Crisis Management

The New York Times is apparently determined to make a man out of me. In January Katie Roiphe chided the post-Boomer generation of writers for being diffident about sex, if not outright scared of it. Now, A.O. Scott laments the wussiness that he believes seems to pervade members of Generation X as they—as I—approach middle age. “How can a generation whose cultural trademark is a refusal to grow up have a midlife crisis?” Scott asks.

Exhibit A in Scott’s argument is Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask, a very funny novel about modern-day Weltschmerz, but one that says more about particular moment in life than any particular generation. That’s not to deny that Milo, Lipsyte’s schlumpfy anti-hero, is an Xer, or that his concerns and tone don’t have a uniquely Gen X spin to them. The cynicism about a culture that broke up their parents, that argued against corporations, and that handed them a recession as soon as they got out of college—it’s all there. And a degree of shock over what everyday success and attainment might meant to them is there too. Milo notices early on that his doppelgangers stalk the streets of his neighborhood:

A man who looked a bit like me, same eyewear, same order of sneaker, charged past. They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.

If that’s an X-ish experience, the sense of disorientation captured in those sentences isn’t so specific, which speaks to the creakiest beam in Scott’s essay. “Earlier versions of the crisis were, by and large, reactions against social norms,” he writes. “Members of the Greatest Generation and the one that came right after — the ‘Mad Men’ guys, their wives and secretaries — settled down young into a world where the parameters of career and domesticity seemed fixed, and then proceeded, by the force of their own restlessness, to blow it all up.” But Xers, like every generation, were raised with social norms too, just an inversion of what Boomers were raised with—the new rule was that we were going to have to figure out a lot of this ourselves, because families, corporations, and government had largely proven themselves untrustworthy. The norm was to be entrepreneurial, to the point of investing heavily in crackpot Dot-com Boom projects. To the extent you consider yourself more or less successful by that standard, the more or less susceptible you might be susceptible to a midlife crisis.

Which is to say that there’s no good reason to think that any of the midlife-crisis novels Gen Xers will increasing pump out in the coming years will be much different than the ones that came before them—every generation grow up to clash against the standards they were raised with. After reading Scott’s essay, I couldn’t help but think of The Ask as a kind of cousin to Richard Yates‘ 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road. A grumpy, bitter, alcoholic cousin, to be sure. But the despair that stalks that novel’s hero, Frank Wheeler, has the same wellspring as the one that stalks Milo—the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end job with ridiculous demands, of believing you were destined for bigger and better things. When Frank first takes a gig at his father’s employer, a stand-in for IBM called Knox Business Machines, he does it with a sense of irony that would cheer the heart of anybody who caught Reality Bites when it opened in theaters:

And so it started as a kind of joke. Others might fail to see the humor of it, but it filled Frank Wheeler with a secret, astringent delight as he discharged his lazy duties…. And the best part of the joke was what happened every afternoon at five. Buttoned-up and smiling among the Knox men, nodding goodnight as the elevator set him free, he would take a crosstown bus and a downtown bus to Bethune Street … and there a beautiful, disheveled girl would be waiting, a girl as totally unlike the wife of a Knox man as the apartment was unlike a Knox man’s home.

Milo could relate. And Yates wasn’t unique; a list of novels that capture similar emotions wouldn’t be too hard to put together. (Add to the tally Saul Bellow‘s Henderson the Rain King, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter, and James Hynes‘ brilliant new novel, Next.) Midlife crises are an American tradition, and Lipsyte (in that knowing, Gen X way), writes as if he’s aware of it—indeed, perhaps the biggest difference between Yates’ brand of despair and Lipsyte’s isn’t so much generational but authorial. Revolutionary Road is written in the third person, with Yates authoritatively applying fear and anxiety onto his poor characters. In The Ask, written in the first person, Milo takes control of the story, embracing his initial inability to manage things when they go off the rails. I’ve read that book and seen that movie, Milo’s character seems to say. Let me figure it out; I’m a grownup.

