing with your life and just get on with it – which is what I suppose happened with me as much as to anyone else.
1991 was more than 20 years ago, before not just the internet but also email. I remember worrying about my phone bill each month. And I remember the Kuwait war, and I remember no more USSR, and I remember the snow on the ground during that particularly mild winter in Montreal where I was living at the time of Gen X’s publication. I also remember waiting for the first copy of the book to arrive. Ask any writer: the true moment of birth is when the FedEx envelope is ripped open and a book is fully midwifed into the world.
Here are a few Generation X facts: it was originally going to be called 52 Daffodils after a story contained within the book. I wonder what life would be like now if I’d done that. My Canadian publisher also declined to publish the book, which forever gave American publishers right of first refusal on new books, which began the myth within the Canadian writing world that I was trying to be American not Canadian. But it took years for me to figure out that that was what was actually happening – there was no internet to crystallise trends on a dime – trends took place across the span of years, not days. Trends had backlashes and then counter-backlashes that also went on for years. These days a meme is good for a few days or a few weeks, max.
So, back to March of 1991, and waiting for the book to arrive. It finally did, but not by FedEx, rather, it arrived via a subcontracted delivery agency that was several weeks late and dropped two books off at the door with a big gash along their right sides. The covers of the books also had folded edge flaps, except the machine that did the edge flapping goofed and the pages of the book stuck out a half inch and looked ridiculous. All in all you couldn’t have asked for a more depressing book birth. I phoned my editor in New York and he knew exactly how bad the binding and printing was, and he did that thing people do when they know they’ve done something wrong, which is to say, he turned it around and got mad at me for being so picky.
So that was March of 1991. The 1980s were over and I had this sadness that some dimension of history, a certain kind of potency, was over … that somehow as a culture we’d reached a point where we couldn’t count on decades to create looks and feels and tones the way the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s did. I think it’s called pattern fatigue, and meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama was declaring the end of history. The art world was dead. Life felt stagnant.
And then grunge happened.
And then the internet arrived.
And then the decade began generating, for lack of a better word, decade-osity. The 1990s felt like the 1990s in a real and good way. Through a stroke of good fate, the same editor who tried to downplay the book’s botched first printing did have the foresight to choose the name Generation X from the list of alternatives to 52 Daffodils. And because of this, the years 1991 to 2000 were far more action-packed than they were in some other parallel universe with a different title.
There was a lot of absurd stuff that went on during that decade. I think most everyone remembers the endless articles on Generation X as an idea … what is it? Who are they? Does Generation X even exist? If so, how can we make money from it? Are they boomers or are they different? Do they require a different management style?
And on and on.
I’ve never had an answer to any of these questions, although, as a shorthand, I said, and continue to say, that if you liked the Talking Heads back in the day, then you’re probably X. Or if you liked New Order. Or Joy Division. Or something, anything, other than that wretched Forrest Gumpy baby-boomer we-run-the-planety crap that boomers endlessly yammer on about – I mean, good for them, have and enjoy your generation! – but please don’t tell me that that’s me, too, because it’s not, it never was and it never will be. The whole point of Gen X was, and continues to be, a negation of being forced into Baby Boomerdom against one’s will.
And of course there’s … sigh … Generation Y, or, rather, Gen Y, which is much more lovable than Generation X because Gen Y’s parents are those Forrest Gumpy baby-boomery people, and cheerfully for them, Gen Y acts as their mirror and shadow, thus offering them a bonus extra channel through which they can discuss and view themselves. In a demographic sense, Gen Y really is a generation, while X is only a psychographic.
Do you like the Talking Heads, yes or no?
I remember writing the book. I began in November of 1989. In a fit of authorial romance, I used a tiny advance, $22,500, and took out a lease on a small bungalow in Palm Springs (I know, I just used the word bungalow for real in a sentence) that I regretted the moment I arrived. Palm Springs wasn’t anything in 1989. It wasn’t mid-century-modern, it wasn’t Coachella Festival, it wasn’t gay and it wasn’t trendy, groovy, hip or anything else. It was a sci-fi like world where an invisible glass dome landed atop a luxury community a week before Richard Nixon’s resignation, and I was one of the first explorers to be allowed back into the place after the dome’s removal. This was a coincidence. I just thought Palm Springs would be a cheap, pleasant (and, yes, romantic) place to write a novel. I didn’t realise until I got there how it was an embodiment of a long-outdated way of viewing the world, one where the acme of existence was to ride shotgun in Bob Hope’s golf cart, or to sniff the swimming pool chlorine off Kim Novak’s neck. I was the only person under the age of 55 who wasn’t working in a hospital or a hotel, and even at that, people my age were scarce. There were only two delis where you could get a coffee – as if coffee availability is a measure of anything – but it was this phantasmagorically unhip kingdom I was stuck living in because I was locked into a lease in the state of California, and to break that lease would be credit suicide. So during very lonely days I drove around the highways and dead subdivisions, and golf courses, and secluded desert shotgun practice sites in my Volkswagen Type 3 fastback that had neither an air-conditioner nor a stereo – and I used a battery-powered cassette recorder and played The Stone Roses or Morrissey or usually British bands who felt like they were speaking to me from another galaxy.
While I was writing the book, I thought there would be, at most, a few people who I attended school with in Vancouver who might kind of get what I was writing about – or maybe a few people down in Seattle, which was a little bit like Vancouver back then. I was surprised, and remain surprised to this day, that so many people clicked with X – or with any of the books I’ve written – because it always seems, in the end, that writing is such a desolate, lonely profession and it never gets less lonely. In fact, as I sit here a few days before turning 50, it feels so lonely that I wonder if I can visit the place of writing any more – which, in a backward way, tells me that’s exactly why I should go forward. The things worth writing about, and the things worth reading about, are the things that feel almost beyond description at the start and are, because of that, frightening.
Fifty? Bring it on, buster!
Copyright Douglas Campbell Coupland, extracted from the reissue of “Generation X” to be published by Abacus on April 4 at £7.99
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.