River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Having made my first appearance on this earth in 1970, I fall squarely in the heart of a generation that has come to be labeled as "X". Let me tell you a little about us, in case you don't know.
We grew up watching lots of TV. Many of us were the children of hippies, far too many the children of divorce, all of us the children of a tomorrow that never quite arrived.
In our adult lives we have been accused of not growing up, of not showing up, of not making a contribution (especially in our country's economic and political life), of rejecting the American Dream and retreating into a world of nostalgia, irony, and cynicism.
Yeah, whatever. Never mind.
Of course every generation is made up of individuals, and many of those individuals, consciously or not, give voice to their generation's experience through art. Perhaps I have thought about this more than most of my fellow Gen X creative types since I am one of those odd writers who has the gall to harbor "literary" aspirations, but over the years I have often wondered whether and how my writing is a reflection and an expression, not just of myself and my own life, but of my generation and its collective experience on this earth. I certainly do not consciously think of myself as a "Gen X writer". But of course I am one by default, and, like any person near my age who is making any type of artistic work, someone in the future who happens across my writings might rightfully view them as an example of my generation's artistic expression.
All good and well, and not really saying that much. But what I wonder sometimes is this: is there any particular way in which my stories (to focus on just fiction here) will communicate to any future readers something essential and important about what it was like to be a member of this lost American generation?
When I first conceived of the novel that eventually became The Bluebird of Happiness, back in 1999 (it was originally titled The Terrible Blue), I thought of it as being a sort of postmodern epic. I did not think of it as being a "Gen X novel", whatever that might mean. In fact, at first it was going to be set in the future, perhaps sometime in the middle of the 21st century. However, by 2003 I had decided to set it in the present day, perhaps realizing at some level that it was actually today's world, and today's people, that I was interested in writing about in this particular story.
Even though the story is about people close to my own age, I did not set out to write a novel for or about my generation. If anything, I thought that the characters would prove too idiosyncratic and eccentric, too much the exception to the rule, to stand as Gen X everymen and -women. On the whole, they do not very closely resemble most Gen X characters you've seen in movies, all the flannel-clad slackers, all the tattooed, pierced, and hair-dyed punks, all the drifting postcollegiate clueless types.
But it's not like they are entirely dissimilar either. My characters may not be stereotypical Gen X-ers, but they still share much of the experience, outlook, and mindset that characterize many of the people close to my age that I've known, including of course myself. It was rather inevitable that they would.
I did not even realize this until recently (a realization that inspired this blog post), but I can see now that one way in which not only Bluebird but almost all of my stories and story ideas seem to reflect my generation is in a sense of lostness, and the related experience of longing for and searching for home.
In the last decade I have noticed how this idea of lostness and home-seeking is a recurring theme in my writing. For a long time I thought of it as something deeply personal, which it is, but now I am beginning to see it as also being something that is deeply generational (and at a further level, of course, it is also deeply human, but I had already guessed that).
I think that my generation has felt this sense of lostness in a particular and particularly keen way. I am not sure of all the reasons why, though many theories have been offered. I'm sure you've heard them all before. We were the children of divorce. We were the latchkey kids. We were raised by television. We entered adulthood with a pervasive sense that the American Dream was not for us. The list goes on.
These may all offer partial explanations, but only partial. I'm no sociologist, but I doubt that any sociological study could ever uncover all of the reasons for Gen X's peculiar outlook on life. History is far more complex than the easy answers would lead us to believe (whether it's the boomers saying "you're just lazy and apathetic and cynical" or their children retorting with "you cheated us out of the American Dream; you undermined your own authority; you let us all down"). Historians today still debate the causes of Rome's decline and fall, and it will never be decisively settled why Generation X was, well, Generation X.
Nevertheless, that is what we are. For better and for worse. And as a writer of my generation, though I am not consciously a writer "for" my generation, I may still find myself, at whatever small and humble scale, inadvertently and unwittingly speaking for it in my own idiosyncratic way (what other way is there for an X-er to speak?), and showing at least some of the "better" part. We've heard the "worse" part ad nauseam.
My characters, especially the major ones, may not precisely resemble most members of the slacker set. But they share with them a loss of faith in the American Dream. They share a sense of drifting and lostness and wandering through adult life, with no place to call home, with no clear conception or plan for the future, just trying to get by and to figure it all out. They share a heightened sense of individualism, of rebellion against or rejection of conventional roles and expectations about how one should live one's life and what values one should hold.