5 thoughts on “Crisis Management

  1. You make an excellent point, Mark. I read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt the other week and, while the protagonists are pretty wildly different, it too is a novel of a mid-life crisis and I was struck by the similarities in tone between it and The Ask. Lewis’s observations about Babbitt’s foibles and lack of self-discipline, his mechanisms of self-justification and self-consolation are almost identical to what Milo analyzes himself; the difference is really just a jump from third person to first person.

  2. Poor POOR Generation X is facing middle age. And they’re going to whine about it just like they’ve whined about every other stage of their lives. People criticize the Baby Boom Generation for being self-absorbed. But Boomers can’t hold a candle to Gen Xers, who are the most selfish, self-absorbed, self-involved, and solipsistic age cohort EVER. They’ve elevated navel-gazing to a whole new level. What’s worse, there are all manner of media available to them to reflect in and bask in their own narcissism that weren’t available to Boomers. Which helps to explain why most novels published these days by anyone under 40 or 45 consist mostly of barely disguised diary entries strung together in episodic fashion with no semblance of plot and flat characters that pale beside the narrator’s whine, er, voice. Maybe reading is declining because nobody is all that interested in whining as literature. I, for one, cannot usually stand to read any novel written by someone born between 1965 and 1985. I’m just not that into self-indulgence, which is boring and grating and ultimately not literature. Boo hoo.

    1. You’re hitting me where I live, Tim, and think almost wholly dismissing an entire age cohort of writers is pretty broad-brush. But it’s worth noting that there’s an opportunity to test just how whiny this (my) generation is: The New Yorker is going to publish a “20 Under 40” list of writers in early June; some smart person can put together a list calibrating each writer’s narcissism.

      That person won’t be me. The only point I really wanted to make re: Scott’s article is that narcissism and keening in the face of middle age, particularly among men, isn’t anything new in American literature, and that Scott didn’t do a particularly good job of arguing that Gen Xers are somehow distinct from other generations. How different, really, is Sam Lipsyte’s anxiety from that of the hero in “Henderson the Rain King,” with his constant refrain, “I want, I want, I want….”?

  3. The first thing we have to understand about Gen. X is that they are not an entire age cohort but a sort of de facto breakfast club of overprivileged college graduates whose entire moral and intellectual stock in trade is their profoundly neurotic hatred (and envy) of the so-called Baby Boomers.

    They are to their (actual) generation as the Tea Party is to the American electorate. They may become representative, God help us, but aren’t automatically so.

    Who are they really? To begin with, there’s the bilious and balding Dan Fesperman and a very few others who can actually write sentences that parse, as opposed to snarling “bitch!” and rolling their eyes. But the great rank and file are just able to function in business jobs in which, as seniority pushes them up in the ranks, they more and more clearly manifest the one trait they all have in common: a total and astonishing unfitness for command at any level.

    Certainly the recent financial collapse could not have happened without a huge, spoiled, petulant upper-middle-class contingent of “Generation X”. These were the shock troops greedily peddling fraudulent mortgages and Ponzi schemes in the markets of the world as so many of us stood aghast and attempted in vain to raise our voices over their grunting and squealing.

    The Godfathers of their crimes were the likes of Bernie Madoff–not, as most Gen Xers would insist, a Baby Boomer, but rather a member of the infamous Silent Generation, who have by no means vanished from the public scene.

    A survey of the worlds richest men in 2007 showed only one Baby Boomer, Bill Gates. The rest were older.

    To a true Gen X’er all this is meaningless. What counts for these neurotics is what they can conjure up by projection, denial, and acting out. Creatures of entitlement, they are all entitled to their own facts, which makes them impervious to reason.

    The reality, of course, is that no mere generation all by itself warps the course of history. It’s a matter of social class, of nations and empires, and the always elusive and unanticipated outward branchings of the effects of historical action. All the generations get mixed up in it together.

    But this is something no Boomer-hater can be expected to comprehend, any more than a Nazi could understand the real reasons why there were so many Jews in the professions in Weimar Germany.

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