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.