Consider three literary figures who are sometimes associated with generation X, but whose cuspy nature betrays that their real problems are those of being the youngest children of the previous generation, not the first of the next:
Jonathan Franzen (1959-)
David Foster Wallace (1962-)
Brett Easton Ellis (1964-)
Those aren't Generation X dates, and one can show, from the internal structure of their work and what people see in them as people, and as writers. I bring them up because of the food fight that has broken out with the publication of the first literary biography of DFW, which reveals details about himself as a person and a writer which are obvious from his work, but which had not been put on the table as bluntly before. But before examining the slinging of the hash, it is better first to look at the three writers as what they will be remembered for: being writers, and tangentially, for the actual products of it. Make no mistake, all but the most read of writers are more remembered for being writers than for what they wrote as a whole. Even Dickens, is more source material for Scrooge and a Tale of Two Cities, than for actually reading those two works, much less engaging them in context.
These are not X writers, but are the writers that X read, which body boomers read in trying to escape the maze of modernism with its reflexive irony and taking of stance, in search of "sincerity." However, the body boomers are not ironists, Schostakovich – and you should always spell his name this way because he put D-S-C-H as his signature motive in his music, to spell it in English as Shostakovich, is to lose meaning, and English orthography is imfamous for keeping the roots to preserve meaning, hence "school."
David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace engaged in massive acts of moral masturbation, the perpetual attempt to rationalize himself as "good," even though he knew that he failed to meet his own standards. The biography implies that one large part of this was that he focused, to a great extent, on one off sex. That is, he liked to take advantage of his station as a well known writer, and sleep with the groupies of his novels, and he was obsessed with having sex. This, one should note, is not a new obsession among creative men, and may well be the reason that florid brilliance in men evolved: as a short cutting of courtship and a means to social station.
And of these three, Wallace was the most floridly brilliant, and quotable, of the three. To pick one examples:
People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being "well adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.This is from the Kenyon College Address in 2005, and it is part of what Franzen would call the "Saint Dave" aura around him, he denies being the "wiser fish" but presents himself as just that: experienced, self-enlightened, even has he admits to being self-centered. While narcissism neither begins with, nor will it end with, the body boomers, it is the trait that they, more than any other generation as a generation, have to struggle with, because consumerism, the ideology they were swaddled in from the beginning, is about attunement with one's inner utility and needs to a degree which less fortunate demographic cohorts do not every have the luxury of.
But to look at the quote itself, the immense nuance that hides the coldness of "which I suggest to you is not an accidental term" is the crucial bit of work. Suddenly "well adjusted" does not imply a spirit which has landed on its feet like a cat, with silence and grace, but a bicycle that has been turned to a tautness by another with a wrench. One adjusts an object. This objectification is softened by the diffidence of the academicism of "I suggest to you." A very delicate hand is on that mental pen.
This is because while DFW talks about the banal, and parodies its consumerism, he is a native speaker of academic, this is the subject of one of his essays, "Tense Present" from Harper's in 2001:
In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable about, SNOOTs' attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture: We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a cumudgeonly hellin-in-a-handbasket desparie at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly educated people.
Note the capital "W" after the colon.
But the paragraph that follows is as concisely stated form of the body boomer phenomenlogical quandry as any penned by anyone anywhere:
Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in U.S. English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit." A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e. a passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect the convictions of others.There are, in this one paragraph two incredible logical blunders, catastrophic to the logical unity of the piece, and why DFW isn't a linguist. But they are phenomenologically correct: they feel write to people who then overlook the fact they make no sense as usage, in an article where he is a self-declared "SNOOT" – capital letters essential, as C.S. Lewis taught us to say.
The first is the definition of rigor. On what planet is rigor "passionate conviction?" On Planet Body Boomer, where "Play in the Sandbox" is a moral commandment, since there are too many children, and too few sandboxes. Whatever sandbox the body boom is in, it is full, and no one else can get in. Rigor is the breaking of a process into steps which are so atomistically convincing that their connectedness is difficult to avoid, and once accepted, leads to a particular result. Note that doesn't mean they are in some abstract universal sense, nor that everyone will be convinced. But to attack rigor, one must attack its definitions and postulates: the very means by which it symbolizes and manipulates the codification of its symbolization. As I just did with DFW. One can't argue against "rigor" as "passionate conviction," that is as immovable ideological faith.
That ideological faith is essential to get the second part: humility of others. That is demands a respect from others. Or, How to Be The Genius In the Room while still Playing Nice In The Sandbox. What is even more pointed here is that the word "humility" had been a crucial part in the elevation of George W. Bush, and again, the most important writer, at that time, of his cohort fails to grasp the irony of the word that would soon send us to Iraq, being one of his two words for the best "Democratic Spirit." This is because "humility" means not having flying elbows in a place where the individuals are consecrated members of the club – to academics. But not to Christians, or rather Christianists, where it means to be God's instrument. GWB, not DFW, was the genius of nuance about the word "humility," because he was able to tell anti-war liberals to their face that he was going to illegally invade Iraq, and they couldn't heart it, despite being loaded with "SNOOTs."
It is a problem that DFW then proceeds to talk about in the essay: that as a young SNOOT, he couldn't get the dialect of his child peers. Just as he, and others, could not get the dialect of Bush. Despite, and because of, his belief in usage and English, he was a genius at making extremely nuanced distinctions, such as the capital "We." Because of his narcissism, and lack of rigor, he was precisely the person to talk to the last cohort of Baby boomers, and precisely wrong about the relationship of dialects as attractors in a language. Dialects exist because of the attractors of some central power, and in opposition to it. The Christianist Dialect allows empire, because it is the Christianists who provide the democratic, small "d," support for the machine, and the ideological basis for imposing what used to be called "Christendom" on others.
Thus, in an article supposedly about usage, he turns to the only topic that matters to his generation: how to both work with others, and work through the discomforts of ones position as seeing them as chattel to one's ends, as DFW more than once implied, thinking of many women as walking cunts to put his penis in, and as necessary objects of "sedulous respect."
In summary, his focus on himself, as the only topic of his writing in the end, is in relation to how to not impact – and here I rebel specifically against that class where the learn'd professor intoned "impact is a noun, not a verb." in his best Boston Irish accehnt – others in a way that will deem one not part of the club.
In the body boomer world, all truths are social facts. If many people believe it, it must be accepted, with a few bright lines which are necessary of universalization of the Market. If even Mad Men can get its most clueless character on a bus to nowhere to get this, it has to be obvious. One might think that this is sanity, as DFW writes in his essay, to avoid being beaten up. But he's the one who shot himself, according to a supposed friend "in a way calculated to cause maximum pain to those he loved."
Thus DFW's ur-topic comes out of his generation, that is the body boomer generation, and it is precisely this quality that makes him beloved to other late boomers, and extremely annoying to X-ers. We know he's a fake, because sincerity among Boomers is always about masking something worse, self-deprecation designed to thwart confession.
We grew up smoking the pot of the honor students, we knew from the beginning. In this setting of opposition of my cohort to his, let me not persuade you that X is a better cohort – no cohort whose first Vice Presidential candidate is Paul Ryan can have any justified pretensions to moral anything – or that this is my ur-topic – because if it were I'd be more "important," since as a territorial topic it has an audience. But generation war, ironically at the point that it is about to disintegrate, is the ur-topic of political economy in the populist mode. Who is going to get screwed to pay for a clear road to the grave for the silents and boomers? It is a question at once inescapable and totally meaningless.