Generation Ex

Some get a decade; we get a moment

The game of references as quasi-generational markers never ends. They're like Elvis sightings for Xers; an easy joke that somehow never gets old. In Neal Stephenson's new novel, Cryptonomicon, the hero keeps his bearings— Stephenson, too— by taking Cap'n Crunch to the far corners of the planet. Crunch is a low reference. (Our affection for same is called cheesy, which has to be understood in the near-total absence of non-cheesy reference points unique to us.) High references are nearly always obscure, touchstones that will disappear if we don't save them, like Tinkerbell, by clapping our hands. That '70s Show's theme song revives Big Star; the Farrelly brothers give Jonathan Richman a recurrent cameo in There's Something About Mary; Myers starts his movie with a They Might Be Giants parody of Goldfinger.

It's hopeless, of course. Our heroes will remain obscure and our preoccupations strange. Forget becoming president: we'll never become a Spielberg, either, or make a Star Wars, though liking Star Wars in the teeth of boomer scorn is perfectly fine. Brokaw and Jennings can chart the course of American heroism. We'd rather gargle and spit, like that satirical Xer alt-weekly The Onion and its unlikely bestseller, Our Dumb Century, with 100 years of fake front pages. Sixties: "Sanford, Son Killed in Watts Rioting; Aunt Esther Missing." And the glorious events of our own lifetime: "Berlin Wall Destroyed in Doritos-Sponsored Super Bowl Halftime Spectacular."

As The Onion is only the latest to prove, our gift is for mocking, if helplessly adoring, the jargon of official bullshit and formulaic crapola. Accepting the conventions and then stretching them into silly putty, we create products that pervert the lines between art and commerce. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the work of Xer Joss Whedon, views demons as no more or less serious and scary than high school, acts realistically snide and impossibly earnest, breaks with propriety as casually as slayer Faith asking virginal Xander if he'd like to fuck now that they're off patrol. Yet the WB didn't even air the season-ending episode after Littleton. How does one argue that Buffy has too much stature to be trifled with when its greatness roots in its being sold to the network, and still marketed, as a piece of trash?

Similarly, try explaining to someone outside the loop The Matrix, a mixture of the highfalutinly adolescent superhero comic, the Hong Kong action film as it went down this decade with white and then black urbanites, cyberpunk conspiracy theories, and a crazy little thing called Keanu. And these are the successes; good luck with The Cable Guy, Jim Carrey's one generational nod and biggest flop, or albums where Weezer and Fountains of Wayne let success go to their heads and tried to sing about their, er, roots. Again, Big Daddy and Austin Powers are very wet dreams of a world where our manifold references are commonplace, not just interior landfill fit only for our signal contribution to journalism: the comparative rather than interpretive "charticle."

Marshal the tidbits! Cover lines from the first issue of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers's pseudojournal: "Welcome To Our Bunker! . . . Relying on: Strength in numbers, provided those numbers are very, very small; Hoping for: Redemption through futility." Protagonists of a story inside: Philip Glass, Stephen Glass, Ira Glass, Seymour Glass, and George Glass. (Footnote: Minimalist composer, discredited young journalist, successful young NPR host, tormented young Salinger character, and imaginary Brady boyfriend.) A story, too, from David Foster Wallace, the big cheese of under-40 lit. Streams of spew he can regurgitate: therapy speak, university theory, sports commentary, metafiction. Favorite letters: i.e. Beginning of recent tale from his collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: "The fuzzy Hensonian epiclete Ovid the Obtuse." Well, exactly.

Eggers and his various cronies may end up taking over the genteel magazines, but only in time to watch them slide into oblivion. Knee-jerk anticapitalists (sour grapes), Xers have a knack for symbolizing integrity in areas that have long since stopped meriting any. Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys wheeze to put on a Tibetan Freedom Concert every year and redeem pop; alt-rock icons and MTV's Matt Pinfield will patiently explain the underground history of music to anyone willing to let them yammer. The "literate smut" of Nerve.com fights to keep cheekiness alive on the Net, when everyone knows that unselfconscious bluster is the only way new media spells IPO.

Eventually, though, most of the successful people crack, finding ways to refuse the honorable Gen-X course of wasting genius on socially incomprehensible piffle. One traditional argument used to explain my group's lack of overt generational solidarity is that identity politics diverted the struggle elsewhere. Maybe so, but television quickly filled that hair loss for men, idolizing the suave, neotraditional jockishness offered by TV's waspish anti-wuss Craig Kilborn and his launch ground, ESPN's Sportscenter. Sandler uses gratuitous meanness strategically (the fate of the girl who dumps him in Big Daddy, for instance), to dispel the threat of his soft side (or maybe the cuddliness inoculates his inner psychopath). Innumerable other Xers have, too, from the pickup experts in the fiction of Wallace and films and plays of Neil LaBute to all the rap-rock shockers.

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