BUZZWORDS

CUTTING - EDGE LITERARY NEWS FROM AROUND THE GLOBAL VILLAGE

IN THE BEGINNING WAS GENERATION X


The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines Generation X as "the generation born after that of the baby boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s), typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless." Some of you may be surprised (rightly so) by the fact that there is no mention of Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X : Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which spawned the eponymous phenomenon single-handedly.

A little-known fact is that the expression actually comes from Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson's Generation X (Tandem), published in 1964, shortly after the first pitched battles between mods and rockers at assorted English seaside resorts. The authors wanted to understand what made the young mods tick. Their book, which is now out of print, was thus a vox pop-style collection of interviews with members of this youth cult.

More than a decade later, Tony James found the paperback lying around at Billy Idol's place, when the two punks were looking for a name for their new band : they decided to call themselves Generation X. The same year - 1976-an extract from the book found its way onto a handbill advertising an early Clash gig : "Yes, I am a Mod and I was at Margate. It was great-the beach was like a battlefield. It was like we were taking over the country." The quotation was later reproduced on the sleeve of The Clash's first single, White Riot (1977) . . .



   NORTH AMERICA


. . . which brings us back to Douglas Coupland , whose heroes are Vaclav Havel, Joan Didion, Morrissey and Andy Warhol, and whose latest novel Miss Wyoming, has just been published by Pantheon in the US and Flamingo in Britain.

Dave Eggers , a "staggeringly talented new writer" according to The New York Times , has already been compared to James Joyce and William Burroughs. His first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster), is based on the author's experience of raising his younger brother after the death of his parents when he was in his early twenties.

The novel is preceded, among other things, by a preface, a list of "Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book," twenty pages' worth of acknowledgements and a drawing of a stapler. Yes, it's that kind of book!

Legend has it that Eggers wrote his magnum opus between midnight and 4 am almost every day for a year. He rejected a $2 million offer for the film rights, because a film version would be too painful. He penned a review of his own novel for Spin magazine and panned it. He has also launched a competition on Amazon.com's website (http://www.amazon.com) : the aim is to write the best review of A Heartbreaking Work without having read the novel. He edits a quaterly journal called McSweeney 's (http://www.mcsweeneys.net). Yes, he's that kind of guy!



   BRITLIT


The literary new year has started not with a whimper but a bang on this side of the pond, thanks to the likes of Toby Litt , James Hawes and Zadie Smith .

Toby Litt (born in 1968) plays his Fender Telecaster "very loud" and writes in similar fashion. He achieved instant cult fame in 1996 with Adventures in Capitalism (Secker & Warburg), a collection of cutting - edge short stories, and went on to publish his first novel the following year.

Beatniks (Secker & Warburg), set in 1995, revolves around a couple of English neo-beatniks - called (of course) Jack and Neal - who are caught in a time-warp of hip hepcatness. But living the beat dream in 90s Bedford is no mean task. You can hide away behind sunglasses to get that authentic, pre-1966 feel, but people still see you in colour. Driving from New York to San Francisco with a dog-eared copy of Kerouac 's On the Road as your Baedeker won't get you very far either : there's no escaping the modern world. Appropriately enough for a novel which is subtitled "An English Road Movie", Beatniks is being turned into a film by no other than our very own Jarvis Cocker , lead singer with Pulp , scourge of Michael Jackson and all-round man of the (common) people.

Unlike Jack and Neal, Toby Litt is no luddite. The reader of his collection of short stories was encouraged to visit a web site where s/he could find "further adventures in capitalism." More recently, the author has contributed to Babylondon , a hypertext novel, along with James Flint , Penny Cotton and Darren Francis . Check it out on Pulp Faction's site (http://www.pulpfact.demon.co.uk).

