Thursday, March 15, 2012

Reading group: Generation X by Douglas Coupland

This meeting was another near-fight.

Jenny chose this iconic early-nineties novel about a group of three educated late-twenties escapees from corporate life, Andy, Dag and Claire, looking for a deeper meaning while working at 'McJobs' in California and telling each other stories that reflect their frustrations, fears and longings.

As soon as I arrived in the already full room I was aware of an attitude of contempt, and Mark said straight off that he hadn't read the book as it was clear from the blurb that it was self-indulgent and he found the format pretentious - he had the early square format edition in which illustrations and, in my opinion, wittily ironic definitions of contemporary phrases are situated in wide margins at strategic points in the text. He said he even found the typeface pretentious and unreadable.

Notwithstanding, Jenny then introduced the book and said that she had enjoyed it, that she saw that it was about anomie, but that there wasn't actually much of a story in that nothing much happened, so she didn't really have a lot to say about it, and that what she liked most of all were the footnotes (which is how the definitions appear in her later edition).

I said, isn't the book more specifically about the fact that these young people have inherited a soulless materialistic world which makes it difficult for them to fulfil themselves?,  a comment which was met with derision by those who hadn't even read the book. Pretty annoyed at having to defend the characters, and the book, against such opinionated condemnation from people who hadn't even read it, I said that I had found the characters touching, especially in their relationships: they were a platonic friendship group (of two men and one woman) who cared for each other in a touching way. Yes, said Clare, who had read the book: They snuggle up together in a hippy-dippy way - making it clear that she wasn't enamoured of the characters either, and eliciting vindicated groans from the others. I had praised the narrative voices of the characters as astute and witty - I loved for instance the description of Toronto as giving 'the efficient, ordered feeling of the Yellow Pages sprung to life in three dimensions' - but Clare said that she had found the voices slick and the characters consequently smug. I said but surely, as well as being ironic about the world around them, narrator Andy is self-ironic. It's best evidenced, I think, in this 'footnote' which however I didn't quote at the time: 'KNEE-JERK IRONY: The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation'. Clare said that she really wasn't sure that there was self-irony. She said that the characters and their attitudes reminded her very much of those in Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (discussed previously) which she had also disliked - but which I had admired. It turned out too that Doug, who had also read the book, couldn't relate at all to the characters and had found them unengaging.

There was much derision about the fact that the characters drop out of supposedly soul-destroying yuppie jobs only to get 'McJobs', working in shops and bars, which are hardly more fulfilling! Even Clare defended the characters on this, saying that the point is that they are no longer defined by their unfulfilling jobs, but that didn't wash with the detractors: surely, the answer came, they are just messing about, knowing that they can depend on their middle-class parents, so they are hardly rebelling against their parents' generation. And they go home for Christmas!! Only middle-class people can afford to drop out, it was cried. Ann, had, like me, liked the prose and especially the 'footnotes', but did now agree with the detractors that the characters' situations were something of a middle-class indulgence. In fact, there is a 'footnote' which comments on this, self-ironically in my opinion, but I didn't recall it during the discussion:  'SAFETY NET-ISM: The belief that there will always be a financial and emotional safety net to buffer life's hurts. Usually parents.' There was more derision about the fact that the characters choose to do their dropping-out in California. I should have quoted a passage from near the beginning which I think carries conscious irony about the compromise involved. Noting the lordly luxuries of the rich retired inhabitants of the area, narrator Andy says,  
 Nevertheless, the three of us chose to live here, [that, surely, is self-ironic, even potentially straightforwardly self-critical] for the town is undoubtedly a sanctuary from the bulk of middle-class life. And we certainly don't live in one of the dishier neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods here where, if you see a glint in a patch of crew-cut Bermuda grass, you can assume there's a silver dollar lying there. Where we live, in our little bungalows that share a courtyard and a kidney-shaped swimming pool [more self-irony, surely?], a twinkle in the grass means a broken scotch bottle or a colostomy bag that has avoided the trashman's gloved clutch. 
But in a discussion in which people arguing vociferously and dismissively hadn't even read the book, such textual focusing was hardly possible. I did say that what we hadn't discussed were the vivid descriptions of the detritus filling the environment - notably, as John pointed out, the fact that as the book opens Andy is clearing from his dogs' nostrils a fatty substance that he suspects is from the bins of the nearby liposuction clinic. Those who had read the book now cried with recognition and agreement, but I'm not sure if I got my point across, ie that what's indicated by these descriptions is that these young people have inherited a mess of a world not of their own making.

