“Prepare to Evacuate Soul!” (What Fight Club says about Generation X)

I was a little disturbed by how much I enjoyed reading Fight Club. It has a lot of hopeless and negative messages, for example, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” “Our Great Depression is our lives.” It took me a long time to figure out exactly what I liked so much about this cynical, chaotic, and seemingly hopeless book.

Around the same time I was reading Fight Club, I got into a discussion about the characteristics of different generations during this past century. The generations of this century have come to be known as the G.I. Generation (born 1901-1926), the aptly-named Silents (born 1927-1945), who often get forgotten about in generation discussions, the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1945), Generation X (born 1965-1980), and the Millennium Generation (born 1981-2000). 

The piece of information that got me thinking about Fight Club in relation to these generations was a description of the G.I. Generation, the people who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Their legacy was that they had saved the world. They are often referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” It’s hard to measure up to that. Hearing about this amazing, patriotic generation that valued loyalty and teamwork, lived through one of the world’s greatest monstrosities, and came out on top, I was reminded of a quote from Fight Club, which was written in 1996. “We’re the middle children of the history man, no purpose or place, we have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives.”

Fight Club was written in 1996, around the time when Generation X would be the same age as the unnamed narrator of the book. The more I heard about Generation X, the more parallels I saw with Fight Club. The kids of Generation X are known as the “latch key kids.” They were the first generation to live with divorced or career-driven parents, and often came home to an empty house and had to let themselves in. Tyler, the cynical chaotic revolutionary in Fight Club, points out that he and the narrator are part of a generation raised by women. The narrator’s father left when the narrator was six. 

Generation X is independent and street smart. Government and big business aren’t very important to them, and they are cynical of institutions  and authorities that seem to have failed them and their families. While the G.I. Generation was more focused on the common good, Generation X focused more on the individual good. They still wanted to learn and explore, but with the arrival of digital information, there was a lot more that one person could do on his own. This trend of individuality had been evolving from the Baby Boomer’s revolution for free love and no-fault divorce, and finally became one of the defining characteristics of Generation X. The very name “Generation X,” came from that generation’s rebellious desire not to be defined or labeled.

That’s not to say that everyone from this generation was going around wreaking mindless mayhem in their youth. That’s not the point. Fight Club gives us a look at how the generations respond to each other, and the extremes that people can go to while attempting to be different from their parents. The G.I. Generation had a lot to offer in the way of achieving great things, but left very little room for an individual’s personal goals. The Silents lived off of their parent’s success, but made very little progress. Probably in rebellion against this disciplined and neat world of white picket fences, the Baby Boomers became known as the “Me” generation, the first generation to think about the individual as being more important than the community as a whole. And as a result of the revolutions of the 60s and 70s, Generation X became, in a way, an abandoned generation, rebels without a cause.

I feel like I’ve focused a lot on the negative here. But I just want to say, even though the year I was born says I’m a Millennial, I feel like I have more in common with Generation X. What can I say? I’m an old soul. The Millennials grew up with “helicopter parents” and have been told “you are special,” but I had a latchkey like my mom did before me, and even though I knew I was “special,” I knew everyone else was, too, so we all canceled each other out. I don’t find that depressing or anything, either. I find it very true and kind of funny. Like the narrator says at the end of the book. “We are not special. We are not crap or trash, either. We just are.”

That’s why I liked this book so much. The narrator spent the entire book trying to “be a different person,” and it took him as deep into cynicism and bitterness and destruction as a person can go, and he came out knowing an important truth about how simply existing is enough reason to exist.

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What’s In the Stack O’ Books? – I typically have two  or three (or five) books on the reading stack at a time. Here are the books I’ve chosen for November.

That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevzky

 

Brideshead

I just finished reading Brideshead Revisited, and one of the things that I found funny about reading this book was different people’s responses. They ranged all the way along the spectrum, from, “One of the greatest Catholic novels of all time!” to, “The story of a couple of guys boozing around at college.” It’s a marvelous story, both about hitting rockbottom and redemption, so I guess you could say both descriptions fit. I loved it. You get way too many religious stories in which all the characters are perfect. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the struggle, I ask you? Who’s going to relate?

There’s something for everyone to relate to in this story, I think, but most notable is the doubt that pretty much every character experiences, whether it be about their marriage, their place in their family, the religion they were raised in, their own goodness and worthiness. Deep stuff, people.

The jacket cover of the book boldly proclaims that “Evelyn Waugh developed a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world.”

Eloquent words, but the common man of today cannot help but say, “What?”

It really depends on what you consider to be the dear things of the world, I suppose. As I read Brideshead Revisited, I began to see that these “dear things” are past days and simpler times. The theme of memory is very clear in the story, and in fact, the entire book, except for the first and last chapters, are the memories of the narrator Charles’ life ten years past. “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared above me one grey morning of wartime.” You can’t express your theme much more clearly than that.

