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Panelist Roland Pemberton dishes on why he's championing Generation X

In a couple of weeks, I will be attending a ransom-note reading party. It's simple: you come dressed as your favourite kidnapper/murderer, read your ransom note and mix the drink your character might have drunk. Victims are included too — I think someone is going as the Lindbergh baby.

Something this random wouldn't seem to have any precedent in the real world. At first glance, it's just a white speck on Earth that my friends goofed together one day. But when Douglas Coupland glibly tosses off a reference to a "dead celebrity party" in a sidebar in Generation X, he's somehow managed to predict my dinner plans about 19 years before I even got a chance to make them.

And that's the beauty of the book. I didn't select it because of its historical merit, critical acclaim or any success it has previously enjoyed. I read it, I liked it and so it became mine. I became enamoured with the flow of the writing and the concepts, how they seemed so tailored to me and to the people I've known. I couldn't believe how prescient it was. Although Douglas Coupland didn't actually invent the idea of society being obsessed with dead movie stars ("celebrity schadenfreude"), he predicted our current TMZ climate and the cultural saturation we're mired in.

The names may have changed (we're called hipsters again) but the sentiment is the same. An interesting by-product of this book's hyper-specific classifications of youth culture memes is that, even if the terminology has been rendered obsolescent, there is something from practically every decade to compare his definitions to. Generation X actually made me see the history of the disenfranchised as a somewhat linear pursuit. There will always be a "blank generation," to quote musician Richard Hell. You just never find out about it until it's not even cool any more.

To me, the book represents more than its content, but not merely in the popularized use of its title as a label. It's one of those pieces of work that comes highly recommended but makes you feel as if you already know what it signifies, that you can live without experiencing it and still take in its lessons from the world around you. But Generation X is not a textbook. It is a study of human nature though, even if it doesn't overtly seem so, and it would be a shame if people didn't recognize its value.

Maybe I'm just a "popist." I would never dissuade someone from watching The Godfather. I've also frequently found myself arguing the merits of The Beatles. In a weird reversal of fortune, works that are perceived as too popular are often skipped in favour of offbeat, cred-worthy compositions, and punished not for their content but for what they outwardly seem to represent. Coupland's book has become a victim of this "obscurism."

This is ironic because Generation X is a book about outsiders. The characters are drifters who live in the desert because they can't bear to live in a world that has failed them. And yet the people who would most relate to the experiences of these characters (those of "terminal wanderlust" and the "poverty jet set," my B.C. tree-planting friends engaged in "cult employment") are least likely to read it because of some perceived notion that it's no longer relevant. I hope that by selecting it for Canada Reads I can change that perception.

Photo credit: Aaron Pedersen


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