I said, maybe in the wider context the ability to choose to try, at least, to 'drop out' from it is a middle-class privilege and the doing so therefore a middle-class indulgence, but that didn't mean you could characterise these three young people as simply personally self-indulgent: they were thoughtful, and concerned with the conundrum of it all, and also suffering. In a more thoughtful and measured discussion I might have been able to draw attention this early passage:
We live small lives on the periphery; we are marginalised and there's a great deal in which we choose not to participate. We wanted silence and we have that silence now. [An ironic sentence, that last, I'd suggest: the silence isn't exactly unproblematic.] 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.
The overprotestation of that final repetition and stress carry especial conscious irony, I'd say.

Mark said that it was all well and good to complain about the state of the world but the book doesn't provide any answer (not that he'd read it), and then we had a skirmish about whether or not novels need to provide answers, which Mark insisted they do. Some people referred to fact that the trio finally go off to Mexico with the notion of starting a hotel, and Mark's derision quadrupled: another kind of running away!! And in order to run a hotel, he objected, wouldn't they end up needing the very structures (accountants etc) they were supposed to despise?! People told him, no it's not that kind of hotel, the characters say they wouldn't charge for rooms: it's just a kind of idealistic dream really; and Mark's derision went through the roof. Backed by John, I said, yes, it's flakey, but that's the point: the book is about the fact that if you can't face the structures society endorses - you're unsuited to them or you disapprove of them - then there aren't really any other very viable options. John brought in the question of the situation for artists, which I thought confused the issue, but Jo, who up to this point had been a detractor, took up his point and agreed that there are certain jobs in our society that are rewarded and others, including artistic endeavour, that tend not to be. To some extent this did back up my point, but, I said, the characters here are not artists, and so don't even have the compensation of artistic fulfilment. Having rejected the endorsed structures they have nothing (just that 'silence'). I said, surely that's a legitimate subject for a novel - ie the fact that there aren't any answers - and several people agreed. Mark said, well, in any case the characters were unlikeable, and now we had that other old skirmish about whether or not you need to find characters likeable in order to like a novel, Mark insisting - I'm damn sure for the sake of argument! - that you did, until John brought in Jane Austen and Vanity Fair with their unlikeable but endlessly interesting characters. But then Clare said that she simply hadn't found these characters or their situation, or indeed the book, interesting.

Earlier, in response to the initial accusations of superficiality, John had pointed to the frequent apocalyptic references in the novel: it begins with Andy remembering seeing the eclipse of the sun at the age of fifteen, and Dag is fascinated by the nuclear test sites in Nevada and brings back from there melted sand which terrifies Claire in case it's still radioactive. Their dreams and stories are full of death and nuclear annihilation. Towards the end Andy sees the smoke from farmers burning their fields and thinks it's the fulfilment of his nightmare, a nuclear cloud. Trevor now spoke up at last and said with a great air of reason and calm, which at long last made people shut up and stop interrupting, that in his opinion this book, far from being superficial, was about very serious, important and current matters: the ruination of the world and the wastage of the lives of future generations through environmental pollution, financial collapse and nuclear threat.

Mark, however, was intransigent and went on pooh-poohing the book while the conversation broke up and people began to talk about other things. Ann, Clare and I happened to be sitting together around one corner and the three of us continued talking about the book, and I had what I felt was my first proper and thoughtful conversation of the evening. Clare is a brilliant one for stopping and searching through the text to examine the truth of points that are made in the conversation (I'm hopeless at it at the time, as I find myself swept on by the conversation and the interruptions). In response to the points about death and the apocalyptic, she had remembered Andy's dream about his own death - which I hadn't remembered - and she had been looking for it in the text. She now found it and reminded us that in it a pelican gives him a fish, and she now related this to the end of the novel when he and a party of other travellers are standing watching the nuclear-cloud-like smoke from the fields. An egret flies over, so low that it sears the top of his head, and a party of children with learning disabilities come over and touch him and hug him to comfort him, and this is precisely how the book ends. It's as if, she said, the book is about Andy's search among all the superficiality and cleverness and harshness of the world for simple human comfort, and this then seemed true to Ann and me. The only trouble was, she said, that she hadn't liked the slick voices - which I had earlier pointed out were really one voice, the characters all tending to talk the same. This last I acknowledged as a flaw in the book, and which perhaps to some extent justifies Mark's conflation of the author and the characters. Nevertheless, Ann and I said that we had been really taken with the wit of that voice, but I did concede that the cleverness of the voice itself was in danger of making the book seem more superficial than I considered it to be.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Faber Academy Online

Last year my Fictionbitch blog hosted a most lively Faber Academy discussion about the value of creative writing and the teaching of it as a subject. One point which is often raised about creative writing courses is that they are available only to those who can afford to take time out from work to attend, and, for those at a distance, the expense of travel and accommodation. Many will therefore find welcome the news I've just received from Faber Academy's Ian Ellard of the launch of Faber Academy Online, 'a brand-new web-based creative writing platform powered by Moodle 2', creative writing courses in which 'chatrooms, topic forums and specially commissioned video content from Faber editors will be combined with one-to-one Skype feedback and podcasts to create a unique learning experience.' The whole thing kicks off with a 28-week online course in novel-writing, based on their existing face-to-face course, beginning April 11th and taught by novelist Kris Kenway.
Application deadline midday 28th March. Details here.

