Below, University of Memphis MFA student Matthew Peters talks with award-winning writer Jeff Gordinier about the benefits of slacking, the poetry of Borges, dining with Britney Spears, and Gordinier’s his new book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking.
Q: You wrote an essay called “Has Generation X Already Peaked,” how did that turn into a book about Gen X saving the world?
A: The essay was written when my son Toby was a few days old and my editor-in-chief from Details called me at home, and even though I was on Daddy leave and should have been changing diapers, he convinced, or maybe coerced me, into writing the essay. I wasn’t gunning to write about Generation X. I think any X’er would be apt to steer clear of the topic. So Dan and I talked on the phone about what Generation X has accomplished, what contributions have we or haven’t we made to American culture and the essay sprang out of that conversation. When I turned in the essay I started getting this terrific response and you can never predict that. We got a lot of letters to the editor, The Washington Post wrote a column about it, and my Details editor, Pete Wells, suggested it might be a book. So I put together a proposal fairly quickly, turned it in and one thing led to another.
Q: It’s essentially an idea book—an argument for the ways Generation X has saved the world. But it’s not an expository argument—you actually tell a carefully structured story using scenes and dialogue and such …
A: I tend to think about structure quite a bit. I studied with John McPhee at Princeton as an undergrad. Focusing on structure and mapping that out is a huge part of the McPhee approach. I tended to like a lot of the New Journalism work from the 60’s and 70’s – Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson of course – people like that. I was spellbound by that and wanted to try my hand at that sort of thing. When I started working on this book I felt very quickly there should be an explicit structure because I intended to bounce all over the place in terms of narrative. I wanted there to be scenes of reporting. So I went to Las Vegas to write about the Beatles Cirque de Soleil show, revisited Woodstock ’94, and went on the road with the Poetry Bus. I wanted there to be action. I didn’t want the entire book just to be a 200 page screed – just a sort of endless polemic. I wanted it to be punctuated with moments of action. I knew it would have a somewhat diffuse narrative momentum and as a result of that I wanted to inflict a fairly explicit structure on it – so there’s an introduction and then there’s a very straightforward three-act structure. I thought that would help hem it in and contain all the tangled threads.
Q: Douglas Coupland says Generation X is more a frame of mind than an age bracket but you map out a general timeline, 1961 to 1977, to qualify Generation X. I miss that by two years. I did pass your Generation X Aptitude Test … But I also rented the movie Slacker in sixth grade and turned it off after a few minutes because I had no idea what was going on … so am I a Gen X’er?
JG: You’re one of us, but you’re on the cusp. I don’t know that any sixth grader would understand Slacker. I’m not sure I understand it. It’s a weird movie, in some ways it’s a time capsule. It captures the feeling of a moment for those of us who were drifting around at the end of the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.
Q: You make the interesting point that Slacker anticipated the keys to success of Gen X.
A: Slacking is underrated. I visited the offices of Google not long ago, the New York offices, and the executives that were taking me around explained to me that there’s mandated downtime if you’re an employee. They want you to take a certain chunk of your week and drift, float around, dream, come up with cool ideas. Maybe you play foosball, flip through magazines, or maybe you just daydream, but you’re supposed to take time away from your day-to-day labor. It’s meant to instigate creative thinking because that’s what happens. If you’re completely stressed and your schedule is over-stuffed with activity, it’s very difficult to come up with new ideas and you probably find this as a writer, that your best ideas come up when you’re taking a break or when you go out to get a sandwich or walk around the block. So it’s interesting that Google, which was founded by a couple Gen X’ers, actually incorporates that ethos into the work week. I think a lot of great songs and music came out of that “slacking”—so did great businesses that have gone on to change the way the world sees itself and interacts, the way the world consumes media. So I think more people should slack. At the same time the term slacker has stuck to us like a barnacle on the hull of our ship and we can’t scrape it off. It’s become one of these cut and paste media clichés that replicates itself from year to year. I think part of what I wanted to do with the book was validate some of Generation X’s contributions to American culture, whether we’re talking about Google or Being John Malkovich, Lost in Translation and Boogie Nights, or Nevermind and Odelay and the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – I just thought it was time for us to get credit for these things, these remarkable achievements, and it made sense to acknowledge that.
Q: Your book is choc-full of pop culture references, but you sprinkle literary references in there too. . .
