Next, edited by Eric Liu
Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation.
by Eric Liu.
Norton. 248 pp. $21.00.
“Baby bust,” “Boomerang,” “New Lost Generation”—these are some of the more unflattering labels affixed to the 80 million Americans born between 1961 and 1981, otherwise known as “Generation X,” an epithet lifted from the title of a 1991 novel by one of their chroniclers, Douglas Coupland.
Various cover stories in various magazines—among them Time, Fortune, and the Atlantic—have attempted to delve into the character of Generation X, and movies like Singles and this year’s Reality Bites have been hailed for capturing its dating and mating habits, its career aspirations (such as they are), and its outlook on life. And for every sympathetic portrayal there is another that is considerably less so. Thus, these young people have been described as a collection of selfish whiners, complaining about the deficit and a tight job market even as they come of age in a period of relative peace and prosperity. Others go a step further, arguing that prolonged exposure to MTV has left an entire generation spiritually lobotomized.
Twenty-somethings naturally believe that their generation is too heterogeneous to be characterized so easily. Next is an attempt to set the record straight. Eric Liu, the twenty-four-year-old editor of this anthology of young writers, the oldest of whom is thirty-two, hopes to move beyond the “superficial stereotypes” that characterize his generation. His contributors, he announces, are “individuals, not archetypes”: “We are black, white, Asian, Latino, straight, gay, liberal, conservative—and, each of us, independent.”
Not unexpectedly, this claim turns out to be an exaggeration. Despite the superficial tokens of diversity—the Angry Young Black, the Angry Young Gay, the Feminist Pornographer, etc.—Liu’s essayists tend toward uniformity. Although he is right to deny that they represent a collective “voice of the generation,” they do represent this generation’s university-educated, “progressive” elite. Virtually all of them are blandly secular, and virtually all of them are blithely nostalgic for the 1960′s they never knew. In short, they are largely captive to the conventional wisdom of their time and place.
Still, they are worth listening to, if only because they will dominate the op-ed pages of the future. Liu, euphemistically, notes that his contributors tend to project a “worldly-wise” perspective on life—but on inspection the quality he is referring to more closely resembles simple cynicism. A few of the essayists in Next even take this generational cynicism as their theme, and attempt to explain its source.
Thus, according to one writer here, the heroes that inspired previous generations of young people have been torn down by scandalmongering journalists and revisionist historians. Another blames the older generation of Baby Boomers: the hypocrisies of the forty-something set have made it impossible for the twenty-somethings to take any beliefs seriously. Still others, while decrying the pessimism of their cohorts, bravely and a little forcedly profess their own dogged faith in the American Dream, or in the melting pot, or in some variant of pragmatic idealism.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, a twenty-six-year-old who is a former pop-music critic for the New Yorker, provides perhaps the most compelling explanation for the cynicism of her generation. Drawing on her own experience, she claims that young people have been severely affected, if not altogether traumatized, by America’s divorce revolution. A number of other pieces in Next either explicitly or implicitly support her in this contention.
Wurtzel’s essay, “Parental Guidance Suggested,” breathes life into the statistics surrounding divorce. Her poignant account begins in her junior year at Harvard. She is in the mental ward of a hospital, in a stupor induced by an “industrial-strength antipsychotic,” trying to explain to the therapist on duty why she cannot stop crying. It seems that her parents divorced when she was two. At camp, as a child, she was acutely homesick, so much so that she spent the whole summer desperately planning her ride back to her “minimal and unstable home.”
The therapist is puzzled by the story. “There’s no way,” Wurtzel reports, “to ever make her understand that homesickness is just a state of mind for me, that I’m always missing someone or some place or something, I’m always trying to get back to some imaginary somewhere.”
Wurtzel describes a growing legion of the walking wounded. Their childhoods are filled with sad memories of “schlepping between two households, always lugging an overnight bag.” They go off to college gladly, just to get away from houses that were never homes. After graduation, they dabble in adulthood in tacky starter apartments, but remain, fundamentally, homeless. Their “independence” is really only a permanent loneliness. Having been raised in what the late Allan Bloom called the “school of conditional relationships,” they develop a bitter skepticism about the possibility of lasting commitment.
“We didn’t learn to break promises and (marriage) vows from big bad bullies at school,” Wurtzel writes; “we learned fit] from watching our parents deny every word they once said to each other.” And the “we,” she insists, includes children from relatively happy homes as well. Looking around, they too see that “the family unit is not sacred, and this adds a degree of uncertainty to their own plans.”
These young people, then, are in a pathetic bind. In polls, they consistently rate family life as the key to happiness. Yet the “sacredness” of the home is an idea that experience has rendered laughable to them, a quaint piety. Though they tend to lapse into self-pity, and self-indulgence, about the pain they feel, nevertheless the pain is real.
Is there a way out? Some of the contributors to Next hope that ethnic solidarity can alleviate the isolation that marks themselves and their friends. But what they mean by this—really, a thin multiculturalism—bears little resemblance to the ethnicity of the past. Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and others were held together by family as well as ethnic ties. Draping a tribal garb over isolated individual loneliness is no substitute for what is missing.
Karen Lehrman, an editor at the Wilson Quarterly, points in her essay to a more intriguing source of hope: the persistence of nature. Now that women have gained a certain baseline of equality with men, she writes, perhaps they can dust off some old romantic notions that have recently been forbidden them—like flirtation, adornment, and courtship. She herself admits to being a confirmed “looksist,” someone who holds the nefarious belief that some people are more attractive than others.
Needless to say, Lehrman does not explain how romance and possessiveness are to be reconciled in the sort of “egalitarian relationship” she favors; what if newly-minted Romeos turn into jealous Othellos? Predictably, she wants to have it both ways: men should be at once hot-blooded lovers and soberly judicious with regard to women’s rights. Where such men are to be found remains unclear.
To her credit, though, Lehrman does at least start from the premise that men and women belong together. Instead of trying to stamp nature out, she actually wants to build on it. What she has seen is that courtship and manners cultivate, and humanize, natural sexual instincts. One is tempted to weep at the belatedness of her insight—did it really have to take the destruction of the family to rediscover this nugget of truth? But we do have to begin somewhere, after all, and a revival of courtship, even in Lehrman’s qualifiedly “egalitarian” form, would certainly do much to improve today’s bleak dating scene—as things stand now, the attachments many young people make (and just as easily unmake) only serve to confirm all their assumptions about the impermanence of human relationships.
In an odd sense, the Next anthology does go beyond the media stereotypes about Generation X: when one hears the X-ers in their own “unfiltered” voices, they sound, if anything, even worse off than advertised. Still, to judge by these essays, for at least some of them there may now, at long last, be nowhere to go but up.