X. Lit: what I’ve been reading…

Finally went back to finish Jennifer Government, Max Barry’s speculative novel about corporations run amok and dominating the world, or at least trying to, but of course the evilness of soulless companies is thwarted, to a degree anyway, by the will of individuals to do good blah blah blah. Not supremely original but a fun and funny read. And definitely an X Lit. novel. I’m curious to read Barry’s more recent novel, Company, described thusly on Amazon:

From Publishers Weekly
With broad strokes, Barry once again satirizes corporate America in his third caustic novel (after Jennifer Government). This time, he takes aim at the perennial corporate crime of turning people into cogs in a machine. Recent b-school grad Stephen Jones, a fresh-faced new hire at a Seattle-based holding company called Zephyr, jumps on the fast track to success when he’s immediately promoted from sales assistant to sales rep in Zephyr’s training sales department. “Don’t try to understand the company. Just go with it,” a colleague advises when Jones is flummoxed to learn his team sells training packages to other internal Zephyr departments. But unlike his co-workers, he won’t accept ignorance of his employer’s business, and his unusual display of initiative catapults him into the ranks of senior management, where he discovers the “customer-free” company’s true, sinister raison d’être. The ultracynical management team co-opts Jones with a six-figure salary and blackmail threats, but it’s not long before he throws a wrench into the works. As bitter as break-room coffee, the novel eviscerates demeaning modern management techniques that treat workers as “headcounts.” Though Barry’s primary target is corporate dehumanization, he’s at his funniest lampooning the suits that tread the stage, consumed by the sound and fury of office politics that signify nothing. (Jan.)

The corporate-based novel is not unique to X Lit nor Generation X, but it is a significant part of the X Lit lexicon. Consider novels like jPod and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland and the more recent Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, which I’ve not yet read but based on the amazon description I feel pretty confident citing it:

Amazon Best of the Month Spotlight Title, April 2007: It’s 2001. The dot-com bubble has burst and rolling layoffs have hit an unnamed Chicago advertising firm sending employees into an escalating siege mentality as their numbers dwindle. As a parade of employees depart, bankers boxes filled with their personal effects, those left behind raid their fallen comrades’ offices, sifting through the detritus for the errant desk lamp or Aeron chair. Written with confidence in the tricky-to-pull-off first-person plural, the collective fishbowl perspective of the “we” voice nails the dynamics of cubicle culture–the deadlines, the gossip, the elaborate pranks to break the boredom, the joy of discovering free food in the breakroom. Arch, achingly funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, it’s a view of how your work becomes a symbiotic part of your life. A dysfunctional family of misfits forced together and fondly remembered as it falls apart. Praised as “the Catch-22 of the business world” and “The Office meets Kafka,” I’m happy to report that Joshua Ferris’s brilliant debut lives up to every ounce of pre-publication hype and instantly became one of my favorite books of the year. –Brad Thomas Parsons

No doubt Gen Xers will continue to produce these types of novels. It will be interesting to see how they evolve, as the corporate world changes. And how they compare with the ones that Millennials will no doubt write as well.

I’ve also been reaidng the novel The God of War, by Maris Silver. Set in 1978 about a 12 year old named Ares Ramirez who lives with his mother, Laurel, and little brother, Malcolm, who happens to be autistic, although as Ares narrates they had no name at the time for what he was, made it seem like it could qualify as X Lit. Even more to that point, Ares doesn’t know his father, who is out of the picture. Same goes for Malcom’s. Ares calls his mother by her name and bares much of the responsibility for raising his brother; he also bares the burden for Malcolm’s condition, having dropped him on his head as a baby, although I’m not sure that this is even possible. Anyway, they all live out in the desert near the Salton Sea, which for me echoed Coupland’s novel Generation X. This novel seemed like a sort of Gen X coming of age tale. But I’m having a hard time getting into it, you know. It’s okay, written well and all that. But there’s something about it that doesn’t really give me a chubby, you know. It just seems like a really good MFA project. Still, I’m going to try and stick with it.

