Fight Club is about— well, it's about a hell of a lot of things. It's about a couple of guys who share an unusually close relationship. It's about a terrorist organization composed of semi-autonomous cells which plots to blow up a bunch of skyscrapers (a plot thread derided in '99 as wildly unrealistic.) But since I did my honors thesis back in college on generational polemic, what I was most struck by on my second time through the film, now that I was familiar with the twists of the plot, was the stuff that would land squarely in the must-include list were I writing the paper today instead of in 1994. For while the filmmakers don't really have a thesis about Gen X, just as they don't really have a didactic message about anything — the movie basically tosses a big splattery ball of ideas at the audience without telling it what to make of them — they do make an awful lot of pronouncements on the topic.

The one that most jumped out at me was the observation about the flatness of Gen X's path through history: "We've never had a war; we've never had a depression." Some will say, "Yeah, well, you've got both now," but that's not the point; neither, exactly, is the fact that we had one of each already. As my thesis advisor repeatedly reminded me, generations are just constructs, and thus it's not history that we need to look at when examining them, but rather discourse — what does the conventional wisdom say about Gen X's path? And if you look at the discourse around the time Douglas Coupland released Generation X, you'll find that the standard line was that we were coming of age just as the 80s deficit-spending bubble was wrapping up, and that consequently we were doomed to be (all together now) The First Generation In American History With A Lower Standard Of Living Than Our Parents. And if Fight Club is any indication, whether that statistic proves true or not, the talk about it has been shelved.

After all, as it turned out, the big crash of the first Bush years wasn't the beginning of a new 1930s but rather a hiccup before a new 1980s: yet another boom, this time built on the dotcom craze rather than on Reagonomics. Coupland's character Tobias had wanted to be a yuppie, maybe a stockbroker or something, but by the time he graduated, all the corporate jobs had evaporated thanks to the recession. That was '91, between the bubbles. Fight Club is from '99, and takes place firmly inside the second bubble: the protagonist has the corporate job, goes to meetings where clients ask if they can get the icon in cornflower blue, lives in the cushy skyscraper apartment outfitted with everything Ikea has to offer. And he's still unhappy enough to move into a dilapidated house, get into vicious fistfights for fun, and eventually try to bring down modern capitalism.

This makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Coupland's Xers are bitter because of poverty, or at least relative poverty. The Boomers all got rich in the 80s — and again, note that this is perception rather than reality we're talking about here, as of course in reality the rich got richer and the poor got poorer — but the Xers were just barely too young to benefit. Fight Club, by contrast, offers all sorts of reason why its characters might be dissatisfied — they were raised by single mothers and are thus neurotic about masculinity, they were taught by television to expect to become celebrities and are only now realizing that fame is not in fact on the way, you name it — but not poverty. On the contrary, at or near the top of the list is the Burden of Things. Ours is an advertising culture and from birth we've been told that More Things will make us happy. Coupland's Xers can't get those Things, and are therefore unhappy; Fight Club's have got them, and when the promised happiness didn't arrive in the same box with the yin-yang coffee table and the mail-order gourmet condiments, they wound up still unhappy and also betrayed. Which is good! Because this realization permits them to go a level deeper and question the assumptions of our materialist society. And so when they attack it, it's not just sour grapes.

But see the paradox here? You can't learn that Things are Bad until you actually have them and realize that they're not making you happy. If you don't have Things and someone tries to tell you that you're probably better off without them, that doesn't sound like an honest rejection of materialism — it sounds like someone's trying to manipulate you into an ideology that'll keep you from making them give up some of their stuff. And, c'mon, no one's going to look at the homeless guys sleeping in the 2nd Avenue subway station and think, "Lucky bastards." When Gotama Siddhattha gave up his pampered but empty existence seeking enlightenment, he quickly found that crushing asceticism wasn't the answer any more than getting a mansion and a yacht was. There's a middle path of voluntarily paring back, one which leaves me in the odd position of thinking that we need to drastically redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor so that everyone has the opportunity to decide not to buy things.

Now the bubble that let Fight Club's protagonist sleep under a duvet has burst, and Gen Y looks to be in the same spot where Coupland placed his Gen X — born just a little too late to be able to land a dotcom job and cash out some stock options with some actual value. I suspect it's highly unlikely that they'll learn anything from their predecessors' trajectory. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and judging from the papers we're on about a ten-year cycle these days.

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