As someone in Clueless put it: "You say that like it's a bad thing!" Exactly. In my stories, I say it like it's a good thing. Not that loss of faith is necessarily good in itself, but surely, as painful as it might be, loss of faith in illusion is. Not that feeling lost is an unqualified good, but just maybe, longing for home (of which nostalgia is a primary manifestation) is a good and noble sentiment, not a disease, and one that might lead us somewhere good. Trying to get through life on your own terms, trying to build a hardscrabble existence for yourself from the scattered debris of the post-everything wasteland--that takes determination and ingenuity and yes, even faith, that belies our cynical "slacker" reputation.
The particular lifestyles and philosophies chosen by my characters will undoubtedly appear strange even to many members of my own generation. I already knew that. But what is new to me is the realization that, despite their unusual qualities, they are still in many ways representative of Generation X. I have never thought of my writing as being particularly "American" or "Gen X", but I guess to some degree my stories can't help but reflect the time and the place from which I write, the specific historical moment and generational culture in which I live, move, and have my being.
I mentioned that Bluebird was originally conceived as a "postmodern" epic. What does that mean, exactly? Well, that's a good question. I think it gets to a lot of the heart of what Gen X's experience is all about (a pop culture image that comes to mind is the late 80s show rather redundantly titled Postmodern MTV). Besides being a fancy academic term mainly used in philosophy and literature departments, "postmodern" also describes--or fails to describe, at least adequately--a cultural condition, which in my mind includes American life from roughly the 1960s to, arguably, the present.
Today "midcentury modern" is in vogue (I'm a big fan myself, as are many members of my generation and many of our Millennial counterparts). As I elucidated in an earlier post where I described it as a sort of American Classicism, midcentury modernism reflected and expressed a more optimistic time in American history, a time which anticipated a bright future despite the dark clouds that loomed over the cold war-era U.S.
As a child in the seventies, I basked in the twilight glow of this already fading vision of tomorrow, full of wondrous notions about the futuristic world that lay ahead when I was all grown up in the year 2000--the year Two Thousand! So far away... yet I would live to see it! When the year 2000 actually arrived, however, I looked around at the world and said, "What the hell happened to the future?"
Modernism, not just of the midcentury variety but the very concept, implies an idea of historical progress. It contains the notion that the present is, at least in some ways, better than the past, and that the future will be better still. America lost much of this faith starting in the sixties, just as my generation started coming into the world. We, the children of this era, bore much of the brunt of this collective loss of faith.
I don't think it happened all in one moment. It happened incrementally, in a thousand little ways and a few big ones. Perhaps one such moment, if you're one of the older X-ers, was when you saw Richard Nixon waving goodbye, the first President in American history to resign in disgrace. Perhaps another was when you saw the helicopter airlifting people from Saigon, and feeling, in some childish but painful way, with an unreasonable sense of shame and humiliation, what it meant that the United States of America had just lost a war, a war that most people had stopped believing in and for which all too many members of our parents' generation had been sacrificed.
Or perhaps it was when, after all the scary arguments, your parents did the scariest thing of all and announced that they were getting something called a divorce, and you felt the fabric of your universe ripped apart forever. Or maybe you were one of the lucky ones whose parents stayed together, but every time they argued you couldn't help but wonder: Will my family be next?
At some point along the way, amid the steady stream of TV shows and pop songs, people stopped believing in the future. We felt somehow, deep down and in ways we could neither understand nor explain, that something immense had been lost. The old America, whatever that was, was gone. We simply couldn't believe in it anymore, as much as we might have wanted to.
It wasn't that we were unpatriotic. We were disillusioned. Disappointed. We may not have fully realized that we were, at least not until much later, but we were. It was in the air we breathed. People became increasingly cynical, jaded, too cool for school. When I say people I mean especially 70s and 80s teenagers. Nirvana made such a big splash in 1991 because they expressed so simply yet eloquently what teens had been feeling for some time, summed up in the phrase: "Whatever, nevermind."