That is if I don’t get completely sucked into Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. I’ve already seen the movie with John Cusack a couple of times so I don’t know why I snagged a copy of it. But then I started reading it and got hooked, or so it would seem. I want to keep reading. And that’s the real test after all. Besides High Fidelity is very Gen X, dude.

Finally, I’ve been reading this non-fiction book — Against Happiness, by Eric G. Wilson. It is basically an argument against the American maniacal pursuit of utter happiness all the time and how the denial of sadness and melancholia is the true path to hell. Maybe it sounds depressing, but for a GenXer like me it is pure bliss, validating (ugh, I hate that fucking word!) my own melancholia while supporting my theory that too happy people are phonies, and probably not really happy at all, but repressed and afraid to let themselves be sad, worried of what other might think of them — as weak. It’s good stuff.


X. Lit: Jennifer Government….

There’s a good chance I won’t finish Max Barry’s novel, Jennifer Governement. The ending seems pretty predictable, not to knock Mr. Barry, after all his published and fairly well read as far as I can tell and I’m just some schmuck blathering away on the interner to little, if any, avail, nevermind actual readership. My reason for this: I’m rereading Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, for….wait for it….a book club. Yeah, that’s right. As non-GenXer as it may be to “join” anything, especially groups, I’ve decided to give it a try. Of course, there are not many books that I would join a book club for but The Road is definitely one of them. We’ll see how it goes. Also, I’ve written previously here that I consider McCarthy to be an X. Lit author. This might well give me opportunity to explain myself in greater detail. But I would like to make one point about Jennifer Government, concerning one of the primary charcters — John Nike. And that is that he, I would assert, is a distant, though softer and more comical, cousin of Patrick Bateman, the main character and narrator of Brett Easton Ellis’ continuingly (is that a word?) controversial novel, American Psycho. Both are slick yuppies with little regard for human life. They share similar concerns with material goods and surface details. And they especially seem to embody that Ellis theme of foregoing deep, meaningful human emotions and feelings for intensity of sensations via sex, drugs and alchohol, and especially violence. Of course, Batement is the epitomy of this particular ethos, grimly and repulsively so, while John Nike is more of comic book version of it, which is probably why no one will scream for Max Barry’s head to be lopped off and posted on spit.

More on X Lit.

I’m almost finished with the novel, Jennifer Government by Max Barry, and it definitly qualifies as X Lit. Not only is it funny and ironic, but many of the characters seem to be caught in a state “stuckness,” obliged to jobs that they not only dislike, but in fact hate, and even find, well, to be immoral on any number of levels. Then of course there is the portrayal of a society so dominated by corporate interests that individuals’ last names depend on the company they work for — John Nike, Billy NRA, etc. Additionally, the government is literally bankrupt, requiring victims to fund investigations (can anyone say Social Security). Characters attempt to opt out of the system and exist apart from it with varying degress of succeccess. Some fail because they simply cannot compete with so much powers. Others are seduced by money. Creativity is co-opted by corporations for profit. Lives are taken in the interest of profit. This scenario is one that persists as a possibly nightmare come true for many Gen Xers, who seem to share a vague sense of certainty that things will not work out in the end. Things will ultimately end badly. And yet our better angels compel us to stive, in spite of thie angst.

Anyhoo… this got me thinking about other X Lit. authors and books, and I thought I’d try to list them here, as much as possible.

There is Douglas Coupland, of course, especially his novel, Generation X, but his other works qualify as well.

Brett Easton Ellis, by virtue of his age to begin with, but also his themes, particularly in Less Than Zero, the way he deals with gender roles and sexuality seems in tune with an Xer ethos.

Jay McInerney, especially Bright Lights, Big City. Of course, I struggle with this particular one. Does JM really qualify as a Gen X author? Born in 1955, he’s 53, which puts him with the Boomers. Even a recent article, in Time I think it was, classified him as a Boomer. And yet, I seem to want to co-opt him into Gen X, at least for me. Why? Perhap because his first book, BLBC, was formative to me as a writer; it seemed to give me permission to write about the things I’d experienced, to a degree, even though I never lived in NYC or or worked in magazine publishing in Manhattan or dated a model. I did my share of coke and club hopping. I suppose it is more of an 80s novel than a Gen X novel. And while the two realms may overlap they are not equal. A more detailed argument is required to claim Mr. McInerney convincingly. I wonder what he would think?

