I re-read Douglas Coupland’s debut novel in 2011 for the 20th anniversary but failed to write about how well it held up. Now that we’re on the 25th anniversary, I can try again since people prefer increments of five!
The core plot revolves around three people (Dag, Claire and Andy) in their early-to-mid twenties living in the Coachella Valley, before the music festival. They all gave up more lucrative, soul-crushing opportunities to come here and recurve. Recurve to me means they retreated from the grind to think over where they really want to be. During their time off from their McJobs (bar tending, service industry), they tell each other stories both biographical and fictional. It’s been a couple decades so telling the ending wouldn’t be a spoiler, they all leave California to run a hotel in Mexico.
What many get wrong about the book is the title. It’s not a manifesto for my generation (those born around 1965 to 1980). There are slogans, factoids and cartoons on the outside margins to reflect the mood around 1990, yet the work of fiction stands without them. Coupland chose the name Generation X to represent the hidden or those who want to be ignored which isn’t very hard to do given the preceding generation, the (Baby) Boomers. After them and their self-absorbtion, it’s not hard to be overshadowed, they’ve devoured everything in their path like locusts. The best example of how much the Boomers are resented is through Dag’s explanation of why he came to the desert.
Does the book hold up? To me it does but I’m the target audience. The technologies of the late Eighties will definitely date it for future audiences, namely how we used to communicate before cell phones were affordable; now we live in a world with little delay. Will the following generations understand X? I think the ones branded Millenials might. They graduated into an economic recession worse than what I inherited in 1991. They seem to share my resentment toward the older groups who refuse to think about the long term: climate change, housing prices, student-loan debt, etc. Sadly, the Great Recession had some X-ers contributing to the downturn so I don’t blame Millenial anger at me. I would point them to this book to ponder and share their interpretations with me.
One skill Coupland has that has always been consistent is characterization. In every novel of his I’ve read, he nails it with people. He puts into words what I can’t do very well when it comes to describing the passive-aggressive mother, the know-it-all co-worker and the clueless executive ruining a project. It all began here with Dag, the friend many know with the vandalism streak and sometimes off-kilter behavior.
X is allegedly on many reading lists for Canadian high schools, why not America? Coupland wrote a novel on par with The Great Gatsby in how well he captured the zeitgeist then. I look forward to reading it again when the book turns 30.