In a huge exercise in social anthropology, Channel 4’s Tribe Time season of programmes features urban sub—cultures, from skinheads to crusties. The opening night features American writer Douglas Coupland, an avid trendspotter who first applied the term Generation X to America‘s disaffected youth. Eddie Gibb profiles the author who has since turned his attention to computer nerds and (facing page) lists those sub-cultures in full.
ichael pointed out that humans are the only animals to have generations. “Bears. for. example don‘t have generations. Mom and Dad bears don’t expect their offspring to eat different kinds of berries and hibernate to a different beat. The belief that tomorrow is a different place is certainly a hallmark of our species.” ’
ln Douglas Coupland’s new novel Mieroser/s. Michael is a nerd. or possibly a geek —- only nerds and geeks bother to make the distinction — who spends every waking hour writing lines of computer code for his software brainchild — 'virtual Lego’. "Tomorrow is a different place‘ is exactly the kind of one-liner that Coupland. pop culture guru. would lire out when he‘s asked. as he frequently is. to comment on the life and fast times of the late 20th century. Though his comments are generally prefaced by a disclaimer along the lines of. ‘I am not the voice of a generation'. that’s usually how they‘re interpreted.
The reason is Coupland’s first novel titled simply Generation X which described the prevailing attitudes of white. middle-class American youth of the early 90s in the way Bret Easton Ellis‘s Less Than Zero and Jay Mclnerney‘s Brig/n Lights, Big City had done in the late 80s. In fact. ivlclnerney prefaced a review of lllicroser/s in an American newspaper with this heartfelt warning: ‘Being a literary spokesman for a generation is a dangerous job. and one that I would hesitate to recommend to those who plan to live past the age of 30.’ It‘s a sign of what Coupland refers to as our ‘acceleratcd culture‘ that authors whose debut novels are separated by barely live years should be regarded as speaking for different generations.
Mclnerney and Ellis‘ spoilt rich kids had it all — sex. drugs and rock 'n’ roll — but still they couldn’t get no satisfaction. Coupland‘s Generation X kids tend to be solidly middle class and higher educated. What defines them is their unwillingness to stand still long enough to become a target market for consumer products. (Or so they think: American ad agencies have actually taken to recruiting Gen X consultants who can advise out-of—touch creatives on disguising the hard sell.)
Gen X kids see no merit in applying themselves to anything: life. college. art and certainly not careers. Why bother when you can
10 The List 6-l9 Oct 1995
Douglas Coupland gets a lite in legoland
watch cartoons and trade pop culture references with your buddies? Richard Linklatcr‘s brilliantly aimless movie Slackers. also shown in Tribe Time. perfectly captured this benign dopiness. And when they are forced to work. Gen X kids get McJobs and take ‘anti— sabbaticals‘. which in the helpful margin notes. Coupland describes as: ‘A job taken with the sole intention of staying only for a limited period of time (often one year). The intention is usually to raise enough funds to partake in
‘Technology gives you more time only up to a certain point and then time starts vanishing at a fantastic rate like a car running out of gas.’
another. more personally meaningful activity.‘
In other words. they‘re all desperately trying to ‘get a life‘. This is a theme Coupland returns to in the Channel 4 lilm Close P’rsonal l’rienrl. ‘Now not having a life is so common. it's almost the norm.‘ he says. ‘Time has been mutated by technology so people just aren't getting their year’s worth of the year anymore. Technology gives you more time only up to a certain point and then time starts vanishing at a fantastic rate like a car running out of
While Generation X was about people who try to avoid defining themselves by their jobs. the
computer programmers in .ili'croseij/s have become their jobs. ()nce again (‘oupland has pinned down another group — nerds — in his sub— cultttral butterfly collection. In his last book he speculated about life after God; the characters in i‘vlicmser/s have found a new (iod and his name is Bill. Acres of newsprint were expended recently — at least half of all articles used the headline ‘The geek shall inherit the earth' — on the subject of Bill (iates and his company's much-hyped software Windows ()5. Gates is the
iiber—nerd who commands thousands of ‘techies‘ at N'licrosoft's \\'ashington state
In this one work of fiction. (‘oupland has said more about the culture of that company. and therefore about the direction the information superhighway is leading us. than all the heavyweight business analysis pttt together. (.‘oupland concentrated on the techies who are both the infantry and avid consumers of the information age. When Michael lures a whole project group away from Microsoft's stock- optioncd embrace to work on his crazy Lego idea. it‘s an optimistic sign of a new generation of Bills out there who can combat the corporate takeover.
Min'roser/s is a simple novel. though it has a more direct sense of narrative than his previous books. (‘oupland fans will still get the necessary fix of almost-profound one-liner l‘l‘ace it: you're always just a breath away from a job in telemarketing) and new buzzwords: ‘boomersontethings‘ (your parents); ‘facetime': (actually talking to someone in person rather than communicating by e-mail) and ‘grokking‘ (search me! ).
But he has also started to write about his characters. who may or may not he himself. with a greater sense of love and affection. ln t'l'lirt'roser/s Michael and Daniel and Karla and Bug all get a life eventually and according to Coupland. you can too: ‘l’d say. you know. all the time in the world — it‘s right there inside you. I mean maybe you have a life and maybe you don't — I don‘t know you — bttt you‘re not alone. lt’s you and me. babe. and billionsjust like you.‘ I think he means that human relationships are. like. still important.
Close Personal l’rlenrl is on Sat 7 Oct at 12.45am and is followed by Slacker; l)()lll Channel 4. Micmser/s is published on Mon 13 Nov l7y Flamingo a! £9. 99.