"The Great Depression Is Our Lives". Busted Boomers and Identity Crises in Generation X, American Psycho and Fight Club

Thesis (M.A.), 2004

89 Pages, Grade: sehr gut


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. The Novels as Cultural Texts
1.2. Outline

2. A Culture, a Demographic, a Style? Generation X Defined
2.1. The Construction of Identity
2.2. Identity and Cultural Change
2.3. Generation X and the Postmodern Condition

3. Searching for Meaning in Life. The Group of Slackers in Generation X
3.1. Bedtime Stories
3.2. The End of History
3.3. Loneliness Virus

4. Yuppie Masquerade. The Elite Xer in American Psycho
4.1. Hedonistic Shells
4.2. Ritualizing the Daily Void
4.3. The Beast inside the Beauty

5. Trapped-up in the IKEA Nest. The Twentynothing in Fight Club
5.1. A Fake among the Doomed
5.2. Sometimes, Tyler Speaks for Me
5.3. Destroying Corporate America

6. Hybrid Identities – Hybrid Fictions?
6.1. Representing the Postmodern Condition
6.2. Representative Busters?

7. Summary of a Crisis

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”[1] This is what the nameless narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club says to define his generation, the age group which has alternately been labeled as ‘Baby Bust Generation,’ ‘MTV Generation,’ ‘Invisible Generation,’ or ‘Generation X.’ All of these terms apply to the birth cohort of the years 1961 to 1981. Since these young people are described by generational scholars as the most diverse generation in sociological history, it is not surprising that there are difficulties in finding one common label to define this birth group. As ‘Generation X’ is the most widely used name for the generation, I will use this term in my paper.

The opening quote shows that the young people of this birth group seem to be in a spiritual crisis because they no longer have to fight in wars, they do not have to fight for causes – in short, they do not have to struggle through extreme situations as most generations before them had to do. Instead, they live in a world in which everything seems to be at the ready for them: tons of shopping malls and supermarkets that contain anything one can possibly think of or wish for. Yet, they experience a spiritual crisis. As many members of older generations may now well ask: How can a world of seemingly endless choices and resources be so disturbing as to throw a whole generation into crisis?

In my paper I want to examine this question by analyzing three novels that deal with the identity crisis of Generation X: Generation X. Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) by Douglas Coupland, American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis, and Fight Club (1996) by Chuck Palahniuk. In these books the protagonists face similar deadlocks connected to life in the consumerist world of the 1980s and 1990s, however, each of them searches for a different way out of this dead end. According to studies of Generation X literature, the three novels I will be discussing are typical of their time, as they deal with postmodern, or rather, consumerist culture. Postmodernism as such is a problematic term and thus usually resists a coherent definition as

the term itself remains resolutely contradictory [...], none the less, [it] provides a focus for much lively and often controversial debate about the nature of contemporary culture [...] as well as providing a kind of catch-all term for the whole condition of late capitalist society itself. [...] At a most basic level we might understand the mode of postmodernism as a heterogeneous interweaving of questions which escape any singular or unified answer.[2]

Hence, life in the postmodern condition presents the characters of the novels with questions and problems to which there is no definite answer. They struggle with a fragmented world and therefore, the novels show that whereas the generations preceding the Xer birth cohort had issues or events of historical scope and impact that bound them together as a birth group, it seems that the issue that binds Generation X together is their struggle with the culture they live in.

1.1. The Novels as Cultural Texts

However, following from that arises the question as to which extent the novels are able to represent the culture in which they were produced and with which they deal, and to which extent they can be taken as cultural texts. First of all, as “it is part of the referential illusion of fictional narrative, for example, that we make inferences about fictional characters no different from the inferences we make about real people,”[3] readers have to be careful to make assumptions about ficitional texts as if they represent actual facts. Yet, “fictional writing is not distinct from culture, [...] it embodies the very forms of the culture in which it arises.”[4] The problem of reading literature as direct image of social conditions, therefore, is that one must consider the links between social realities and the aesthetic realities of fiction.

Furthermore, it would be problematic to move away from any contextual approach as the intermedial references in the three novels and Generation X fictional texts in general, set them in the time and space which they criticize, namely the consumer culture of the 1980s and 1990s. Foremost because the authors are members of Generation X themselves, but equally important, because, as James Annesley puts it in his study on Blank Fictions,[5]

[t]he range of mass cultural references [...] positions it very precisely in a particular time and place. Crucially however, this sense of context is developed not through detailed description, or specific reconstruction, but through the texts’ incorporation of the commercialised products of a particular epoch. It’s not dates that matter, nor is it situations and personalities, it’s not the commercial features of the environment that provides these novels with their reference points. Blank fiction does not just depict its own period, it speaks in the commodified language of its own period.[6]

This is exemplified in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. Tales for an Accelerated Culture which is about three twenty-somethings who seek to oppose life in the consumer society by living a minimalist life in the Californian desert. Andy, Dag, and Claire have decided to work on low-wage jobs in Palm Springs after each of them had experienced a point of crisis in their lives in consumerist America. To set his novel in the particular period of the late 1980s, Coupland incorporates intermedial references to popular culture and consumer goods of the time. These referrals express the frame of reference that determines the lives of the three protagonists. TV shows and films, for example, are used to create atmosphere – not only for Coupland’s storyline, but also for the stories the protagonists tell each other. When Dag tells his friends about the point when he knew that he would quit his job in advertising, he says:

I wasn’t getting much done and was staring at my IBM clone surrounded by a sea of Post-it-Notes, rock band posters ripped off of construction site hoarding boards, and a small sepia photo of a wooden whaling ship crushed in the Antarctic ice, that I once found in an old National Geographic.[7]