It is easy to see now that we were children who had been burned. Even those of us, like myself, who had mainly happy childhoods could not help but be affected by the social and cultural climate in which we dwelt. Even if our own families remained intact, our world did not. It was a time of unraveling. The old certainties were disappearing fast, like yesterday's flowers.
And, like all children who have been burned, we went into self-protective mode. We weren't going to be burned again; we weren't going to be fooled; we were too smart for all that. Grow up and get a life? Ha! What a joke. Get real.
We distrusted authority, all the government, business, religious, and parental authorities who had let us down, who had dropped us when we needed support. To make matters worse, in the late 80s and early 90s, as most of us were coming of age, we began hearing dark prophecies about how our generation was basically doomed: The first generation in America not to do better than its parents. We would never own a house. We would, in essence, struggle to get by all our lives and then die. Great. Awesome. Not that we were necessarily shocked. I mean, it figures, right? (This was, not coincidentally, when the media began labeling us as "X". I like to think it makes us sound mysterious, but I digress.)
U.S. economic history since the end of the cold war has done little to prove such prophecies false (despite a rather good run in the late 90s). Of course, we are not the only generation to have suffered from the country's ongoing economic woes. But it seems to have hit us, from the early 90s recession to today, in a way that has made it incredibly difficult and frustrating for many of us to get our lives off the ground, as much as we earnestly try.
In saying all this, I am not saying that Gen X's woes are "all your fault" (baby boomers, the world, whoever). I am only outlining some of the ways in which we have been shaped by our experience. Like any generation, we can rightly be faulted in many ways. There is no need for me to go into those ways here since, as I said, they have already been loudly proclaimed ad nauseam. My whole point in relating this sad history is to help illustrate what I perceive as the direct relationship between Gen X's experience and life in postmodern times.
What does postmodern mean, in this context? It means post-faith in progress. Post-faith in America, or at least in its much-vaunted Dream. Post-faith in authority. Post-faith in you name it: marriage, love, career, money, success, politics, religion, changing the world, making a difference, having a good and fulfilling life, happiness. What's the point?
Cynicism and irony became the order of the day. Everything was said with an attitude of "Yeah, right." We became skeptics par excellence, coolly playing with the surfaces and signs of pop culture (a postmodern trait if ever there was one), remixing, reviving, doing it ourselves, going all indie and alternative on everything. Many of us adopted a punk outlook or some variation thereof, adapting the style and expression of an earlier British generation of disaffected youth to our own circumstances (Generation X had, in fact, been the name of an English punk band, though that is not the term's ultimate origin).
Underneath this apparent nihilism, however, I believe there lurked, and is slowly emerging, something more sincere. Yes, we were burned and we crawled into our self-protective holes, but within those holes we felt, as much as we might like to deny it, the yearning to emerge, to believe in life, to dream big. It is only human to do so, and even Gen X-ers are human.
The phenomenon that I think most powerfully and tellingly belies my generation's seeming nihilism is its nostalgia. Of course, in the 90s especially, this nostalgia was viewed and was indeed experienced as being ironic. We were just having fun, making fun of all the cheesy elements of past pop culture eras (I am guilty of this myself, having recorded in the early 90s a number of faux disco songs in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way). We pretended to like Tony Bennett. I mean, Tony Bennett. How much more ironic can it get... right?
Well, slackers, I hate to tell you this, but maybe you're not being as ironic and clever as you like to think. Maybe, deep down, you actually like this stuff. Sure, it can only be taken so seriously, but it is pop culture, after all. It's meant to be fun. But why can't we just admit that Tony Bennett, and disco, are fun? And just leave it at that?
Oh, that's right... because we're too cool for school. Or for enjoyable, happy, heartfelt music. We're too cool to believe in things, to really believe. All that's left is to laugh--at ineptly produced and directed b-movies, at ridiculously sentimental and overproduced lounge singers, at giddy, over-the-top disco music and fashions. Sure, you can laugh. It's healthy to laugh, because human beings are pretty funny creatures.
But we're also serious creatures, creatures that feel real and really deep needs and desires and longings, and it's okay to feel those things too. It's okay to admit that maybe you actually do want things like love and home and happiness... but that would require believing in them. And that lack of faith, I believe, that lack of faith in the possibilities of life--individual, social, or political life--is exactly what has held my generation back, more than anything else.
