The Generation at the End of History – Book Review: Generation X by Douglas Coupland

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend in the pub about how important our bridging of the before and after of the internet era is for understanding my generation.  I’m of an age where as a student essays were handwritten, research involved a physical library and the first email I sent was from a university library computer. Information was scarce and the world less densely connected.

This conversation prompted me to re-read Generation X, the generation-defining novel by Douglas Coupland. Published in the UK in 1992, I first read it two or three years later, just before heading to uni.  My memory was of cool, detached twentysomethings having coolly detached conversations about the world while idling by a swimming pool in the heat. I remember enjoying it at the time, but I have never read anything else by Coupland, beyond his column in the FT Weekend magazine. I wasn’t at all sure how well it would hold up to the passage of time.

I was pleasantly surprised. Reading it now gave me an enjoyable sense of nostalgia (I also recently listened to Adam Buxton interviewing Zadie Smith, and their chatting about the nineties had a similar effect – as well as making me fall in love with her all over again). It was interesting too to see how much of the typical Millennial complaints were prefigured for generation X by Coupland: so, we have an inability to afford decent housing and a working life of McJobs, with the whole book framed by the theme of the impossibility of achieving a similar standard of living to preceding generations, especially Baby Boomers.   A big surprise was how warm and connected to the world the book is.  My memory was of the surface irony and detachment of the main characters –Andy the narrator, Dag, and Claire – not their deeper sincerity, connectedness and internal struggle with a sense of something critical to the world having been lost. There is a lot of blank shiny surface and cool ironic detachment, but the core seems to me to be a search for meaning in a commodified world to which they now see no alternative.  Disgusted they simply retreat, mentally and physically, refusing to engage.

The End of History

What surprised me most was how strongly it made me think of a contemporaneous work of political science: one of the most interesting developments of an argument in International Relations, the ‘Last Man’ part of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.  First published as an article in 1989 as The End of History?, the book length version, surer of itself and losing the question mark, was published in 1992.

Fukuyama’s thesis has been so influential that it is familiar in spirit even to those who have never heard of it. I recently re-read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (from 2009) for a political economy reading group and Fukuyama’s thesis is in there too.  In essence, Fukuyama argues that the end of the Cold War means the ideological battles driving history, over how society ought to be ordered, are over.  When the Cold War was won by the West, capital H History came to an end.  Events will continue, and the world will continue to exhibit variegated political forms, but there remained no serious legitimate ideological contender to liberal democracy.

This core argument has been rightly criticised by many for smuggling in all kinds of economically liberal and neoliberal tenets, and the current dominant motif in mainstream IR of the end of the liberal international order suggests he was fundamentally wrong.  But he did capture the feeling of the moment. More importantly here, Fukuyama then continues on and takes a Nietzschean direction, painting this victory as in many ways a tragedy for those who come after it.  In two short final paragraphs in the initial article he sets out the problem: ‘The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’. This will affect the culture too: ‘In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’  The end of history will therefore be filled with nostalgia for earlier historic times, and fundamentally boring.

In the book the discussion is extended to consider history’s ‘last men’ more fully, painting liberal democracy, as per Nietzsche, as the ‘unconditional victory of the slave’ characterised by ‘comfortable self-preservation’ and dedicated to ‘finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants’, with nothing to pull humanity to anything higher.

Welcome Home From Vietnam, Son

This tragic outcome to the end of history seems to me to be the mood of Coupland’s book. If Fukuyama captured the moment ideologically – albeit not materially, that is, History did not end – Generation X captures it emotionally.  Coupland offers an exploration of the affectual effect of being the generation that came of age straddling the end of the Cold War.  There’s a continuation of cold war nuclear holocaust paranoia – though now recognised through Dag’s preoccupation with it as, if not paranoiac, then not to be understood as properly emotionally structuring to the experience of the world – but more significantly there is the experience of there now being no alternative to a marketised commodified world.

The contrast can be seen with Andy’s younger brother Tyler who has grown up after the end of history. Andy’s prejudice towards his younger brother’s generation, the Global Teens, is to see them as at home in the globalised corporatised post-Cold War world: they buy the marketers’ vision, they ‘embrace and believe the pseudo-globalism and ersatz racial harmony presented’, and want to work for large corporations.  Andy has a weird moment of conversation with his brother late in the book when they are visiting a Vietnam war memorial where Tyler expresses his true feelings: ‘I know, it looks as if I enjoy what’s going on with my life and everything, but listen, my heart’s only half in it. You give my friends and me a bum rap but I’d give all of this up in a flash if someone had an even remotely plausible alternative’.

A page or so later, Andy reflects on why he wanted to come and see this memorial to ‘ugly times’: ‘they were ugly times. But they were also the only times I’ll ever get – genuine capital H history times, before history was turned into a press release, a marketing strategy, and a cynical campaign tool. And hey, it’s not as if I got to see much real history either – I arrived to see a concert in history’s arena just as the final set was finishing.  But I saw enough […]’.  Tyler of course arrives after the show is over.

The effect is that of life as a last man – comfortable but boring, as the preceding chapter Trans Form sets it out:

‘You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day to day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.’

The Generation at the End of History

It’s a commonplace to see generation X and Millennials divided by their relationship to technology and the internet – there have been vast reams of horseshit written about digital natives – and that is where my re-engagement with Coupland’s Generation X began.  However, having read it I think it captures the far more significant effect of straddling Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’.

The generation that turned up just as history’s show was finishing – how were they to know it was an intermission – could not exist like a fish in globalisation’s water, but with the death of alternatives were left with only the retreat to ironic detachment, cynicism and non-engagement. As Andy explains, Generation X was marginalised by a society structured around the Baby Boomers, but also ‘there’s a great deal in which we choose not to participate’.  Francis Fukuyama was born in 1952, but set out clearly the cultural-emotional outlines of post-Cold War life as Nietzschean Last Men.  Coupland’s great achievement is to fill out this sketch, bringing to life this affective core to Generation X.

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