David Foster Wallace

Rick Moody

Michael Chabon

Jhumpar Lahiri

Junot Diaz

And while it might seem out of left field I am going to add Cormac McCarthy, especially his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road. Dystopian fiction is very Gen X, in that it expresses all our worst fears come true, and The Road certainly does that. Also, McCarthy was a man who opted out of the maintstream world for much of his life, living off the grid in a shack in Tenn at one time. He was often broke or close to it, unemployed, but he persisted. He still does, quietly, rarely granting interview because it seems he finds it unproductive, merely boastful. The only way he would interview with Oprah was if she came to him — and really how often does that happen. He lived on the fringe, mostly overlooked until quite recently, as has Generation X. At age 73 or so, McCarthy is a clear case of how the X ethos has more to do with a way of looking at the world than it does with one’s age.

Perhaps an interesting study in contrasts between Boomer and Gen X writers could come out of examing the careers and works of Stephen King, a Boomer born in 1947, and his two writer sons, Joe Hill, born 1972, and Owen King, born 1976. Of course, Hill has just two books to his credit and Owen King only one but over time it could prove insightful.

But returning to the idea of dystopian fiction: I say this is a Gen X preoccupation simply because the “end of the world” was something that me and my friends when we were younger used to talk about quite a bit. Probably because we lived with the threat of nuclear war between the US and the then Soviety Union. Our war was The Cold War. The fact that it never came to pass (although it still could, simply with other players firing the shots) doesn’t make it any less significant.

Few things get me more indignant than Boomers who claim that Gen Xers are a spoiled generation because  we did not grow up with war. Boomers, of course, had Vietnam, the grand-mother-fucker of all wars, which they seem to have a sick affection for, so much so that a small group of their ilk, i.e. the Bush adminstration, felt a need to recreate it. The Iraq War is as much a reenactment of Vietnam as it is a war unto itself. Even those Boomers in power who now take a public stance against The Iraq War have done little to end it. And many not only did nothing to prevent but approved it with their vote — Yeah, I’m looking at you Hillary!

I actually once had conversation with a Boomer woman and her Vietnam vet husband (which because of his status I was pretty much not allowed to have much an opinion on the issue that didn’t agree with them) who claimed that my generation did not know war. When I brought up the Cold War, she dismissed the argument. She seemed to think that because it did not fit her conventional definition of war, i.e. it was not Vietnam (she barely aknowledged, Korea, or either of the WW wars) that it did not apply. But I argued that it was a real war and that it did have real affects on the young people that grew up in its shadow. The Cold War for many Gen Xers, though not all, was the nuclear annihilation equivalent of the school bully promising to kick your ass but not telling you exactly when or where he was going to do it. When you least expect it…expect it. It could happen at any moment.

That kind of threat can really fuck with your head. You begin to think, well, we’re all going to die some day anyway so what is the point of anything. What is the point of getting good grades? What is the point of waiting to have sex, when you may not live long enough to get married to have sex? Fuck now! I mean, there was a time when I actually believed that I would not live to see the age of 21, so of course I drank, got drunk, did stupid ass shit as a teenager. It may seem irrational now, but hindsight is 20/20. At the time, in the moment, it seemed very fucking real! And it was scary as shit. Some people are still surprised that their is a cohort of you people that, when they were young, feared that a sudden, blinding flash of light would be their last vision of the world — and it could come at any time! It could happen now….now….now…now…