We have registered this lack of faith in a million little ways, ways that are particular to each individual. Faith in various things has certainly been a tremendous struggle for me, and I am far from alone. Even at this late date, when we are entering or approaching middle age, many of us still find it a struggle to believe--to really believe--in the possibilities of life. We are too used to withdrawing in despair and in contempt of the dreams that society offers us, and putting on a tough face, a jaded resignation to our fate.
I admit that it is a struggle for me even to write such words--do I really, truly believe that such faith is justified? I expect that many members of my generation will never overcome their lack of faith in life--we often find ourselves stunned and perplexed at the optimism and idealism of many Millennials--like, what world did you grow up in?--but I, for one, would hate to see our lack of faith come to be the final word about my generation. Or about me.
What I see below the surface irony of our nostalgia--often, but of course not always, directed toward the era of our childhood, centering on the 1970s--is something more sincere. I think that, at some deep subconscious level, we long for home. The word nostalgia actually means something like "longing for home"--a painful, aching sense that one has been displaced, and a deeply felt, if not always fully conscious, desire to return there.
One of my favorite literary critics, Sven Birkerts, once wrote an essay called "American Nostalgias", in which he put forth the notion that our endless recycling of the past--in movies, music, advertisements, clothing, you name it--essentially functions as a salve created by (post)modern capitalism on the wounds that it has itself created. That is to say, since multinational corporatism has been busy "effacing the cultural memory of entire nations" (in the words of Tom Frank, quoted by Birkerts), it offers us the drug of packaged and consumable nostalgia in order to divert us from the real pain we would feel--real pain that might pose the threat of real pain to their profit margins--if we squarely faced the cultural emptiness and devastation created by the march of materialistic "progress".
What I am getting at is that the nostalgia of Gen X--indeed, one of our defining features--is far more than just another exercise in "smart", knowing, winking, nudge nudge, pop culture irony. It is, I firmly believe, the symptom of a profound longing. And this longing, as is the case with all nostalgias, is for home.
What is the home for which we long? Perhaps it is the home we never had. Or the home that was exploded to smithereens by divorce. Or perhaps it was an older America, one that we never quite knew but only saw the last dying vestiges of as we moved forward into an uncertain and unknown future.
I had a pretty stable home life, but my family moved around quite a bit. We always stayed in the same area, but there is no one place that I can remember definitively as "home"--to this day, I am not even sure what my hometown is (other than Tampa, the city in which I never actually lived as I was growing up, but around which my life orbited). I have always been deeply impressed somehow by those few friends of mine who grew up in the same house their whole lives.
I was also in touch with the deep Florida roots of my maternal relatives, who had been in the state for several generations, but I feel now that I experienced the fading remnants of an older way of life, one that was even then being marginalized by the inexorable march of "progress".
The art historian Germain Bazin wrote: "Only when men sense the waning of a civilization do they suddenly become interested in its history." In one of my library school papers, I referred to Bazin's notion of the historical sense, based on the notion of time passing (as opposed to older communitarian notions of cyclical time), which brings with it a sense of displacement or lostness, of which nostalgia is a primary manifestation. This temporal homesickness makes us feel "like atoms lost in vast empires, no longer citizens but subjects". This, to me, indicates the primary cause of nostalgia: a sense of loss.
Generation X indeed feels, perhaps more than most generations even in the modern industrialized world, a sense of loss, of "temporal homesickness". Our nostalgia, though superficially ironic, is actually one of the most visible symptoms of our sense of what we have lost. It is hardly coincidental that our nostalgia has focused so heavily on the era of our childhood. Though often merely for fun, our nostalgic forays into the 60s, 70s, and 80s may sometimes lead us, if only in private moments, into the realm of bittersweetness, of inexpressible longing, of what the Germans call Sehnsucht, a deep and aching yearning for who knows what--something we can't name or describe, but a longing which we nevertheless feel viscerally and painfully.
We are all creatures of our time and place more than we realize. Although I think there is something universal in my characters (a universality that coexists with their eccentricity), they are also, at one level, symbols of my generation. I did not intend for them to be such, and did not think of them as such until lately. But I am starting to see that my almost obsessive focus on the theme of lostness and home, not just in these two related stories (Bluebird and "Rainbow", both of whose titles reference The Wizard of Oz) but in my writing generally, is at least in part a result of being born in the particular time and place I was, and perhaps marks me to a greater extent than I realized as a "Generation X writer".