By means of the brand names and references to items from everyday life in contemporary America, the atmosphere at his desk becomes quite clear, and for someone of Generation X who works at a place similar to this, the depiction of the scene is more descriptive than a depiction which would simply say “I was staring at my computer screen surrounded by a sea of notes”. So through the detailed references, it is clear that Dag has worked in Corporate America of the late 1980s. Another example of this is the scene where Andy talks about an evening with their neighbors in Palm Springs, Mr. and Mrs. M.. Mr. M. thinks that he is a funny joke teller, and Andy says “We feed him lines; it’s like watching a Bob Hope TV special but with home viewer participation. He’s never funny, but he’s funny.”[8] With this remark, Coupland describes the mood of the visit, but he also makes clear that he is writing for a Gen X audience. For many older people would think that Bob Hope is indeed funny, whereas younger ones do not believe this to be the case. Still another example of this kind of

scene description can be found when Andy is on his way to Mexico and is caught in a traffic jam at Calexico, California.

My car rests on a braiding and decomposing six-lane corridor lit by a tired winter sunset. Inching along with me in this linear space is a true gift-sampler of humanity and its vehicles: three-abreast tatooed farm workers in pickup trucks, enthusiastically showcasing a variety of country and western tunes; mirror-windowed sedan loads of chilled and Ray-Banned yuppies (a faint misting of Handel and Philip Glass); local hausfraus in hair curlers, off to get cheaper Mexicali groceries while inhaling Soap Opera Digest within cheerfully stickered Hyundais [...].[9]

Consequently in Generation X, the intermedial references not only situate the novel in its particular period, but furthermore help to create the atmosphere in which a Gen X audience is able to detect familiar surroundings, feelings, and moreover, their sense of humor.

Another fact that supports the argument that Generation X can be read as a representation of contemporary culture is that it was originally drafted as a non-fiction book, intending to define Xer culture. Dictionary-like definitions, as well as cartoons and slogans, are now incorporated in the novel. Hence, the novel consists of the storyline and the column with neologisms, illustrations, and slogans positioned at the bottom of the page, always related to the storyline. Some of the terms Coupland has coined have become commonly used by the media and the public. For example, the term Generation X itself, but also ‘McJob’, which defines a job with “low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future”.[10] Therefore, already on production of his first novel, Coupland was labelled as a spokesman for his generation, by then in its mid-twenties to mid-thirties. When asked about this label, he stated he spoke “for myself, not for a generation.”[11] The success of his novel records that his experiences, however, appeal to a wide audience who shares his fears and expectations.

For all its cleverness and arch, langurous wit, Generation X, which is about the struggles of a group of directionless twentysomethings, reads more like an exercise in style journalism than a novel. It was an ideal book for the MTV generation, by whom it was received with rare delight. Here, at last, they might have said, is a novelist who writes about us; whose frame of reference is entirely circumscribed by popular culture, by film, television, adverts and the buzz of consumerism; a novelist shows us what it feels to be, as Coupland himself once put it, “the first generation raised without God”. Except, Coupland was always smarter than that, he was always one step ahead of his readers in his interests and ambition. For a start, he can really write—his prose, pithy and aphoristic, occasionally deepens into lyricism. He understands, too, the corruptions of the present and what can happen to young people in consumer societies who grow up believing in nothing but the pursuit of pleasure: whatever their ostensible subject, his novels are really about the same thing, ennui and drift.[12]

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is also about ennui and drift. In much the same manner as Coupland does in Generation X, Ellis sets his novel in its particular time and space by using the language of the late 1980s when depicting the Yuppie Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old who cannot deal with his hollow life as an Elite Xer. His attempt to escape this is by turning to aggressive fantasies about murder, violence, and rape.

Patrick Bateman [...] exists in the banal hollow of popular culture, specifically the height of the Reagan-era Wall Street [...] in which everything revolved around money and image; as such, Bateman is an idea and an image, but empty and void of deep identity. As a walking billboard for elite, conspicuous consumption and high-end product placement, he lacks inner resources and glosses over an emotionally sterile existence. [...] He cannot differentiate between products and people, consumption and affect: he’s flat, superficial, and ultimately infathomable. His character is a mask covering a void; his identity is an aberrational reaction to the abyss of being that founds his existence. Patrick Bateman is a product of postmodern popular culture.[13]

The violent depiction of Bateman’s murderous fantasies caused an outcry among conservative critics. Overlooking the social critique underlying the novel, they condemned Ellis as misogynist and racist. Simon and Schuster had expected a commercial come back from his The Rules of Attraction; within a month of the first publication however, they dropped the book to prevent an avalanche of media protest. Then Vintage took the cancelled book, as they saw the media interest as a guarantee of sales.

Perhaps more than any other American work of the last twenty years, American Psycho can legitimately be labelled a scandalous novel, in the mould of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, Lolita and The Satanic Verses. Like these great works, although perhaps withouth their literary genius, this book touched nerve in the English-speaking countries where it was published, creating an ‘event’ which has not yet altogether passed.[14]

Not altogether passed – as in Australia, for example, the book still has a ‘Restricted’-sticker for reasons of national censorship. The whole excitement about the novel can be attributed to the graphic depiction of sexual violence and that these passages, taken out of context, were splashed over the media previous to the whole work’s publication and were then harshly condemned by critics. However, there is more to American Psycho than its violence. Just like Generation X, it is a commentary on a generation of directionless twentysomethings. As opposed to the protagonists of Coupland’s book, Patrick is still part of the consumer society, he works on Wall Street, he belongs to the Xer elite, the yuppies. His hollow life in Corporate America is stylistically expressed by means of references to fashion, expensive electronic devices, furniture, and other kinds of labels. Ellis sets his novel in the hedonistic urban life of the 1980s, and more than Coupland does in Generation X, he describes the scenes of his novel by means of intermedial reference in order to locate his protagonist as well as his readers in this consumerist world.