JG: I do? I’m sorry! I’m pretty pretentious. I admit it. I tried to cure myself of that but I fear there is no remedy. Even the title X Saves the World is meant to be comic-booky and ironic, but what I haven’t talked about because I come off looking pretentious—at least in my mind—is that it’s a reference to a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Just.” The last line has to do with people saving the world: “A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished/He who is grateful for the existence of music./He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology./Two workmen playing, in a cafe in the South, a silent game of chess./The potter, contemplating a color and a form./The typographer who sets this page well though it may not please him./A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto./He who strokes a sleeping animal./He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him./He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson./He who prefers others to be right./These people, unaware, are saving the world.”
It’s a remarkable poem. Much more eloquently than I can, it expresses what I wanted to express in the book, which is that the quiet approach of Gen X’ers is in fact saving the world, even though I’m being sarcastic about it. And what are the people doing in that poem? They’re slacking! They’re hanging out in cafes playing chess and petting sleeping dogs. They’re slackers saving the world, according to Borges.
MP: Yet we hear much more about non-slacking baby boomers than Gen X’ers …
A: Yes. There’s a term—and I might not be describing it correctly but I hope I am: In medical circles it’s known as synaptic rutting. If you drive home from work the exact same route everyday it’s bad for your brain. If you eat the same meal every single day it’s bad for the wiring of your brain. It actually creates ruts in your synapses. It makes it difficult to think in different ways because you’re not refreshing the engine. I feel as though we’re trapped in synaptic ruts in this country when it comes to boomer nostalgia. It’s endlessly recycled. Every anniversary comes to us as an affliction. Oh it’s the anniversary of the Summer of Love. Oh it’s the anniversary of 1968 – that pivotal year! Oh here comes the anniversary of Woodstock, and it seems as though we’re compelled to revisit these things whether we want to or not.
I’m susceptible to nostalgia as well. Everyone is to some degree and I don’t intend to get all pious about it, but I do think that when there’s this surplus of nostalgia—a nostalgia epidemic—it inhibits new growth, culturally. Think of the synaptic rut of Lindsay, Britney, Jessica, Paris, Lindsay, Britney, Jessica, Paris … that US Weekly rut we’re subjected to. I sound like the most tedious dentist in the world whining about this like I’m the guy at the party saying, “Careful with that, now now, sugar rots your teeth.” I’m a consumer of pop-culture and totally light-hearted about it. It’s not something I tend to get high and mighty about but we seem to have reached a strangely monotonous moment in media.
Q: You correlate John Donne’s poetry to Kurt Cobain’s lyrics and the way they both very much involve organs and bodily fluids and guts. Then later on you get to Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents dinner where he talks how there are more nerve endings in guts than in the brain. What’s up with all the guts?
A: That’s an interesting connection. I think if there’s one thing about X’ers that marks their work it’s that they tend not to be squeamish, for better or worse. Think about Quentin Tarantino. I saw Pulp Fiction in 1994 when it was premiering and it was actually shocking. Now it’s transformed itself into an American classic but at the time it was genuinely shocking. As was Reservoir Dogs. God, the scene when the ear was sliced off was revolting. Trainspotting is another good example of a movie that’s awash in blood and piss and shit. It’s certainly unafraid of the body. Boogie Nights, Boys Don’t Cry, even Being John Malkovich – sliding into someone’s brain (laughs). In a way, what do we have but our organs? That’s all we’re left with.
It’s funny you mentioned the John Donne comparison because there are a few points in the book where I’m willfully, transparently pretentious, and I make fun of myself for that. It’s almost like I throw the volleyball up in the air and a couple pages later I spike it. The John Donne comparison is a good example of that. A couple critics have taken me to task for it. It is an incredibly snooty comparison. But a few pages later I say, “Oh my God I can’t believe I was so pretentious as to compare Kurt Cobain to John Donne.”
Q: So if you had to go to dinner with either Britney Spears or Simon Cowell – two people panned pretty hard in your book, which one would it be?
A: I’d have dinner with Britney Spears in a heartbeat. It’d be a blast. I’d love to hear her talk. I’d love to hear how her mind works. I can’t deny that I think she’s fascinating. This is the inevitable evolution of things. One moment of pop-culture leads to another. She embodies her generational moment and I’d love to meet someone who has that kind of significance. She also seems to be a lunatic and I tend to love lunatics. They’re great dinner party companions. nbsp; You know you’re an adult when you can sense that MTV doesn’t love you anymore. The Britney Spears video nailed that moment for me. But you know, she’s got to have fascinating things to say. She’s sort of a Warholian creature. So’s Paris Hilton. Simon just seems as though he’d be a petulant bore. I wouldn’t want to listen to Simon prattle on for five minutes. I’d tire of him and I’d traipse off to a different part of the party. But with Britney I’d be transfixed. I’d just keep my mouth shut and listen to what she has to say.