The fiction produced by my generation has been called "X literature", and has also been linked to the concept of the "post-postmodern". (Yes, that's two posts.) Postmodern fiction was primarily the domain of baby boomers and even older writers, but Gen X inherited and lived the ethos of cultural postmodernism more than any other generation. It was a sense that all the old values had gone out the window, and that we now lived in a world that was, in a very real sense, meaningless. We felt ourselves to be living, so to speak, after the end of the world. You know... post-everything. The only thing that was left to do was party, using the leftovers of American culture and recycling them in our own individualized and creative ways.
But "post-postmodernism", other than being a highly unwieldy and unfortunate term, may actually indicate the way forward for, and the saving grace of, Generation X. It has been a standing question at least since the 90s as to exactly what shall succeed the colorful but ultimately arid world of postmodernism. My generation is in a unique position to supply an answer. Some attempts have already been made--the post-postmodern has in turn been linked to such concepts as "the new sincerity", for example--but no dominant cultural movement, or moment, has yet emerged.
One popular book on postmodernism concludes that the only cure for postmodernism is "the incurable disease of Romanticism". Romanticism, if nothing else, was sincere. Sincerity would indeed seem to be the best and only answer to the spiritual emptiness and cool, ironic detachment of postmodernism. Romanticism was all about believing in things--as my character Thomas Fairchild says, "I’m a Romantic because I believe in all the things that no one else believes in."
I think that, despite our reputation, Generation X really believes in things. We have ideals. The cynic and the pessimist are only idealists who have been burned. Gen X has been burned, but the core of our being, the hopeful children who were disappointed and disillusioned, remains.
The crisis of my generation boils down to a crisis of faith. It's really that simple. We didn't deserve to be born into the crazy time that we were. We didn't deserve it when our families, or our communities, or our country or our world, broke apart. We can be forgiven for losing faith, for having doubts. But we can't stay there. Not if we want to make the most of our one and only time on this earth.
I know that many of my peers, now facing middle age, will never recover from those wounds and will live out the rest of their lives in pessimism and cynicism. But I hope, and I dare to believe, that that is not the fate of most of my generation. I have seen too much potential, and too much beauty, in us to be okay with that. It's not like we have to buy the old dreams, the ones that are no longer viable in the 21st century. We can create new ones... diy, indie, alternative dreams that are ours. Many of us are already doing that, and we have become adept at doing that. We still have a chance to leave behind a legacy other than saying, "Never mind."
When it comes down to it, my generation has never really felt at home, and we often feel like we will never really be at home. It's hard to even know what home means, though we know it somehow, intuitively, in our dreams. We are trying to create home in our lives right now, modeling our efforts after some vision that we never saw in real life. Perhaps we saw it on TV. But our efforts give away the fact that, somehow, miraculously, we haven't completely lost our faith.
As for me, I will continue to write stories that express my own experience of life, which will naturally reflect at least a small part of my generation's experience. I will continue to seek home, largely through telling stories about seeking home, and hopefully my stories might awaken just a little more of the dreams, and the faith in dreams, of at least a few of my homeless wandering cohorts. The Gen X-ers I know are creative, intelligent, resourceful, and strong people. And they are beautiful. It's been a hard journey for many of us. I don't know where we are going, or even really where there is to go, but there's no generation I'd rather be going there with.
We are somewhere in the middle of our story right now. It hasn't all been written. Yes, we are the disinherited stepchildren of post-everything America, or at least we have always felt ourselves to be. That has been our narrative thus far. But we still have a chance to create, and tell, a different story, or rather to take our story in new and unexpected directions, to give it a better ending than the bleak gloom-and-doom tale of woe that we have often felt fated to live out. In my mind Generation X possesses a sleeping grandeur that may yet awake. Call me a blind optimist, but I like to think that our best days are still ahead, and that, late bloomers that we are, our finest hour still awaits. All the people who didn't believe in us, who left us for dead... we will show them. We will show up. We will do it ourselves, in our own unique way, the way that only Xers can do.
Something in me wants to qualify what I've said above, feeling a tad embarrassed that maybe I'm being too sincere and sentimental.
But you know what? Whatever. Never mind.