In the elevator Frederick Dibble tells me about an item on Page Six, or some other gossip column, about Ivana Trump and then about this new Italian Thai place on the Upper East Side that he went to last night with Emily Hamilton and starts raving about his great fusilli shitake dish. I have taken out a gold Cross pen to write down the name of the restaurant in my address book. Dibble is wearing a subtly striped double-breasted wool suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Bill Blass, a mini-glen-plaid woven silk tie by Bill Blass Signature and he’s holding a Missoni Uomo raincoat. He has a good-looking, expensive haircut and I stare at it, admiringly, while he starts humming along to the Muzak station – a version of what could be “Sympathy for the Devil” – that plays throughout all the elevators in the building our offices are in.[15]

One can definitely say that parts of Ellis’s novel read like a fashion magazine, but by naming the products and fashion labels, as well as songs or celebrities of the time, he achieves to resonate the spirit of the world in which Bateman leads his hollow life. While reading the book, the language of the novel directly transfers the reader into Bateman’s frame of reference, which draws from popular culture and consumer America.

The third novel, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, is about a bored twenty-something whose attempt to escape from society goes so far that he has schizoid visions about building a terror network that fights Corporate America. Critics laudate the novel because it concerns itself with the problems of the male service class in postmodern America. Some even call it a “Thelma and Louise for Today’s Men Fighting a Gender War”.[16] With David Fincher’s adaption of the novel,[17] Palahniuk’s book has achieved cult status, predominantly among male Xers in America.

Fight Club achieved renown because it zeroed in on the lesser noticed features of Gen X, especially those of men. The novel centers on one Tyler Durden, a fast-talking anarchist out to convert a generation “raised by women” into real men. To achieve this, Tyler lectures ad nauseam on the evils of consumer capitalism (it homogenizes, feminizes, makes us dumb) and commences a series of bloody boxing nights, which allow him and his followers to beat the crap out of each other with the purpose of reasserting their culturally repressed male energy. [...] Fight Club was a hit because it addressed American spiritual malaise directly with a stripped-down prose that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald would have approved of.[18]

Gradually dropping out of his life in Corporate America, the protagonist of Fight Club first goes to support group meetings for terminal ill, then he founds nightly boxing clubs to get adrenaline kicks and to re-establish his masculinity, which has been undermined in consumer capitalism. Hence, he regains his power and then finally feels strong enough to take up his fight against the capitalist society. The story of Fight Club thus also revolves around the late twentieth-century consumerist world, and, just like Coupland and Ellis, Palahniuk uses points of reference from popular culture to express the life in the postmodern condition. One scene that can be compared to the intermedial references in the other two novels is when the narrator talks about the interior of his condo, which he says is similar, if not identical, to all apartments his generation inhabits: everybody buys their furniture from IKEA.

We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. [...] We all have the same Rislampa/Har paper lamps made from wire and environmentally friendly unbleached paper.[...] The Alle cutlery service. Stainless steel. Dishwasher safe. The Vild hall clock made of galvanized steel, oh I had to have that. The Klipsk shelving unit, oh, yeah.[19]

Consequently, all three works of fiction that I want to analyze in my paper can be taken as a mirror of the culture in which Xers live. In Generation X, American Psycho, and Fight Club, the world the characters live in is depicted through continuous references to the popular culture that plays such an enormous role in this world. The novels can therefore be read “as the product of a postmodern condition, their twists and turns interpreted as reflections of the material structures of the late twentieth-century American society.”[20] In my paper, I will hence not only discuss the novels via textual or formalist approaches, but more or less by means of a contextual analysis in order to show their roles as cultural texts of late twentieth-century American life - which is exactly the life that throws Generation X into crisis. That is, I will combine a cultural analysis of the times which the novels reflect upon with a literary analysis that takes into account the language, narrative strategies, and forms of characterization. Since the cultural and sociological meaning of a text is generated through its language, these approaches are inseparable, and furthermore, the analysis of fiction in contextual terms demands to look at the texts at the ways in which a novel depicts its own period, and at the “processes through which a text thematises contemporary conditions on structural, stylistic, linguistic and metaphorical level.”[21]

1.2. Outline

In laying the theoretical groundwork for this analysis of the three novels, I will begin with cultural and sociological assumptions. I will try to give a definition of the term ‘generation’ in order to explain what can be understood as Generation X. I will go on and examine the factors that shaped the identity of the people belonging to Generation X. In order to do so, I will attempt to give a definition of the rather vague term ‘identity.’ Furthermore, I will define the concept of an identity crisis and explain how the construction of identity has changed over the past decades. After that I will consider the question why Xers experience identity crises, or why problems with identity are a central issue of Generation X.

After discussing the sociological as well as the cultural foundations, I will analyze Generation X, American Psycho, and Fight Club with regard to how the protagonists in these novels constitute their identities and which different crises they undergo, and furthermore, how they try to find a way out of these dilemmas. Therefore, I will first examine the general situation of the protagonists in each of the books and then turn to the details that characterize their identity crises.

In a final chapter, I will compare the novels with regard to ‘Generation X-themes’, as for example the search for a kind of bonding, consumerism, the loss of family ties, work in Corporate America, violence and vandalism, and, above all, the hunt for a truly genuine experience in a world where nothing seems to be authentic anymore. In this context, I will depict in which way the three novels can be seen as literary expressions of Generation X. That is, though there is no manifesto that links the authors of Xer novels together as a literary generation, there is “both a common context and a common vision”[22], and I will for this reason depict the themes that are prevalent in these fictions. I will reflect on the question whether there is also a literary Generation X that deals with the subjects of the sociologically defined Generation X.

