BOOK: Going flat out with the McJobsworths

NEXT: Young American Writers on the New Generation ed Eric Liu, W W Norton £10.50
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The Independent Culture
AMERICA's new generation, according to the stereotype, is made up of disaffected twentysomething slackers. These postboomers, famously portrayed in Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, are so phased out by the American dream that they idle in McJobs (as in McDonald's) - "low pay, low prestige, low benefits, no future". Their lives are supposedly circumscribed by irony, cynicism, ennui and MTV. Eric Liu's aim in this collection of 16 essays is to present a more complex and truthful picture of his age group and its aspirations on issues ranging from politics, race and culture through to feminism, courtship and sex.

Apart from Naomi Wolf, none of the authors is well known; the only common ground, other than age (24 to 32), is that many of them write for Wash-ington DC's intellectual weekly, the New Republic. At its worst, Next is self-regarding juvenilia with familiar turns on feminism and the state of the nation; at best, there are moving autobiographical pieces and some intriguing social byways.

It's certainly an all-American melting-pot. At the WASP end, David Greenberg's "In the Shadow of the Sixties" pretty much sums up his set's resentment of the all-powerful boomer generation for its monopoly on power, idealism and change: "We are left wondering how we can initiate anything, intellectual, artistic, or political, without the innovation feeling like a cheap replica." It's a well-wrought if familiar reprise of the Generation X malaise, but it's hard to take too seriously someone who uses the collective first person plural so blithely and admits to having spent free time meeting up with other aspiring young writers to craft "a generational statement".

One of the best pieces in the book, however, is also white, male and disaffected. Ted Kleine's "Living the Lansing Dream" tells of his struggles as a "minimum-wage jerk-of-all-trades" in his home town of Lansing, Michigan, which had turned from a boom industrial site in the '60s to a wasteland in the '90s, "a Black Hole of Ambition". This very personal story is infinitely more effective than Greenberg's brand of well-argued grad-uation speech.

Liu covers himself on the feminist front. At one end of the spectrum Naomi Wolf turns in a dull and barely adapted "commencement speech" for a women's college in Claremont, California. In her best-selling The Beauty Myth, Wolf railed against the oppressive modern ideals of female beauty. Here, in "The Rites of Sisterhood", she exhorts her acolytes not to be "gender illiterate" and steels them for the struggles ahead with a reel of statistics illustrating their potential for abuse. In direct

contrast, Paula Kamen, Karen Lehrman and Lisa Palac hang on to the coat-tails of post-PC apostles like Dianne Brill and Camille Paglia and declare that they (shock!) like men, and even like men to pick up the tab. Palac, editor of Future Sex magazine andproducer of Cyborgasm, the first Virtual Audio sex CD (don't ask), even proselytises for pornography and displays again that uniquely American brand of unself-consciousness: "At parties, in cafes, and in living rooms across Minneapolis we talked about what turned us on. We didn't care who heard us. We had so many questions and we felt so powerful being able to ask them out loud."

Finally, in the gay, black, Hispanic hinterland we encounter worlds refreshingly different to mainstream white America. Stephen Beachy's "AIDS and the Apocalyptic Imagination" is a splatter-gun of ideas and images about living with HIV, an impassioned

riposte to the middle-class luxury of slacking. Paul Beatty's "What Set You From, Fool?" is an idiot's guide to being young and black, from the "Malchemy" of Malcolm X to the "Beatty scale of quintessential African-American blackness": Billie Holiday is "jet black", Richard Prior is "flat black". Best of all is a description of black heritage as "an everlasting gob-stopper to be sucked on forever and then passed on to the children, so that every generation grows up with the sweet taste in their mouths".Also engaging and illuminating is "Generation Mex", Lalo Lopez's witty reworking of Gener-ation X for Pochos, a West Coast motley of Mexican, Chicano and working-class cultures, a satire of the melting-pot which is probably only just satire.

Liu may not have discovered the new Gore Vidal - and the apple-pie smugness of his own uninspiring contribution has all the hallmarks of his sideline as one of President Clinton's speech writers - but he has produced a diverting snapshot of a diverse generation.

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