Perhaps this is why I am intrigued by Zombie movies andcollapse of society fiction — The Stand, by Stephen King was one of my favorite books when I was younger; I read it over and over. Even today, I have Zombie dreams, especially after I became a father. And in 2003, when the power went out, I freaked a little. Caught in traffic on my way to pick up my then toddler daughter with a gas tank on fumes, I pulled over into a Wal-Mart parking lot and began walking the 7-10 miles to my parents’ house. Of course, it would have been smarter to walk the 1.5 miles back home, get my wife’s mountain bike, and ride there, but I simply was not thinking straight. And all the clogged traffic, the honking horns, the frustrated drivers yelling and honking their horns made me frett that everything could crumble into chaos at any moment. I was watching carefully for the signs. For it to happen now…now…now…

In any case, there are no doubt many more Gen X books and authors. Our early circumstances, graduating into poor economies that made it difficult to find the kinds of jobs we had hoped for may have had the hidden bonus of creating a lot of good writers and artists, filmmakers etc.

X Lit.

There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing for that, either.”

Jennifer Government, by Max Barry

Do a quick google or amazon search on Generation X and the majority of the results that turn up will be about business, i.e. marketing to GenXer’s, managaing GenXers at work blah blah blah. Yeah. I don’t really dig that shit much. I mean, I get it. Business is, well, the business of most people, but I don’t really care. Don’t mistake that for apathy. It is simply a refusal to participate, which is not the same thing.

I’m just more interested in books and movies, TV and pop culture in general. What do you want? I was an English major in college. Hell, I even went to grad school for Creative Writing. It was the mid-nineties and the job market was no great shakes. So, I figured, why not waste a few more years in school. Grad School was easier than undergrad. Besides it fit with my goal to avoid a real job for as long as fucking possible, which I managed to do until after 30 thank you very much. Of course, I couldn’t avoid “the real world” forever. But it only took just under 4 years in corporate cube land for me to realize very clearly that I did not belong there. And I hope I never have to return. The horror! The horror!

Anyhoo… after recently rereading Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X, I’m on this new kick — actually it is an old kick rejuvenated — too seek out and identify authors and works of fictional (mostly) that reflect the Gen X ethos in some way. I’m sort of developing a way of evaluating novels and short stories and the like through an Xer’s lense, sort of speak.

Hence the quote above from a novel that I am currently deeply immersed in.

The author, Max Barry, is from Australia but I don’t see the Xer ethos as strictly an American one. In fact, I would say that Gen X is more international than any generation before it. Of course, the Mellenials will be even more so. Barry is 33, which puts him in the age range. Of course, this in and of itself does not qualify one as a Gen Xer or possessing of the Xer ethos, but it’s as good place as any to start.

But perhap Mr. Barry wouldn’t appreciate being slapped with the Gen X tag, but no matter. I’ll likely never run into him anyway. So even if he can kick my ass, and no doubt he can, I’m probably safe.

Regardless of whether it is welcome or not, this novel contains a pretty strong Xer vibe.

To begin with the tone is ironic, and funny.

Also, the portrayal of corporate entities as basically soulless behemoths that rob individuals of dignity and identity is quite in sync with the Xer view. In this fictional world, a person’s last names depends on the company that they work for. Hence, one of the characters, Hack, works for Nike and as such is named Hack Nike.

Technology, especially computers and the internet, play a prominent role in the story. Also very Xer-ish… or whatever.

Creativity is not only NOT respected, it is exploited and stolen out right for the singular purpose of making money.

Profit is more important than human life. The book begins with a marketing strategy to sell a new brand of Nike shoes that involves assassinating people who purchase them in order to establish “street cred.”

Even the government and so-called public services are corporate here. Police nvestigations into crimes, even the most serious, require funding by the victims. One must be a paying member of an emergency service first before an ambulance will be sent to your assistance in the event of an emergency.

Yes. It is quite a cynical vision of the immediate future, with of course the United States as the worst purveyor of corporate greed and manipulation, but, even though I’m only half-way through the book, I sense that actions by individuals at the lowest levels, working diligently without praise or even the slightest acknowledgement will be prove the heroes of this tale.

If you need more proof, visit Max’s web site which is linked on my blogroll here. I got my own novel to work on.