Following from that, I will analyze the narrative strategies and stylistic devices in the novels in order to show how the language and style of these novels represent the postmodern condition via postmodern poetics. Moreover, I will examine to which extent the protagonists of the works can be taken as representatives of their generation. Hence, I will analyze forms of characterization in the three novels in order to show that the protagonists as individuals stand for their generation as a whole.

2. A Culture, a Demographic, a Style? Generation X Defined

Just as most literary scholars tend to label movements, or to set up categories to make it easier to talk about an author’s work, social scientists tend to define generations in order to establish different groupings in society. By defining generations, they seek to explain trends in the social order. Demographers usually refer to a generation as a period of approximately twenty-five years, “which is the time required for a newborn child to grow up, mature, and begin to produce offspring.”[23] Generation X is defined as the circa 80 million people born between 1961 and 1981. The tag Generation X, which has established itself as the most popularly used term for this birth group, derives from Coupland’s novel Generation X. As to why this label is used to describe the Xer birth cohort, the St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture most aptly says: “The X stands for some unknown variable, implying young adults searching aimlessly for an identity.”[24]

When Xers were born, there was a societal shift in the attitude towards children and childbearing. One could think that as a logical consequence of the Baby Boom there would have been an exponential rise in the birth rate. Instead, Boomers chose to have fewer children or none at all. Many factors contributed to this attitude to starting families and the resulting rapid decrease in the birth rate. Most important was certainly that social scientists forecast a population bomb and prophesied a dim future for the United States if the overpopulation would not be brought under control. In his book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich[25] talks of “a number of overpopulation induced scenarios … a riot-torn US in the early eighties, with citizens starving to death because of food shortages … one and a half billion people perishing worldwide from disease, starvation, and a pandemic-related ‘civil disorder’.”[26] The media echoed the concern of overpopulation and society reacted to it by the decline in child bearing. The slogan of the times is expressed in the titles of Newsweek or Life articles like “Make Love, Not Babies” and “Motherhood Who Needs It”[27]. The invention of the anti-baby pill and the rise of the abortion rate reflected the societal attitude towards parenthood. As the birth rate decreased, the number of women entering the work place increased from 20 to 47 percent and the women’s rights movement came into being.

Hence, Xers were born into an environment in which children were not welcome and they were not only the “most aborted generation in history,”[28] but also the first generation that had to deal with fragmented homes. They did not enjoy stable families as the generations preceding them because when they came of age, “a child […] faced twice the risk of parental divorce as a Boomer child in the mid-1960s.”[29] So many Xers saw themselves confronted with broken families at a quite early age and many of them were latchkey kids who had to take responsibility at a very early stage in life.

An awakening era that seems euphoric to young adults was, to them, a nightmare of self-immersed parents, disintegrating homes, schools with conflicting missions, confused leaders, a culture shifting from G to R ratings, new public health dangers and a “Me Decade” economy that tipped toward the organized old and away from the voiceless young. “Grow up fast was the adult message.”[30]

As their parents were on a mission for self-fulfillment, Xers had to go shopping for their busy working parents, and had to grow up more or less by themselves. To sum it up, Xers grew up in an anti-child period in American history, producing a scattered childhood in which “divorce, and its attendant confusion and impoverishment, became the central fear of the childhood world.”[31] In addition, they knew that where their parents “had once been worth of parental sacrifice or prolonging unhappy marriage, they were not.”[32]

As the oldest Xers graduated from college, they had to realize that the job market was no longer as friendly as it had been to the Boomers. Concern about unemployment was, or still is, widespread among Xers and they recognize that they “have to work harder than earlier generations to enjoy the same standard of living.”[33] They have to accept unemployment or underemployment while they see that the positions desired by them are held by Boomers who are a ten or fifteen years away from retirement.

GenXers live in a world we feel is geared to people ten to thirty years older than ourselves. We watched as baby boomers went to college, got great jobs, crashed the economy, and left nothing but McJobs – low-wage menial employment or “temping” - for their vastly overqualified little brothers and sisters. […] Accepting unemployment - or underemployment - as a way of life, GenX college grads settle for temp jobs […].[34]

‘Boomer envy’, as Douglas Coupland calls it, is the result of this situation. Xers are pessimistic about their future, and polls show that they believe it will be much harder for them to get ahead than it was for their parents. “They sense they’re the clean-up crew,”[35] that they have to clean up the ‘Boomer mess.’ As they struggle for their economic future, they see their parents, brothers, and sisters living in comfortable wealth, and while they were promised to be just as wealthy as the generations before them, they come to realize that this is not true. “Along the way, they become a generation of betrayed expectations.”[36]

2.1. The Construction of Identity

In order to be able to examine how the identity of Generation X is shaped, it is necessary to take a look at how identity is generally constructed. Interest in the development of identity has steadily increased throughout the last decades, though “identity is not a recent innovation, like television sets that everyone suddenly began to want. People have always had identities.”[37] The term identity “in its meaning of sameness and unity of something with itself has been a key term of Western thought from its beginnings,”[38] and hence, philosophers like Descartes, Hume, Kant, and others were always concerned with models of identity, just as nowadays psychologists and sociologists undertake studies concerned with an individual’s self-development.