Crossposted to Fictionbitch

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Books on my bedside table this week

Here are the books I'm thinking about this week (although I'm not actually reading them all). Salt kindly sent me Pictures from Hopper by my fellow Salt author Neil Campbell, his new collection of short stories. The blurb explains that 'it draws upon the work of the American painter Edward Hopper ... bringing to life a mythical America' and conjuring up characters aching with need in locations as diverse as New York and the Isle of Arran.

I haven't had time to read the new book yet, but at a glance it looks excellent, if anything a development from his great debut Broken Doll. Some of the sentences I've encountered at a quick flick through have stayed with me all week: there's a lyrical style that's yet plain and down-to-earth too, with echoes of Carver, yet all Neil's own too. Take this opening sentence: 'In the touching fall of sunlight the barn on the hillside was given a sybaritic mark that stuck on the souls of the boys.' Doesn't that just make your heart go woozy?  It does mine. Neil's stories are always gritty in sentiment - but again, in a paradoxical way that deeply touches the emotions. It's all in the language, of course, and indications are that these stories are those of a language and story-telling master.

I am actually reading Generation X by Douglas Coupland, since next Wednesday it's the book up for discussion in the book group. I've never read it before, and I don't know why, since we've had the book in the house for years, and isn't it one of those books you really need to have read? Our copy is the early edition we bought when Coupland came to read at Manchester Waterstone's Deansgate. Its pages are laid out with the drawings and definitions of contemporary phrases positioned down the side of the text at strategic points in the story, rather than as footnotes ('CONSENSUS TERRORISM: The process that decides in-office attitudes and behaviour'). It's a lovely thing, a piece of art - which is not at all surprising, of course, since Coupland is also an artist. But what's really capturing me is, once again, the language and the insights - here's a character's description of Toronto: 'a city that when I once visited gave the efficient, ordered feel of the Yellow Pages sprung to life in three dimensions'. And the humanity: the relationships between his three thirtyish characters, friends dropping out to try and find a deeper meaning in life, are touching.

Dynamic prose is a characteristic of all three of the books above. If any writer has a distinctive narrative voice, Vanessa Gebbie - whom I first met when her lively debut story collection Words from a Glass Bubble was published by Salt  - most certainly does. Her first novel The Coward's Tale came from Bloomsbury in November, and I bought my copy above at her launch - a lovely hardback with silver blocking and a woodcut-style illustration which beautifully echoes the tough and demotic yet lyrical prose style and the mosaic Canterbury-Tales character of the story of a Welsh mining town still suffering the bruising legacy of a disaster in the past, the collapse of the ironically named Kindly Light pit. (Naturally, because of the Welsh setting, I bought a copy for my mum, too.) Vanessa also has a highly original and quirky imagination, and the characters' stories - which turn out to be cleverly linked - lift them into a vivid hyper-reality. This month the paperback edition comes out - with a different cover - and I'm delighted that in early April Vanessa will make a stop at this blog on a tour to mark the new publication, so I've been thinking about the book again in readiness for her visit.

Three very different worlds: the poignant psychic and geographical spaces of Neil Campbell's loners and misfits, the bright and brittle irony of Coupland's thirty-somethings in their sun-baked, contemporary-littered California, and the vivid, tactile yet mythic world of Vanessa Gebbie's Welsh Valleys town. Isn't it amazing what books can give you?

Friday, March 02, 2012

A brilliant teaching podcast of 'Compass and Torch'

There is a teacher in Plymouth, Mr Andrew Bruff, who is responsible for my losing a morning's writing today! I opened my emails and there was a link to this innovative and fun teaching podcast he has made about my story 'Compass and Torch' (see below). It's a hoot, and also very clever - I was laughing most of the time, but the analysis of the story is so spot-on I was really touched, and it ends with a song which made me cry! Plus: he and his co-presenter Mr Ollie Hayne, English teachers at Lipson Community College, taught me something about the story I hadn't realised myself: I had always thought of it as omniscient, but they point out that it's actually a complicated mix of omniscient and what they call 'flipping' intimate third. They comment that this strongly supports the story's theme of the difficulties of communication, but I had never even noticed that that's what I'd done, leave alone thought about its thematic significance. But then that's the magical, alchemical process of writing for you.

And all I can say is that Bruff and Haynes are pretty brilliant teachers....

Anyway, by the time I'd stopped being utterly tickled and amazed and touched, the story I was meant to be writing had quite gone from my head....! But I don't mind in the least, it's made my day!