There are quite a few short stories by Toby Litt knocking about. One of them is featured in the Girlboy (1999) anthology published by the aforementioned Pulp Faction (a publisher Jeff Noon described as the "literary equivalent of an indie record label"). "A Higher Agency" was included in Neonlit 1 (Quartet Books, 1998), Time Out's annual book of new writing (for weekly Britlit news and two new short stories every month visit the Neonlit site (http://www.neonlit.co.uk/). "My Cold War : February 1998" appears in Fortune Hotel (Hamish Hamilton, 1999), a collection of alternative travel-writing (which also includes, among many others, Douglas Coupland , Geoff Dyer and Will Self ), edited by Sarah Champion who brought you Disco Biscuits (Sceptre, 1997) and Disco 2000 (Sceptre, 1998), the two best-selling anthologies of "new fiction from the chemical generation." The Disco Biscuits site (http://www.discobiscuits.org) has not been updated since 98, but features stories by Irvine Welsh (http://www.irvinewelsh.com) the author of Trainspotting , and Alex Garland of The Beach fame.

Toby Litt's latest offering, Corpsing (Hamish Hamilton, 2000), is a gory, plot-driven thriller written in the pulp mode which owes as much to Tarantino as to Spillane. Litt has described it as "a kind of pulp homage." The narrator, Conrad Redman, who works for cable TV, is having dinner in a fashionable restaurant in London's Soho with Lily, his glamorous ex-girlfriend. A hitman dressed as a cycle courier shoots Lily and wounds Conrad. When he comes out of hospital, Conrad tries to solve the mystery of Lily's murder. Was the real target the man Lily was supposed to have dinner with initially . . . or was it Conrad himself?

Some of Litt's most interesting themes such as the cult of youth reappear here. The hitman, for instance, looks like "a vision of the future - a future where everyone is concerned with keeping their bodies fit and dodging between fastnew technologies of damage." This theme - which is at the heart of contemporary fiction since Thomas Mann 's Death in Venice (1912) and Witold Gombrowicz 's Ferdydurke (1958; an English translation will be published this year) - was best expressed by Litt in "Why Gabriel ?" : "All of this intellect stuff is fine as a consolation (which is how it developed in the first place : Socrates not being Alcibiades) but it doesn't make up for lacking the real modern stuff - the stuff that allows you to live in an up-to-the-minute world."

When James Hawes ' A White Merc With Fins (Jonathan Cape) was published in 1996, it was described as "super-mentholated Zeitgeist for the most coked-up metropolitan nose." Another critic, for some reason, was prompted to write that the novel "sizzles like spit on a pancake griddle." It's a Gen X classic about what happens - or rather what does not - when the "MC [middle-class] ladder" of social mobility gets stuck, when the "long vacation of extended adolescence" is over. The protagonist wakes up at 28 with fuck all to show for it but a receding hairline. He has "to do something radical" to "save" his life . . .

If the first chapter of A White Merc is entitled "How to Get to Moscow," Hawes' second novel, Rancid Aluminium (Jonathan Cape, 1997), takes an ordinary Brit bloke and dumps him in the middle of the Russian mafia. Buy it, if only for this extract where the narrator, caught in an early-morning traffic jam on the M25, feels a sudden urge to buy "one of those little printing-stamps":

I would stamp it in bright red ink on every page of my filofax and on yellow sticky notes. I would plaster these notes all over my office and on the screen of my VDU; I would put them on the milk-bottles in my fridge and the remote-control of my telly and all the mirrors in my house; and especially I would stamp it on Sarah's forehead, so that wherever I go, and especially whenever I look at Sarah and find myself not listening to her, or hear myself droning on to her, I will always read :
this is not a rehearsal
this is not a rehearsal
this is not a rehearsal.