But what are the functions of identity? First of all, a clear sense of one’s identity makes it easier to make choices, and second, relationships are impossible without identity and difficult if one’s identity is poorly defined, thus, the search for identity also always “includes the question of what is the proper relationship of the individual to society as a whole.”[39] So the functional aspects of identity include the individual’s structure of values and priorities, that is, the self-definition process includes aligning oneself with the predominant values and rules of behavior of a society and structuring these according to one’s own priorities. Moreover, self-definition has to do with the way relationships to others are conducted, identity therefore also consists of an interpersonal aspect which consists of one’s social roles and personal reputation. This means that “[i]t combines interpersonal traits like friendliness and candor with role-defining designations such as policeman, mother, or team captain. Relationships with other persons are conducted on the basis of this functional aspect of identity.”[40] Another function of identity is to provide a sense of individual personality. That is to say, one has to have personal goals and a certain self-esteem to achieve these goals. ”Those who lack faith in their ability to accomplish anything worthwhile may describe their plights as identity crises.”[41]

Roy Baumeister has established a model of identity construction which entails that each identity contains an indefinite number of components, also called ‘units of self-definition.’ This model is in accordance with the general scientific discourse:

Der Identitätsbegriff (lat. idem: der-, die-, dasselbe) wird seit John Lockes Abhandlung An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) und David Humes A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) in der britischen Philosophie anti-essentialistisch konzipiert. Das bedeutet, dass man nicht von einem vorgegebenem ‘Wesen’ der Persönlichkeit ausgeht, mit dem es ‘identisch’ zu werden gilt. Vielmehr ist die Selbstfindung ein konstruktiver Prozeß, in dem das Individuum seine Identität selbst gestaltet. Der Konstruktionscharakter von Identitäten ist – innerhalb des wissenschaftlichen Diskurses bis heute unbestritten.[42]

Following from that, Baumeister says that continuity and differentiation are the defining criteria of identity. Continuity or “unity across time, entails being the same person across time”[43], which means that at the core, one is the same person throughout one’s life, and one adds up to this core by acquiring additional identity components. Differentiation “entails that one’s identity contains some elements that distinguish it from others.”[44] The identity components thus serve to provide the individual with the two criteria of identity.

In Baumeister’s model of identity construction, he determines five different ways of acquiring identity components. The first type is called ‘assigned components of the self.’ These are units of self-definition that are acquired passively: family lineage or gender components are examples of this type. Hence, the acquisition of Type I components is unproblematic as they are assigned by birth, and “a society that is based on and organized around Type I self-definition is likely to be a society in which identity is clear-cut and unproblematic. If who you are is based mainly on what you’re born as, you are not likely to have an identity crisis.”[45] The second type encompasses identity components that are acquired in a single transformation, for example becoming a mother or becoming an adult, that is, certain rites of passage, or graduation from university. The third type is based on a hierarchical acquisition. An example of this would be the possession of money. Type III components are always subject to redefinition, with regard to the possession of money this means that one can earn more or lose some. In short, the Type III units of self-definition make it necessary to keep proving oneself. Following from that, these components make comparison and competition possible. Some self-definition processes encompass both Types II and III, as for example in our society, education is based on hierarchical acquisition of knowledge, but there are also single transformation points such as graduation. Finally, the fourth and fifth type of self-definition processes refer to the construction of identity by acts of choice rather than assignment or achievement. Type IV represents optional choice, for example when it comes to religious faith. “[A] way to conceptualize Type IV self-definition processes is to say that they occur within the context of an overarching value system. The person has ample guidelines for living, and only if a compelling reason is found will he or she betray or forsake those guidelines.”[46] Opposed to that, Type V does not leave a passive option as Type IV does. An example for Type V is mate selection: there is a set of options, but one has to finally make a decision as one cannot possibly marry all. This makes Type V the most problematic type of acquiring identity components, “as the person must choose although there are no clear rules for choosing.”[47]

2.2. Identity and Cultural Change

Identity crises can mainly be described as problems that are connected to the acquisition of identity components. The term ‘identity crisis’ is used to describe “the certain formative struggles, especially those of adolescents, and such crises have even become to be considered an appropriate and normative part of development.”[48] Baumeister argues that there are basically two forms of identity crises. He says that one can distinguish between the ‘identity deficit’ and ‘identity conflict.’ The identity deficit refers to “the inadequately defined self, characterized by a lack of commitment to goals and values. Without such commitments, the person lacks internal, consistent motivations.”[49] Hence, the person does not have enough identity. In contrast to this, the identity conflict refers to the problems with choosing between different, incompatible commitments. Unlike the person who has an identity deficit, a person with an identity conflict has firm commitments, but

[...] the situation makes it impossible to choose and to act consistently with all the person’s values and goals; one commitment may to be betrayed. […] The identity deficit is a reluctance to give up any options; the identity conflict is the reluctance to betray actual, felt commitments.[50]

Identity crises are not only sometimes considered to be a normative part of development, but nowadays it has also become almost normal that one has to struggle with identity problems at one point or another in life as the major components that constituted identity in earlier decades have become destabilized or trivialized. Traditional means of self-definition have merely ceased to exist, and the modern sources of identity are highly complex and confusing.

Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others. At its most basic it gives you a sense of personal location, the stable core to your individuality. But it is also about your social relationships, your complex involvement with others, and in the modern world these have become ever more complex and confusing.[51]

That is to say, “we have somehow come to use uncertain or unreliable means for defining ourselves.”[52] People in the Middle Ages, for example, did not have to deal with severe problems of self-definition. This can mainly be attributed to the fact that the medieval society was much more rigidly structured than today’s society.