The character who interested me the most in this story was Sebastian Flyte, a character closely connected with the theme of memory. From the moment he appears, he stands out, and the narrator Charles says as much. “I was struck less by his looks than by the fact that he was carrying a large Teddy-bear.” This image, at least for me, influenced the way I would see the character for the rest of the book. Sebastian has a wistful, childlike air to him, and his holding on to the Teddy-bear he becomes a visual representation of what people all tend to do in holding on to their past. Sebastian is a very nostalgic person, and it shows in his wistful way of speaking. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy, and then when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”

Most of the other characters in the story don’t share his nostalgic, childlike outlook. Of all of his siblings, Sebastian is the only one who visits their estranged father, and he holds on to childhood habits like his affection for his nanny, calling his mother “Mummy,” and carrying his Teddy-bear. He stands out as a black sheep in his family from the start, and in a way he puts himself on the outside, when, approaching Brideshead, instead of saying,  “it is my home,” he says “it is where my family live.” He’s a flighty, brightly colored character who sees the beauty in things and the fun in the moment, but as the story progresses he falls by the wayside, and his family and friends see him as a burden and an embarrassment. As I read this book, I thought of him as the personification of the “dear things of the world” that the century uprooted.

Gosh. That was depressing. But, by his own admission, Evelyn Waugh got his pleasure from “spreading alarm and despondency.” And now, a blatantly stated theme in the style of Evelyn Waugh: My theme is despondency… that cloud that shuffles across the brain like a snail on a bedewed drainpipe one lackadaisical morning in the twenty-first century..

New Eyes (thoughts on “Dune,” by Frank Herbert

It was always a source of great embarrassment to me that I had never read Dune. I say “was,” because that was the past. This is The Now. I just finished an awesome unabridged recording by Audio Renaissance, complete with voice actors and the sound of haunting desert wind between chapters.

A quote from “Dune”

My love for audiobooks began with a snoring roommate. No number of objects flung in her direction had any effect, and I decided that if the thunder could not be silenced, it would be drowned out.

Overall it was a great experience, falling asleep to audiobooks, except for the times I would fall asleep and then wake up disoriented with no idea what was going on. One such incident that sticks in the memory was drifting off the the sound of Rob Inglis’ narration of the Two Towers, only to be jolted awake by his phlegmy interpretation of Gollum: “Filthy little Hobbitses! The thieves! The thieves! We hates them!” Another such experience was listening to O.J. Sanders reading “Catch 22,” waking suddenly to Yossarian hollering into my ear: “Turn, you bastard, TUUUURN!” They brought the story alive for me, definitely.

You know you’re reading a good book when it makes you see your own world with new eyes. This is what happened while I was reading “Dune.” On Dune, the most valuable commodity is water. Water is so scarce that the people of the planet wear special suits that capture all excess moisture to be drunk again.The people guard their water jealously.

A few weeks ago, the summer camp I’m working for went to Coal City for a week. One of the first things they told us was, “Don’t drink water from the tap!” Our first day, I made the mistake of thinking that if a waitress at a diner poured water from a pitcher, that meant it hadn’t come from a tap first. Let’s just say I was out of commission for the rest of the evening. We were provided with bottled water for the week (the small ones), to share with the kids in the  program as well. From the get-go I was reluctant to share my tribe’s allotted moisture with the small ones under our supervision. My three teammates and I went through an average of three cases every day, and I started to get annoyed when kids would take one sip and then forget about the bottle, leaving it on a table or inside a piano. In the spirit of Dune I found myself thinking these fools clearly didn’t want to survive if they left their water unattended.

What an amazing culture build, to create a society that revolves around something that’s so ordinary and common for us here in the United States. I think about Dune almost every time I drink water now. So, about eighty times a day. Thanks, Frank Herbert.

The Vulnerable Artist (a review of “Songmaster” by Orson Scott Card)

A philosophy professor of mine started out his class on Aestheitcs, the study of beauty, by saying that Beauty will change the world. I am inclined to believe him. Beauty has a way of touching the soul in an unexplainable yet undeniably real way. Artists have a great responsibility, since their calling is to make Beauty known to those around them. That Aesthetics class completely changed what I wanted to do with my life. Or rather, what I wanted was always there in my mind, but taking this class convinced me that sadly longing to be an artists while I did something else wasn’t going to cut it. I had to be an artist.

As I’ve said before, one of my all-time favorite authors is Orson Scott Card. He has a singular understanding of the human soul, what we can endure and suffer and how that changes us, and how that change, however difficult or painful, can make us stronger and better people.

Ever since I read “Ender’s Game” in high school, I’ve been devouring all of Card’s books in the Ender universe. This summer I branched out and picked up “Songmaster.” It tells the story of a young boy named Ansset, a boy whose songs have the ability to deeply effect the listener, either to heal or destroy. Ansset becomes the personal Songbird of the Emperor, responsible for the well-being of the Emperor’s mind and soul. The fate of the galaxy depends on Ansset’s songs.

One beautiful moment that stood out to me:

“Ansset, what is your song?”

He looked at her blankly. Waited. Apparently he did not understand.

“Ansset, you keep singing our songs back to us. You keep taking what people feel and intensifying it and shattering us with it, but child, what song is yours?”

“All.”

“None. So far I have never heard you sing a song that I knew was only Ansset.”

When I read this, I put the book down. I couldn’t read anymore. I had to think about this. I am an artist. I want to change the world with the beauty that my artist’s mind can see. Anything I can do, a painting, a story, or a theatrical performance, is a Song that could change someone.

But what is my song?

It’s very important for an artist to be close to what they make. This is why we find it so hard to share our work. When we sell a piece of art, we are in essence selling a piece of our soul. In my Design for Theater class, my professor told us again and again, “Make it personal.” If we simply create something that means nothing to us, how can we expect it to mean anything to someone else?