Hawes' new novel, Dead Long Enough (Jonathan Cape, 2000), takes up the "second chance" theme : "Our religion is : Life, Liberty and the pursuit of a second chance. We spend our days in mere rehearsal for the time, the great day, when we will iron it all out and start to really live." Here, as in A White merc, the "second chance" paradise is a paradise lost :

I just want to sleep for a week and wake up in clean linen sheets in a nice flat with tall windows and a garden, and find out that all my blood has been changed and my liver transplanted from out of a sixteen-year-old teetotal virgin and my hair grown back and my clothes washed+ironed and it is Monday, and I have got The Job, and a fully powered-up legit Mastercard in my own real name, in my pocket, in the bag, and in the evening I have a date with this wonderful, nice, normal MC girl, and everything, everything is all right, all right ? I just want to be like everyone else ! I just want to be what I was supposed to be ! I want another chance !

On 29 January 2000, DJ Taylor slammed the "British Bloke Novel" in The Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk) while reviewing Litt and Hawes' latest novels side by side. He accused both authors of "writing by numbers" and "pulling their punches in pursuit of slightly less clever boys."

Zadie Smith made literary history almost three years before publishing a single line. In 1997, at the age of 21, she allegedly sold her novel on the strength of 80 pages for an advance of some £250,000. More than 380 pages later, White Teeth , was published by Hamish Hamilton. It revolves around the friendship between a Bengali Muslim and a working-class Londoner (Zadie herself comes from a mixed-race background : her father is English and her mother Jamaican). The novel has earned her comparisons with Salman Rushdie and a commission to write an article for The New Yorker 's millennial fiction issue. Smith is already working on her second novel, "The Autograph Man."

Alain de Botton was born in Switzerland in 1969, educated at Cambridge and lives in London where he has become very successful indeed. The titles of his novels Essays in Love : A Novel (Macmillan, 1993) or The Romantic Movement : Sex, Shopping and the Novel (Macmillan, 1994) testify to their hybrid, genre-bending nature : a constant oscillation between narrative and theoretical musings.

In 1997, Alain de Botton broke new ground with his best-selling How Proust Can Change Your Life (Picador) which is best described as literary criticism-cum-self-help manual. A TV adaptation of the book was recently broadcast on British television (BBC2) to great acclaim. Alain de Botton's latest offering, The Consolations of Philosophy (published by Hamish Hamilton in Britain and Pantheon in the US), uses philosophy rather than literature as a guide to self-improvement. Schopenhauer can improve your love life, according to de Botton, who prescribes a dose of Seneca as an antidote to road rage. The publication of The Consolations of Philosophy ties in with a six-part TV programme entitled "Philosophy : A Guide to Happiness" (Channel 4).

David Mitchell (31) teaches in Hiroshima and is currently working on his second novel. His first one, Ghostwritten (Sceptre, 1999) has just been published in paperback (Sceptre, 2000). Tibor Fischer described it as an "astounding novel," and A.S. Byatt was so excited by this fresh, new talent that she insisted on reading with him at London's literary festival last year. Subtitled "A Novel in Nine Parts," Ghostwritten is composed of ten interlinked stories set in different locations (Japan, Hong kong, London, Mongolia, St Petersburg) and written in different styles. Well worth checking out.

Spike Magazine (http://www.spikemagazine.com) has published a very interesting interview with Alan Warner , one of the finest representatives of the new Scottish literary scene. Warner (born in 1964) published Morvern Callar (Jonathan Cape) in 1995, These Demented Lands (Jonathan Cape) in 1997 and The Sopranos (Jonathan Cape) in 1998. Warner claims to have been influenced by French existentialism. He describes Morvern Callar as "an existential novel" and writing as an "existential act" : "I see writing as an existential act, an axis between how you live and literature." He rejects Scottish literary nationalism (". . . there is good writing and bad writing and those are the only two types"), and points out the limits of the chemical-generation genre (a "whole literary movement" cannot be based on "writing about nightclub life and ecstasy use"). Warner also talks about the future of the Gutenburg galaxy ("the tactile immediacy of a book in your greasy palm will never die"), regrets the dumbing-down of contemporary British society and evokes his abstract paintings. Both Morvern Callar and The Sopranos are being turned into films. Alan Warner is working on a new novel, originally entitled "At a Fair Old Rate of Knots" but which is now called "The Man Who Walks," about a vagrant "who has no choice but to travel."

