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Time to Put the 1960s to Rest

Generation X By Douglas Coupland St. Martin's Press $12.95

The time has come to put the 1960's to rest. In his book Generation X, Douglas Coupland throws the first shovelful of dirt into the grave.

Anyone who dips into his new book will find that Coupland has brilliantly captured this sentiment with definitions and phrases like "legislated nostalgia."

Legislative what? What Coupland really means to describe is the following phenomenon: To force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess. He believes the post-baby boom generation (better known as the twentysomething generation or Generation X) has become fed up with the mysticism of--and nostalgia for--the 1960s.

Throughout the book, Coupland creates a vocabulary for this generation without a voice. For example, members of the twentysomething generation occasionally feel a touch of "boomer envy"--envy of material wealth and long-range material security accrued by the baby boom generation. Although they're envious of baby boomers' successes, Generation Xers refuse to put up with the hippie nostalgia of their elders.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate members of the twentysomething generation wander from "McJob" to "McJob" ("A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector"). Coupland says that the twentysomethings' attempt to keep social failure at bay through "status substitution," a kinder, gentler name for name-tossing.

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Coupland documents the plight of Generation X through both narrative and frequent marginal comments. He dots the side-lines of his story with meaningless slogans, cryptic cartoons and biting definition of twentysomething life. A bumper sticker asks us to "Reinvent the Middle Class." A cartoon character informs his father, "You can either have a house or a life...I'm having a life." And everywhere there are definitions, capturing the essence of twentysomething life.

Coupland's protagonists are three refugees from our media-dominated (and therefore boomer-defined) society. They live on the edge of the desert near Palm Springs, where "the rich people pay the poor people to cut the thorns from their cactuses." Andy Palmer, Dagmar Belling-hausen and Claire Baxter are all members of Generation X--the generation without cause and without direction.

The author reveals the nature of Generation X through thought-heavy anecdotes related by these three wanderers. Essentially, they are Coupland's attempt at fables for our times. Without them, "Generation X" would lack its insightful portrayal of the twentysomething generation.

Andy is the master story-teller. Inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous, he urges everyone he meets to spill their guts. No one escapes without regurgitating a short story about themselves. The subjects range from supermarket apocalypses to tales of Texlahoma, an asteroid orbiting earth where it is perpetually 1974.

Each account epitomizes some aspect of being an Generation Xer--and every character tends to be beautifully cynical and humorously depressing.

According to Coupland, modern generations are overeducated, underemployed and seem destined to wander the earth as members of the "poverty jet set" ("A group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence. Tend to discuss frequent-flyer programs at parties").

He calls them Generation X because they refuse to be defined. They have no cause like the 60's generation, and they have no goal, like the Eisenhower generation. Coupland does not suggest that Generation X-ers wouldn't like a goal or a cause if they could have one. But after awakening politically during Watergate and entering the job force during a recession, the twentysomethings have neither the optimism nor the money.

Fortunately, Coupland leaves the reader with a few glimmers of hope. Characterized by Andy's younger brother, the next generation (Coupland calls them Global Teens) seem much more comfortable in our world of shopping malls.

The Teens may spend a little too much time on their hair ("Oh, to see Tyler's shampoo, gel and mousse collection!"), but underneath their worldy confidence they share Generation X's concern about the future. Perhaps they can change it.

In the end, society strikes back at the Generation Xers for their casual disregard. And with the police close behind them, Dag, Andy and Claire leave "society" behind as they cross the border into Mexico.

It's easy to call Generation X a modern Decameron--an exchange of tales to pass the time, while avoiding the decay of the world outside. But Generation X could also be a Canterbury Tales for the 90's--pilgrims trading stories while en route to something better.

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