Thursday, March 15, 2007

Generation Me by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D.

The full title of this book is Generation Me: Why Today's Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before, which would imply, at least to me, that this book will measure the pros and cons of my generation (Twenge defines Gen Me as everyong under 35). The Ph.D. part after her name implied that too.

A better title for this book is Generation Me: The Narcisisitic Spoiled Brats That Make Reality TV Possible, and Why They Are All Ho-Bags, Have So Many Damn Tattoos and so many cases of ADHD and Believe They Can Be Anything They Want Be to When They Grow Up, by Dr. Twenge; and by Dr. Twenge I mean a writer who sometimes wishes she was part of the boomer generation. (Why is it impossible for me not to either smirk or cringe when I read the word "boomer?")

Twenge spends the first half of the book pointing out why Gen Me is the most selfish, godless, slutty, mannerless and brainless generation yet, then spends the second half of the book feeling sorry for us.

What killed me about this book, over and over again, as I read it, was how Twenge failed to acknowledge the role that the increased visibility and acceptance of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer community contributed to our current generational climate of acceptance. She seems nostalgic for the fact that women no longer feel that having children is compulsory, or even grow up dreaming about their wedding day and getting married. Minorities (by this she means women and people of color) have so many choices today! So many choices that we are stymied and miserable. Some of the college students she talked to admired the institution of arranged marriage, because they were sick of dating, and being lonely, and being single. Poor, poor Gen Me. We are facing a New World, without the road maps to guide us through. Well, I get that. But if you're writing a book centered on how different we are from the boomers, you should at least acknowledge somewhere, (before chapter 7), the part that the GBLTQ community has played in breaking out traditional gender roles. Not only that, but they've helped show Gen Me that there is more than one way to be happy and have a family.

My dislike of Twenge's arguments is not to say that she doesn't have some good points. We do move around a lot more than boomers did, in terms of jobs, cities, even counties. It's more difficult for us to form friendships and relationships. There exists a website - Cuddle Party - for people who don't get enough welcomed human touching and interaction. We don't have real neighbors to speak of, or a sense of community. This last point in particular resonated. If I was out of eggs, or sugar, or flour or whatever, what would I do? I would go to Gristedes.

Speaking of my local Gristedes, Twenge seems to have overlooked (until chapter 7) one of obvious reasons why our generation is less likely to have friendships, or even spark up conversation with our neighbors and those whom we see around our neighborhoods: today's America is much less homogenous than it was during the 50s, 60s, and even 70s. It's hard to form a friendship, or even spark up a conversation when not everyone speaks the same language.

Twenge: on one of the many benefits of the boomer generation: "This may be the key to the low rate of depression among older generations: despite all the deprivation and war they experienced, they could always count on each other. People had strong feelings of community; they knew the same people all their lives; and they married young and stayed married. It may not have been exciting, and it stymied the dreams of many, but it was a stable life that avoided the melancholy that is so common now." --page 116

Twenge: on the chronic loneliness of Gen Me: "It's almost as if we are starving for affection. "There is a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, or easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solid family life," argues one political scientist Robert Lane. To take the analogy a little further, we're malnourished from eating a junk-food diet of instant messages, e-mail, and phone calls, rather than the healthy food of live, in-person interaction." --page 110

I definitely agree with Twenge that we have it harder than previous generations. It is more difficult for Gen Me to afford life, and afford ourselves. We want more. We have higher expectations. We had teachers who were afraid to grade us too harshly, lest it damage our self-esteem. We were told that we could be whatever we wanted to be, do whatever we wanted to do. We believed we would be richer than our parents. I felt a strange sense of satisfaction when I read about how much more expensive our lives are now: "Fixed costs like housing, health insurance, and child care have doubled since the 1970s, while discretionary income has gone down." Yeah, I've like, noticed.