As a result, the large institutional structures for the most part formed an individual’s identity. In other words, the individual received his or her identity without much personal struggle. Society operated on the basis of lineage, gender, home, and social class – all of which were fixed by birth. This organization of life according to Type I (passive assignment) self-definition processes made identity largely unproblematic.[53]

So what happened to the major components that constructed identity in the Middle Ages? Some examples that deserve to be examined are geographical home, ancestral family, marriage, job, and religion. To begin with, geographical home as a stable component of an individual’s identity has clearly been destabilized over the centuries. Urban migration and the shift from agricultural to industrial jobs, as well as the improved technology have increased the mobility of people, and therefore, it is regarded as unusual, if not exceptional, for a person to live his or her whole life in the same place. Thus, one criteria of identity has diminished, one source of continuity has been lost. With regard to ancestral family, one can say that this unit of self-definition has been trivialized. Heritage means nothing more than a transfer of property, and the identification with a network of ancestors has nearly vanished. Marriage is another component that has been destabilized over time. As divorce rates continue to rise, marriage no longer furnishes the continuity over one’s whole adult life as it used to. Furthermore, the awareness of a possible divorce may even have become more substantial to one’s self-definition process than marriage itself. Hence, another source of continuity has been lost, or “the promise of continuity has been substantially undermined.”[54] One component which has become destabilized, as well, is the job. Comparable to geographical home, this component has been subject to change through the industrial revolution, and perhaps even more so, through the information revolution of the late twentieth century and the resulting crash of the New Economy. Those who do not change their occupation fields tend to get different jobs or have to face unemployment because of reorganization or downsizing. Religion can be regarded as a trivialized component. Two aspects have led to the trivialization of religion.

One is the decline of consequences associated with its distinctions; Catholics are not excluded from Protestant neighbourhoods or from jobs when the employer is Protestant, vice versa. The other is the loss of legitimation; as the general population becomes increasingly agnostic, it ceases to recognize the validity of articles of religious faith as base for meaningful distinctions.[55]

So as the twentieth century moved on, people witnessed new economic and social arrangements that made life quite different from that of our rural ancestors. As the traditional sources of self-definition have ceased to exist or have become trivialized, one has to find new sources that help construct one’s identity. Mainly, as the effectiveness of socially assigned identity components has decreased, people try to produce their self-definition internally.

People define themselves partly by how they do things and how they get along with others. Personality is probably not one identity component but a group of components. Personality may help provide self-definition by giving the self content, by distinguishing the self from others, and by creating some unity over time. However, making one’s identity out of lots of personality traits may create a lack of unity. […] Along with personality traits, ownership may have gained in importance for self-definition. Status symbols and ‘conspicuous consumption’ define the self through its material acquisitions. These visible signs of wealth and taste are taken to indicate one’s personal quality or value. […] Of course, no product can provide an individual identity; it simply assigns one a spot among the prefabricated sets of social identities.[56]

2.3. Generation X and the Postmodern Condition

In the 1920s the German sociologist Karl Mannheim published his famous essay “The Problems of Generations”[57] in which he tries to clarify what can be understood under the category ‘generation.’

[…H]e introduced the concept of a generation unit to describe a group of people born during the same period who at a relatively young age experienced some major event – for example, war, political upheaval, or economic catastrophe – that left them with a sense of having shared a common history and with feelings of kinship connecting them to others of approximately the same age.[58]

Consequently, in Mannheim’s terms, the collective character of a generation is shaped by a major event which occurs during their youth or adolescence. As already pointed out earlier, ‘Generation X’ is the generation unit born between 1961 and 1981. But what was their shared experience? No war, no crisis has given them “a sense of having shared a common history.” In terms of classical definition therefore, Generation X lacks a generational identity. Lynnea Chapman King says that “Generation X is unusual because it appears to have no galvanizing issue upon which to base its generational identity.”[59] Still, there is one thing that can be attributed to have shaped their common identity: Generation X was the “first generation raised in the age of postmodernism.”[60] That is to say, though they have not experienced an historical event or political upheaval together, they nevertheless shared the feeling that they are the first generation to live in new cultural circumstances. One could now argue that this is nothing new, that other generations before them had to deal with cultural change, as well. But what is new for Generation X is the fact that the culture changes at a rapid pace, leaving Xers uncertain where to turn to and where to find their sources for self-definition.

Change is everywhere, unpredictable and seemingly chaotic. With rapid changes comes social dislocation: the trashing of traditional norms and customs, the cacophony of conflicting demands and expectations, the mind-numbing effects of technological mutation and confusion – more than enough to upset most Xers and make them jittery. But, it will be said, rapid change is nothing new. It has been a characteristic of Western industrial life for more than a century [...]. Nevertheless, something new has happened. Not only has the pace of the change accelerated but a new social entity has emerged out of the chaos of change – the information revolution. [...] As Xer author Douglas Rushkoff argues, modern inventions overload the mind: there are simply too many things to do, too many decisions to make, too many skills to acquire.[61]

As a result of this, they suffer from an identity crisis, more specifically, from an identity conflict. As problems with identity evolve mostly out of the uncertainty where to belong or where to place oneself among the variety of behavioral styles and patterns[62], it is no wonder that Xers have trouble finding their identity, and even more so, that the whole generation experiences an identity crisis because the postmodern condition they live in offers them too many possible world views, too many possible ways of life. As pointed out earlier, postmodernism as such is a big term and is often used to describe anything contemporary, however, I will use the term postmodern condition with regard to the assumption that, as opposed to modernism, which values a single world view rooted in objective science, “postmodernism values multiple world views based on subjective experiences and contingencies.”[63] Consequently one can say that Generation X grew up in a confusing world without firm guidelines, and “where their parents once struggled to break free from a tight generational center of gravity, [they] wonder if they will ever be able to find one.”[64] Thus, it can be said that Generation X is the first generation without a paradigm to guide them. As a consequence, they are “emotionally scarred and alienated, reject conformity and search for some kind of meaning to life.”[65] Or, to quote Xer author Rushkoff again:

