Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 5, 2010

Reading Canada: Generation X vs How Happy to Be

Ding ding, Round 4! Douglas Coupland and Katrina Onstad have occupied my last week and a half with their respective contributions to Canada Reads and Canada Reads Independently. And, I’ll be honest with you, one other book wedged itself in there with them due to its overwhelming relevance:

Presented, for the time being, without comment.

I enjoyed both these books; their cleverness, their laugh-out-loud humour, their irony. These make-believe worlds of painfully intelligent twenty-or-thirty-somethings were alluring, tempting and familiar.  After all, in my daydreams my friends and neighbours are this smart, funny and colourful too.  It’s a great place, these dreams, where being disaffected and quirky is just a magnet for other quirky and eccentric people with no real downside except a lingering sense of disappointment with the rest; of the world who have failed to live up to the standard we imagine ourselves to hold – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Coincidentally, I am of roughly the same age as the characters in both books, as are most of my friends. And we share with these characters a sense that we’re over-educated, too smart, or had expectations too high for where we actually find ourselves. Shouldn’t we be further along by now? Is this really where we thought we’d be? Weren’t we destined for something more?  We’re poor and overworked; the most successful of us employed in IT on the basis of skills we picked up as 14-year-olds  or else, at least, married to and supported by someone bearing that description.  The majority of us are in school again, still, for our third-or-fourth degrees; desperately upgrading skills in the hopes that we can, maybe, someday merit a salary – salary! – or an hourly wage that pushes us up over the mythical $25k mark.

But unlike the characters in these books, our status as marginal is actual and not chosen and therein, I think, lies my ultimate annoyance with both these books.  Their dissatisfaction was so privileged, so bloody twee that I couldn’t buy into their personal demons.  Coupland’s three protagonists all quit good, real-adult jobs because of some vague spiritual dissatisfaction in order to “slum” in Palm Springs, an ascetic “poverty” that doesn’t, apparently, preclude chain smoking, drinking, car ownership, impromptu vacations and roommate-free living.  It’s hard to ignore Andy and Claire’s rich-kid backgrounds, or Dag’s forsaken Marketing money.  Coupland seems quite aware of the rich-white-kid-spiritual-crisis phenomenon, but is in no way critical of it.  On the contrary, I think we’re supposed to see some kind of virtue in how they’ve turned away from The Man to pursue their own pleasures.

Now I’d like to register a difference of opinions with some other reviewers who’ve read the book for Canada Reads – I think part of the problem may in fact be that this book was written fifteen years ago.  Part of Andy/Dag/Claire’s disaffection seems rooted in a sense that history is over, that there’s nothing to fight for or against anymore except banality.  Well, that was 1995.  What, I wonder, would they have thought of the post-9/11 world?  Causes, real crises are a dime a dozen today. The world, if you care to look, is opening itself up in new, unprecedented ways. It would be hard for anyone with a social conscience to look around North America today and see nothing but the decaying remnants of the 1940s-70s. This, I think, is exactly why Coupland wrote Generation A. History has restarted. To drop out isn’t the saint’s path anymore – today our generation is expected to do something about it.

Katrina Onstad’s heroine Max, meanwhile, had at the very least some personal demons. A dead mother, a distant father and a drinking habit we’re supposed to buy as a serious dependency. She seems hyper-aware of the hypocrisies of her industry but completely ignorant of her own motivations – nevertheless, privileged again to hold a very enviable bylined position with a major Canadian newspaper. We can shrug off the ludicrousness of her “poor-me-my-job-sucks” line because she does seem to have some real, actual baggage to deal with as well – perhaps this poor little rich girl really does deserve our sympathy.

And I was with her, I was! Right up until the end. The final crisis (and I will try hard not to spoil the book here) prompts her to wander right back home, find herself a cozy nest in a west coast cottage, vault over her alcohol-and-nicotine addictions as if they were afterthoughts, reconcile with everyone in her life and in the end, tah dah! It All Works Out. She goes from lost to found in about thirty pages.

This completely trivialized the rest of the book for me in one way, but in another way I actually kind of get it. The figure of the girl who is directionless and out of control until motherhood finds her and gives her some purpose is not without precedent (I’m thinking Natasha from War and Peace, or in some ways myself). But by the same token, it made me feel that Max’s issues earlier in the book were not really that “real” after all, and all her whining and confusion was really just self-absorbed adolescence drawn out too long and she just needed to grow up. Maybe this was what Generation X lacked – the characters didn’t grow up.

Both books, however, were paradigms of the phenomenon that Hal Niedzviecki describes in his 2005 non-fictional Hello, I’m Special. Individuality is a remarkable phenomenon that has been fetishized into the must-have accessory of the 21st century. The quest for specialness, for destiny at, it seems, the expense of any satisfaction with simply living a life is at the heart of the characters in Generation X, and to a lesser extent Max as well. The obsession with celebrity culture that all the characters exhibit is certainly an obsession with specialness, with uniqueness. No matter what else they might have going for them, they can’t seen to find satisfaction without feeling as if they’re destined. And that, in my opinion, is simply selfish.

I’m sorry to say I don’t think I’ll be able to post the 5th of these – while Century by Ray Smith is definitely going to be my next read, I really can’t stomach the thought of reading Fall on Your Knees again. Next week I look forward to dual debates, some flip-flops, reflections and changes of opinion, and perhaps a some congratulatory book sales. Good luck all!

2 Responses to “Reading Canada: Generation X vs How Happy to Be”

  • John Mutford says:

    These bring you past the required 13 for the Canadian Book Challenge, so congrats on that!

    I agree with your thoughts on Gen X being, well the product of 1995. And I was glad to see you mention Gen A. I’m looking forward to reading that one.


  • 2010 Reading List « Inklings says:

    [...] by Miguel de Cervantes, tr. Grossman Jade Peony by Wayson Choy [*] Moody Food by Ray Robertson [*] How Happy To Be by Katrina Onstad [*] Generation X by Douglas Coupland [*] Century by Ray Smith [*] Skybreaker by [...]


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