Where are Americans getting enough money to afford themselves? Twenge says it's coming from women's salaries. She quotes Robert Putnam, a social scientist, concluding, "Virtually all of the increase in full-time employment of American women over the last twenty years is attributable to financial pressures, not personal fulfillment." What?! Apparently Twenge agrees with this statement, since she doesn't even comment on this Putnam's old school patriarchal opinion. Twenge sort of redeems herself by calling attention to how the media likes to pretend that the Boomer generation was full of femmenists who married late and put their careers first, and in reaction, GenMe apparently wants to turn back the clock. My girlfriends and I have been baffled by articles like this. Twenge calls this particular 1997 article in Time Magazine unmitigated crap: "[GenMe is] reacting in part to what they perceive as miscues by their older siblings, not to mention their parents, who attacked life with a single-minded career focus and a no-ties-to-hold-you-back attitude - and ended up with no ties at all."

I'm probably not being fair to Twenge. The 7th chapter in this 8 chapter book is titled "The Equality Revolution: Minorites, Women, and Gays and Lesbians," so she does address how these groups have had an impact on our generation. However, I wanted more from this chapter, and I wished that Twenge would have addressed the impact of minorities in the opening chapters, when she was writing about Gen Me's isolation, or Gen Me's dislike of absolutes, and embrace of ideas like "do whatever is right for you." I think the increased power and visibility of minorities is one of the biggest differences between GenMe and the boomer generation. It deserves more attention.

But maybe most of my problem with this book is its structure, and not necessarily its content. Generation Me is published by the Free Press, the same S&S imprint that brought us Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinst Pigs, so maybe I should have expected a book that made my whole world make sense in one section, but made me to throw the book against the wall after reading the next one.

Twenge is tackling a huge and difficult issue in Generation Me. It's probably not something that can be resolved in just one book. The defining features of our generation (whether it ends up being called GenMe, iGen, Generation net, or whatever) will be part of the cultural conversation for years to come. I'll look forward to hearing our generations' reaction to this book. Hopefully that reaction will take the shape of another book that is a bit more thorough and compassionate. Until then, I'm not sorry I spent my time and money on Generation Me, though I wish I would have got a higher discount, and I won't be recommending it to friends.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

"We had ridden in silence before. Top down. A brimming, windy silence.
This one was vacant. It roused in me an urgent need for talk: "Road." "Signs." "Sky." "How was?" "Where were?" "Radio." "Temperature." Forced conversation hovering over a void.
Z listened to my efforts with a dazed look. With each word, I was becoming less the person he imagined.
I saw this clearly. But I couldn't stop."
--Jennifer Egan, Look at Me, page 392

This novel is full of concise, gut-wrenchingly recognizable scenes like the one above. This scene is amazing to me. There isn't much going on there, but there's more tension and emotion than the action-packed scenes in other books where someone is being held at gunpoint, someone is mourning, a mother is frantically searching for her missing child, something of even greater importance is being lost. This scene falls into place with a thud. It lodged in my chest when I read it. I, too, talk to much! (Last night Danilanh mentioned that men say an average of 7,000 words a day, and women say 20,000 - almost three times as much!) Jennifer Egan gives these smallest of moments drama and tragedy. Bravo.

There are four main characters in Look at Me:

1) Charlotte, a 35-year-old model who is in a horrible car accident in her home town (Rockford, IL), and has so much reconstructive surgery, and so many titanium screw in her face (80), that (though she is still beautiful) her booking agent and other friends no longer recognize her.

2) Charlotte, 17-year-old daughter of Ellen; Ellen was (35)Charlotte's best friend growing up. Even though Ellen was gorgeous as a teen, (17)Charlotte is homely. I was initially disappointed with this fact - everyone else in the novel lived in New York and were unbelievably beautiful and sheik and savvy, and now we have to hear about an awkward teen in the town that (35)Charlotte so despises (Rockford, IL)? But (17)Charlotte grew on me. Big time.