[C]onsider, for a moment, what it would have been like to grow up this way: we are the first generation for whom rock and roll is not a rebellion. We did not have to fight in Vietnam. We did not have to fight against religious institutions, dress codes, or even the so-called patriarchy. [...] Busters feel liberated from the constraints of ethical systems, but also somewhat cast adrift. It must be nice to have something external to believe in. Something that doesn’t move. Something absolute.[66]

3. Searching for Meaning in Life. The Group of Slackers in Generation X

In Generation X, the identity problems described above are shown through the different points of crises the protagonists have faced in their life in Corporate America. Coupland creates a series of interlocking narratives that describe the lives of his Xer protagonists. Their crises are a recurrent theme in the book, therefore everything revolves around problems caused by the postmodern/consumerist world. Andy, the narrator of the novel, characterizes their situation as follows:

We live small lives on the periphery; we are marginalized and there’s a great deal in which we choose not to participate. We wanted silence and we have that silence now. We arrived here speckled in sores and zits, our colons so tied in knots that we never thought we’d have a bowel movement again. Our systems had stopped working, jammed with the odor of copy machines, Wite-Out, the smell of bond paper, and the endless stress of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause. We had compulsions that made us confuse shopping with creativity, to take downers and assume that merely renting a video on a Saturday night was enough. But now that we live here in the desert, things are much, much better.[67]

In the desert, they live in a kind of artificial world, where no stress of consumerism or work in Corporate America ever comes close to them. This artificiality is expressed for example when Andy says: “There is no weather in Palm Springs – just like TV.”[68] They came to the desert to escape consumerism, hedonism, and middle-class. They do not want to belong to the ‘normal’ people of their age. Their dislike of the Yuppies can be seen when they talk about Tobias, Claire’s boyfriend from New York.

He’s our age, and Biff-and-Muffy private schoolish like Claire’s brother Allan, and from some eastern white bread ghetto: New Rochelle? Shaker Heights? Darien? Westmount? Lake Forest? Does it matter? He has one of those bankish money jobs of the sort that when, at parties, he tells you what he does, you start to forget as soon as he tells you. He affects a tedious corporate killspeak. He sees nothing silly or offensive in frequenting franchised theme-restaurants with artificial possessive-case names like Mc Tuckey’s or O’Dooligan’s. He knows all variations and nuances of tassel loafers. (“I could never wear your shoes, Andy. They’ve got moccasin stitching. Far too casual.”) [...] But then Tobias has circus-freak-show good looks, so Dag and I are envious. Tobias could stand on a downtown corner at midnight and cause a traffic gridlock. It’s too depressing for normal looking Joes. “He’ll never have to work a day in his life if he doesn’t want to,” says Dag. “Life is not fair.” Something about Tobias always extracts the phrase “life’s not fair” from people.”[69]

And when Andy goes home for Christmas, he does not seem to be jealous of the lives that his brothers and sisters are leading. They are seven children, and none of them seem to be very happy. In a sense, they are all typical Xers, and, just as Andy, they seem to be on the search of a way out of the boring and unfulfilling life of Corporate America – some of them more successful than others. But none of their ways seems to be appealing to Andy.

Deirdre will be in Port Arthur, Texas this Christmas, being depressed with her bad marriage made too early in life. Dave, my oldest brother – the one who should have been the scientist but grew a filmy pony tail instead and who now sells records in an alternative record shop in Seattle (he and his girlfriend, Rain, who only wears black) – he’s in London, England, this Christmas, doing Ecstasy and going to nightclubs. When he comes back, he’ll affect an English accent for the next six months. Kathleen, the second eldest, is ideologically opposed to Christmas; she disapproves of most bourgeois sentimentality. [...] Susan, my favorite sister, the jokiest sister and the family actress, panicked after graduating from college years back, went into law, married this horrible know-everything-yuppie lawyer named Brian. [...] The two of them live in Chicago. On Christmas morning, Brian will be taking polaroids of their baby Chelsea (his name choice) in the crib which has, I believe, a Krugerrand inset in the headboard. They’ll probably work all day, right through dinner. [...] Aside from Tyler, there remains only Evan, in Eugene, Oregon. Neighbors call him the “normal Palmer child.” But then there are things the neighbors don’t know: how he drinks to excess, blows his salary on coke, how he’s losing his looks almost daily, and he will confide to Dave, Tyler, and me how he cheats on his wife Lisa. [...H]ow did we all end up so messy?[70]

In Palm Springs, they are far away from all of this, and there are no neighbors who are talking about how Andy turned out to be. There is “no middle-class, in that sense, the place is medieval.”[71] Whether it is the absence of middle-class that makes them feel comfortable, or whether it is the fact that, by leading their lives at the margins of society, they stand out against the rest of the uniform mass is not quite clear. As identity construction was much easier in the Middle Ages, one could argue that they seek to find the traditional means for their self-definition. But as they also left their families and jobs – two major traditional identity components – behind, this becomes doubtful. More than the feeling of not having to struggle with the increasingly confusing maze of identity components, the minimalist way of life they lead seems soothing to them.

[They sit] under the hot buzzing sun next to vacant lots that in alternately forked universes might still bear the gracious desert homes of such motion picture stars as Mr. William Holden and Miss Grace Kelly. In these homes my two friends Dagmar Bellinghausen and Claire Baxter would be more than welcome for swims, gossip, and frosty rum drinks the color of a Hollywood Californian sunset. But then that’s another universe, not this universe. Here the three of us merely eat a box of lunch on a land that is barren – the equivalent of blank space at the end of a chapter – and a land so empty all objects on its breathing, hot skin become objects of irony.[72]


[1] Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club. London: Vintage, 1997, 149.

