Essays on Generation X show a group varied as the rest of us

July 03, 1994|By Michael Anft

As the century recedes like so many baby boomer hairlines, the next generation, born after 1960, is coming of age.

If there was any doubt about that, recent cover stories on their "angry" music (Time) and the myths that surround them (Newsweek) remind us. The generation of baby busters is as media-hot as their forebears were 25 years ago.

The media hype, and such books as Michael Lee Cohen's "The Twentysomething American Dream," usually follow parallel lines of thought. The young generation isn't as slothful or uncommitted or stupid as it is made out to be, says the first. The second line contends that Reality Biters are really like all those who came before them: They crave picket fences, nice lawns, 2.3 kids and other tender trappings.

Against such a backdrop, then, our youngest adults are only experimenting with life, testing their existential angst just like others before them. Their own icons are asking the ultimate questions: Archly ironic novelist Douglas Coupland, who coined the term "Generation X," has recently taken to writing about spirituality and meaning.

If ever there was a raison d'etre, then, for the 16 essays in "Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation," it would be to dispel all the usual denunciations and stereotypes. For no matter how hard or from which angle this group is discussed, "Next" proves that the typically narrow definitions and revisions just won't stick.

At times profound, profane and poignant, "Next" successfully argues one point that the media, with its penchant for reductionism, can't grasp: that 38 million young Americans can't be codified or mass-marketed as easily as the generation that preceded them.

The writers assembled by Eric Liu -- the former Washington speech writer, editor and Newsweek cover boy -- cover an astonishing array of tones and take up acres and acres of ground.

Mr. Liu's impassioned defense of the American Dream is about as trusting and establishmentarian as "Next" gets. It's as if he, a second-generation Chinese-American, feels compelled to find meaning in his family's choice of place.

But his faith in institutions seems almost naive in the context of this collection. Much more representative are the moments when the other writers go on the offense -- citing, as Jenny Lyn Bader does in the first essay, the leveling that results in a society without heroes.

As Ian Williams notes in "Trash That Baby Boom" (surprisingly, the only boomer bash in the book): "Those of us in our twenties and early thirties feel a distinct and undeniable alienation from the culture that has been coming at us for the last few decades."

Like the other authors, though, he is confused by his peers' acquiescence to the world as it is. He chides them for hiding behind an armor of irony. "We've got to do something," he writes, "to evade this unrelenting ironyfest that atrophies each of our souls, or else our grand question in life will be, 'You want fries with that?' clear into the twenty-first century."

While Mr. Williams ponders generational meaning, others apply their energies to this generation's twin diseases: AIDS and bad home lives. New Yorker pop music critic Elizabeth Wurtzel remembers without fondness her depressive childhood. A product of a broken home, Ms. Wurtzel looks at the deep fatigue in the eyes of so many so young and wonders whether "the next time half a million people gather for a protest march it will not be for abortion rights or gay liberation but because we're all so bummed out."

Stephen Beachy, gay and HIV-positive, sees in his medical and social condition a link with the apocalypse. While he mourns for himself and his sick or dead friends, he isn't above jealousy for those untouched by the disease.

"I get testy," he writes. "I've been promised the end of the world since I was a kid, my Christian apocalyptic heritage, and I'm hoping I won't be disappointed. Please, everything burst."

Not that this group, often criticized for whininess, has abandoned all hope. David Greenberg argues convincingly that would-be definers of his age group have overlooked a large bloc of committed idealists. David Bernstein foresees a day in which intermarriage will help break down racial and ethnic strife. Future Sex magazine editor Lisa Palac discusses honestly (and luridly) how feminism and pornography are not mutually exclusive. Cathy Young sees hope in feminists retooling themselves through images of strength instead of as victims.

Mr. Liu deserves credit for obviously placing no limits on his writers regarding tone or subject matter. The result is an emotional and intellectual survey of the world inhabited by his peers, one that is as complete as it is entertaining. "Next" is the text that will undoubtedly focus attention on this currently-under-the-microscope demographic group -- ironically enough by highlighting its limitless diversity.

0 Mr. Anft is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

N Title: "Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation"

Editor: Eric Liu

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 230 pages, $12.95 (paperback)

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