In February 2000, Nick Cave , Ian Sinclair, Ken Campbell, Michael Moorcock and Stewart Home appeared at King Mob's launch show. King Mob is a spoken-word record label, created by Paul Smith - no, not the designer, the one who brought Sonic Yout h to British audiences through Blast First. On 11 February 2000, Smith told The Evening Standard (http://www.thisislondon.com) that King Mob not only chooses people they like, but also people "who can perform" : "There has to be a mixture of quality and punk attitude." King Mob also aims "to archive London voices that have been lost, people like Alexander Baron and Emmanuel Litvinoff."



   ITALY


The Cannibals are Italy's answer to America's Generation X and Britain's Chemical Generation. Enrico Brizzi 's first cult novel, published in 1993 at the tender age of 19, started the ball rolling. Brizzi was followed by other young authors like Niccolo Ammaniti , Aldo Nove, Isabella Santacroce or Tiziano Scarpa, several of whom were included in the seminal anthology Gioventu cannibale (Einaudi) which marked the birth of the movement.

Like most literary movements, the Cannibals are a very loose collection of young writers who are lumped together for commercial purposes. Besides their youth, they share a certain number of features : a rejection of their elders' academicism (Moravia is a frequent target), a penchant for Bret Easton Ellis along with a desire to break free from the constraints of literary conventions and theory through post-modernist relativism. Tiziano Scarpa , whose novel and collection of short stories have just been published by Christian Bourgois in France, is eagerly-touted as the best of the bunch. Scarpa writes for television (RAI) and the left-wing daily Il Manifesto . The most controversial aspect of his fiction is the juxtaposition of highbrow (obscure literary references) and lowbrow (a study of pornographic cartoons) subject matter which is often construed as dumbing-down. Those of you who speak French can check out Scarpa at the website of the cultural magazine, Les Inrockuptibles (http://www.lesinrocks.com).



   FRANCE


If you need an introduction to the new wave of French writers and can't speak the lingo, your best bet is to check out XCItés : The Flamingo Book of New French Writing (Flamingo, 1999) which includes all the big names (Marie Desplechin, Virginie Despentes, Michel Houellebecq, Guillaume Dustan, Agnès Desarthe, Lorette Nobécourt, Frédéric Beigbeder, Vincent Ravalec et al ).

Michel Houellebecq , the enfant terrible of the French literary scene, is once again the talk of the town. He has just released his first album, Présence humaine , which is best described as museak : a poetry reading with a lo-fi, easy-listening accompaniment. You can download two tracks free of charge at Peoplesound.fr (http://www.peoplesound.fr).

Houellebecq, who had wanted to meet Bret Easton Ellis for a long time, was interviewed with the American writer in Les Inrockuptibles (14 March 2000). Houellebecq returned to his favourite theme of sexual liberalism ("I get depressed whenever I look at pictures of glamorous models in magazines"), and stated that, being a European writer, his characters were only "moderately good-looking, young and rich" compared with Ellis's. He defined himself as a "moralist" despite having become "the embodiment of political incorrectness" in France.

Houellebecq's first novel Whatever was published by Serpent's Tail (http://www.serpentstail.com) in 1998. You can download the French version at 00h00 (http://www.00h00.com). For information about the film version go to the following site : http://www.lazennec.com/extension. Houellebecq's second novel, Atomised , will be published in May 2000 by Heinemann. Les Amis de Michel Houellebecq is an interesting site devoted to the poet laureate of sexual squalor (http://www.multimania.com/houellebecq/).

ZaZieweb (http://www.zazieweb.com) and Paru.com (http://www.paru.com) are two interesting French literary sites. Inventaire/Invention (http://www.metafort.org/inventaire), a newcomer, is also well worth exploring.



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