[2] Anthony Easthope and Kate Mc Gowan (eds.). A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1998, 181.

[3] Mark Currie. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, 17.

[4] Jon Buscall. “Whose Text Is It Anyway? Authorial Discourse in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho”. In: Matti Peikola; S.K. Tanskanen (eds.). English Studies. Methods and Approaches. Turku, Finland: University of Turku, 1998, 44.

[5] his term for Generation X literature

[6] James Annesley. BlankFfictions. Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel. London: Pluto Press, 1998, 7.

[7] Douglas Coupland. Generation X. Tales for an Accelerated Culture. London: Abacus, 1992, 23.

[8] Coupland, 127

[9] Coupland, 197

[10] Coupland, 5

[11] Sharon K. Hall “Douglas Coupland” in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 39, 29, quoted on www.qub.ac.uk/en/imperial/canada/coupland.htm (April 6th, 2004).

[12] “Prophet of doom” New Statesman, September 8th, 2003 www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0FQP/4654_132/109178540/print.jhtml (January 25th, 2004), 1.

[13] Alex E. Blazer. “Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity: Defining the Postmodern through Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho” www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/blazer.htm (January 21st, 2004), 1f.

[14] Julian Murphet. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. A Reader’s Guide. New York and London: Continuum, 2002, 65.

[15] Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho. London: Picador, 2000, 63.

[16] title of a Newsweek article by Susan Faludi, October 18th, 1999

[17] Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Fox/Regency, 1999.

[18] “The Unexpected Romantic: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk” www.alternet.org/print.html?/StoryID=11049 (May 23rd, 2004), 2.

[19] Palahniuk, 43

[20] Annesley, 3

[21] Annesley, 6

[22] Annesley, 3

[23] Stephen Earl Bennett; Stephen C. Craig. “Generations and Change: Some Initial Observations”. In: Stephen Earl Bennett; Stephen C. Craig (eds.). After the Boom. The Politics of Generation X. Lanham etc.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997, 4.

[24] “Generation X“St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture www.findarticles.com/cf_0/glepc/tov/2419100500/print.jhtml (25.01.04), 1

[25] Paul Ehrlich. The population bomb. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

[26] quoted in Lynnea Chapman King “Generation X: Searching for an Identity?”. In: Post Script. Essays in Film and the Humanities. Vol.19/2, 2000, 9.

[27] cf. Michael Porsche. Alternative Natio n ? Die Generation X in der amerikanischen Gegenwarts-

literatur. Paderborn: Rektorat der Universität, 1997, 13.

[28] William Strauss; Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America‘s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morris and Co., 1991, 324.

[29] Generations, 324

[30] William Strauss; Neil Howe. “Thirteenth Generation Born: 1961-1981”. In: Jack Nachbar; Kevin Lause. Popular Culture. An Introductory Text. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992, 494.

[31] Thirteenth Generation Born, 498

[32] ibid

[33] Generations, 330

[34] Douglas Rushkoff. “Us by Us“. In: Douglas Rushkoff (ed.). The GenX Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. 5.

[35] William Strauss; Neil Howe. “The New Generation Gap”. In: Rushkoff (ed.). The GenX Reader, 292.

[36] New Generation Gap, 294

[37] Roy Baumeister. Identity. Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 4.

[38] Manfred Pütz. “Methodological Implications and the Story of Identity“. In: Manfred Pütz. The Story of Identity. American Fiction of the Sixties. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1979, 28.

[39] Baumeister, 7

[40] Baumeister, 19

[41] ibid

[42] Roy Sommer. Grundkurs Cultural Studies/Kulturwissenschaften Großbritannien. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 2003, 143.

[43] Baumeister, 19

[44] ibid

[45] Baumeister, 22

[46] Baumeister, 25

[47] Baumeister, 25

[48] ibid

[49] Baumeister, 199

[50] Baumeister, 199

[51] Jeffrey Weeks. “The Value of Difference”. In: Jonathan Rutherford. Identity. Community. Culture. Difference. Reprinted edition. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998, 88.

[52] Baumeister, 4

[53] Baumeister, 29

[54] Baumeister, 128

[55] Baumeister, 136

[56] Baumeister, 136f.

[57] Karl Mannheim. “Das Problem der Generationen”. In: Kölner Vierteljahreshefte für Soziologie, 7. Jg., Heft 2, 1928.

[58] Bennett; Craig, 4

[59] Chapman King, 11

[60] St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture

[61] Bernard Rosen. Masks and Mirrors. Generation X and the Chameleon Personality. Westport: Praeger, 2001, 31.

[62] cf. Zygmund Bauman. “From Pilgrim to Tourist – or a Short History of Identity”. In: Stuart Hall; Paul du Gay. Questions of Cultural Identity. Reprinted edition. London: Sage, 2000, 19.

[63] St James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture

[64] New Generation Gap, 293

[65] Brendan Martin. “Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. Tales for an Accelerated Culture: An Alternative Voice”. www.qub.ac.uk/en/imperial/canada/coupland.htm (April 6th, 2004), 1.

[66] Rushkoff, 6

[67] Coupland, 14

[68] Coupland, 12

[69] Coupland, 88f.

[70] Coupland, 157

[71] Coupland, 12

[72] Coupland, 19

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"The Great Depression Is Our Lives". Busted Boomers and Identity Crises in Generation X, American Psycho and Fight Club
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