Remember the last century? It was something to do with the Black Plague, Napoleon’s first campaign, a train wreck in San Francisco, the invention of a colour TV, electric cigarettes and the death of man-eaters. As a major event, the 2010s comes out fourth, nudging past the Mayflower, the Renaissance, Sputnik and Transamerica to third place.
Or did it? What makes this selectology, published by Penguin 50 years after writers Cory Doctorow and Richard Shepard started out on the road to a rock-n-roll manifesto called Generation X, an enjoyable examination of a generation? For one thing, its rise was like none other, fundamentally reshaping attitudes to politics, the labour market, culture and even gender roles. Not that the authors wanted any of that: after “laft”, they started calling their writing “pseudo-genologia” and later “nu-writing”. “That was an error,” Derek Maguire reflects, “because it cast us as sub-genialisans.” He and his co-writers are at pains to correct that mistake, and the early years of the new century are especially out there and fresh and irreverent. The first book, published in 1984, was a tech magazine, but the words mostly express a loftiness and spinelessness, wrapped in a fog of cat-argueings.
Slippy as what first came out has become, it might have made an extraordinary book. It does indeed have a number of minor virtues. And its wry gesturing at Time and Newsweek has a kind of euphoric formalism, a three-dimensional, often tripping febrile quality. But its politics, its utopian pretensions, are very likely inured to the passions of the moment, so it essentially never gets anywhere. Its issues – feminism, the exploitative nature of technology, the abstract ideas of what “the new normal” might look like – remain mostly neglected. And the piecemeal rollcall of rock bands and brands with “Generation X” on their covers sounds anything but daring or great. Maguire and friends look back on its period in the catalogue of pop moments, from Iggy Pop to Eminem, without really understanding or paying attention to them. Of a surprisingly big batch of songs that died in its wake, their choice of two is unforgivable: Morrissey’s newest with “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?”, a page-turner about meaning, and Iggy Pop’s end-of-term debacle of the same name. You may find the ideas of the eras with which the book discusses utterly baffling, but I don’t. The somewhat baffling combination of mockery, nostalgia and ennui is at work here. (Hint: You may very well be a millennial – age group omitting the obligatory non-binary, for this piece.)
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Generation X: The Last Decade. Photograph: Penguin Books
At the same time, it has the peculiar capacity to look into the future. Maguire evinces the same political and intellectual curiosity of a rapidly instigating writer, often abetted by an anthropological interest in how one generation relates to the next. (The most interesting inclusion: the electronic hip-hop artists, Rakim and Common, who were born decades earlier and unconnected to the year the book was written.) It was mostly written from the US and covers (relatively) common cultural subjects, its authors just getting on with their job. The real heroes of Generation X, then, are the original writers, whose unrelenting vigilance – for two decades, one of the best, true, squirm-free books of this sort – spurred them on.
• GenerATION X: The Last Decade, by Cory Doctorow and Richard Shepard, is published by Penguin. To order a copy for £13.74 (RRP £15.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.