3) Moose. He is (17)Charlotte's uncle. (35)Charlotte and Moose went to school together. Moose was really hot, and still is, but this is dampened by his growing craziness. Ever since his epiphany about the nature of sight (which he wrote a couple of academic books on) he has become reclusive, studying the history of his home town (Rockford, IL, where he now lives). He tries to mentor (17)Charlotte

4) Z / Michael West. His identity is elusive. In New York, he was known as Z, and was one of (35)Charlotte's lovers. He was part of the celebrity club scene, and then vanished with a bunch of money that wasn't his. No one knows where he went. Private Detective Anthony Halliday is trying to find him, and squeezes information from (35)Charlotte. She allegedly doesn't know anything, but as the book progresses, we suspect that he was involved in her accident. Meanwhile, the reader realizes that Z is living as Michael West, a math teacher in Rockford, IL, with whom (17)Charlotte begins an affair.

Whew! Do you see the way that everyone is connected, and it all comes down to Rockford? And how themes of sight and invisibility and beauty are running rampant, just in that summary? It's a tangled, tangled web, and one that I didn't even come close to unravelling, but Egan presents it very well (if with a heavy hand), and it was cool how there wasn't really one main character in the novel, but four. We start with (35)Charlotte, then we get (17)Charlotte, then we get Moose, then Michael West. We get snippets from other characters too - Anthony Halliday, Irene (a reporter who interviews (35)Charlotte about her accident), Ellen ((17)Charlotte's mother and (35)Charlotte's high school friend), and many more. Egan moves in and out of her many characters thoughts seamlessly, which continually impressed me (no simple skill). The point of view is complex and ever-changing, but not all confusing. Egan has total control.

What's less impressive is her handling of the male characters. While I loved the two Charlottes', and found them completely real and believable, I had trouble believing Z/Michael West and Moose. When Moose's sections came up, I found myself groaning a bit, "augh, him again?" Moose does a lot of thinking in the novel, and spends more than two pages justifying to himself his spur-of-the-moment decision to drive to Chicago. If Danilanh is right, and guys say only 1/3 of the words that girls do, does this mean guys think 1/3 of the thoughts that girls do? I don't know. But Moose's inner-monologue was working triple time. I got bored.

I think Egan put Moose in the book to hammer home her point about sight and perceptions. He's one of those characters who is supposed to represent a type of person, or an idea. I hate it when authors do this. It makes for books with really strong themes, but this device robbed Moose of whatever it is that makes characters in books come alive for readers. I didn't get him, but not only that, it didn't feel like Egan "got" him either. She didn't empathize with him. Or if she did, it didn't come out on the page. The effect was like reading A Confederacy of Dunces: the author spends the whole book making fun of his main character, Ignatius. Even though I enjoyed A Confederacy of Dunces for a lot of reasons, (it's really funny and clever, but at all the jokes are at Ignatius' expense). But as an author, why center your book around a character that you think is absolutely ridiculous? I mean, just look at this cover art:

To get back to what I liked about Look at Me; I read it on the heels of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. Both novels have characters with leukemia, and both employ over four main characters' points of views. Picoult uses chapter breaks and different fonts to her distinguish six different characters' povs. Egan uses chapter breaks too, at first, but as the novel progresses, she switches back and forth between each pov. It works really well when she switches between two of the characters who live in Rockford, like from (17)Charlotte to Moose, or Michael West. The two characters will be together in the same scene, and Egan will leave one's head and hop into the other's. I admired how well she pulled this off.

Overall, I'm not sure I'd recommend Look at Me to friends. I was hoping for a stronger and more structured plot. You think that all the characters are going to collide in the end, (the two Charlottes (they do) Moose and Z / Michael West (they don't) and we'll get answers about Charlotte's accident that way. But that doesn't happen. The cause of her accident is revealed in the most static way possible - through her inner thoughts. Why didn't she just think this earlier? She has enough opportunity - we hear her thoughts constantly throughout her sections.

I read Look at Me quickly, and was engrossed, but I had been told it was a "literary thriller" by two people, and it's called an "intellectual thriller" on the back of the book (what is an "intellectual thriller" anyhow? I guess when the main character just decides to "think" the answer to the main mystery?), but the "thrilling" parts that were full of tension and anticipation all had to do with character development, or emotions running rampant, or insightful exchanges of dialog. I was, in part, on the edge of my proverbial seat reading Look at Me, waiting for something big to happen that never did.