[22 March 2009]
As flannel shirts come back into fashion and jaded pessimists turn into local micro-activists (hello blogosphere!), a book on Generation X is oddly timely. X Saves The World, an extended book version of two magazine articles by the author, traces the beginning of X in the late ‘80s, its morphing into the Y generation, and its lingering effects in the land of now (including Barack Obama). The book is written in a free-wheeling, pop-py style, similar to Chris Turner’s tome Planet Simpson, a treatise on the brilliance of Springfield (the fictional one) and its favourite family.
Like that particular book, Jeff Gordinier’s radiates relentless enthusiasm for referencing literary sources, personal anecdotes, TV, pop and alternative lyrics and philosophy, whilst maintaining a breezy, readable pace. For example, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song Of Alfred J. Prufrock” is mentioned, the author’s experience of the baby boomer nostalgia-fest of Woodstock 1994 is recounted, Stephen Colbert’s “roasting” of George W. Bush is lionised and a lyric of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo is used in a section intro (any inclusion of Jay Farrar’s lyrics is fine by me, incidentally).
Out of this referential melting pot, the book transmits a relentless enthusiasm for Generation X itself, and its cynical, jaded attitude which emphasises the importance of the role of the slacker. Far from being a term of derision, Gordinier quotes film-maker Richard Linklater’s positive definition of the term: a slacker is someone “responsible to themselves.” From a multitude of popular and somewhat unpopular jump-off points, Gordinier waxes enthusiastically on the multi-faceted nature of Generation X, and his positivity for its cultural output (before capitalist forces and their associated homogenisation got in the way) is certainly infectious.
The tangential nature of Gordinier’s approach makes his work an enjoyable, easy read, but also somewhat frustrating. The multitude of bite-sized references are tasty, but not all that nourishing. Also, the oppositional “X = good, Y = bad” dichotomy is a tad over the top. An example: the retreat from fame undertaken by Eddie Vedder after the massive mainstream popularity of Pearl Jam is praised, but the bombastic elements of their early music, and the over-earnest portentousness of much of their latter output is ignored. For a columnist and cultural critic, there seems to be a distinct lack of critique in dealing with some of X’s more questionable aspects.
Gordinier is fond of quoting Douglas Coupland also, yet when referencing his earlier novel “Generation X” he chooses to omit any of the negative characteristics of its characters, such as their self absorption and pretentiousness. Yet when referencing “Shampoo Planet,” he chooses to call to attention to the vacuity of its protaganist’s apparent Y generation induced materialistic attitude. Again, “X = good, Y = bad.” On another Coupland inspired tip, Gordinier creates the term “cooler king moments” so as to describe moments in popular culture that grasp the zeitgeist, yet are uncharacteristic of other hollow aspects of the dominant mainstream. Again, his enthusiasm is admirable, but the term itself is clunky, and appears to be a vain attempt to coin a phrase á la Mister Coupland, who gave the world succinct terms to describe the social and cultural practices of X-ers (the abandonment of a linear career progression in favour of a succession of casual “McJobs,” for instance).
Additionally, in opting for no set definition of what Generation X is apart from “people born between 1960 and 1974” and a flimsy questionnaire, it renders the sensibility even more vague, and by selectively quoting the output of those in popular culture who fit into the X mould, he ignores the more populist and enthusiastically capitalist aspects of that same generation. And not to sound too jaded, but recounting the story yet again of Nirvana’s apparent triumph against “corporate rock” is in itself an overdone cliché. Oh, those halcyon days!
On a more casual level, the work succeeds, and it is readable for aforementioned reasons. There will be books written on this generation in a more systematic way (and no doubt there already have been), but the more scattershot (in terms of delivery) message of the importance of X’s scepticism and cynicism has some resonance. Indeed, the final chapter of the book which looks at Barack Obama’s subtle but valuable cynical realism and the rise of anti-Establishment pedagogues like Fritz Haeg (a cynical idealist) is the most fascinating, as it is not as cluttered with references or enthusiastic nostalgia as earlier sections. Overall it is a book to pick and choose tidbits out of, and at 189 pages, not all that comprehensive.