At last, Generation X – who were threatening to be forever known as disaffected cynics with a yen for disco drugs and urgent sex with strangers in toilets – are now being taken seriously as ‘grown-up novelists’. Christos Tsiolkas’ novel, The Slap, has recently accumulated even more ‘serius culcha’ points with the ABC’s TV adaptation, and local musician/writer Peggy Frew has made a new contribution to the cultural landscape with her debut novel, House of Sticks. Gen X, for want of a better label, are being recognised as the creators of and commentators on a new vision of middle-class Australia.
The Slap and House of Sticks reflect upon and make statements about contemporary identity and are therefore susceptible to criticism and strong reactions from readers who might relate. As a former flannel-wearing shoe gazer, I have a personal stake in how these newly respectable voices of a generation might come across to readers. And how do these voices – our voices – sound? As a friend and I cynically joke, we sound like self-absorbed people in Northcote.
It is tricky work trying to define a generation, especially one’s own; doing so privileges the perspective of those making the distinction, and assumes that everyone in that bracket has had a similar life experience. Likewise, when a novel is said to represent a generation, it is unfair to presume it should stand in for some sort of universal definition. Thus, the very specific group I believe is represented by some of the characters in Tsiolkas’ and Frew’s work is made up of educated, politically minded urban ‘outsiders’ from Melbourne who came of age in the nineties and once spat in the face of the great suburban dream, but who now awkwardly find themselves in a kind of ambivalent stupor amongst middle-class comfort.
Both these novels document family dramas unfolding in the urban landscape (a genre as old as the co-existence of the metropolis and the written word). Both novels feature adult characters at odds with the domestic situation they’ve found themselves in, as if the forces of economics and convention just pushed them there against their will.
In House of Sticks, Bonnie is a thirty-something mother of three kids under five. She has postponed her career as a rock musician and struggles with the mundane difficulties of motherhood and domesticity in the ‘burbs whilst trying hard to appear like she has everything under control. Broader in its social scope, The Slap presents the conflicting perspectives of a host of characters who are angry or dissatisfied. Among our Gen X representatives here are Hector and Aisha, a good-looking, successful couple with two young kids. Hector lusts after a high-school girl, berating himself for being a cliché, but pursuing the affair anyway. Aisha is a superwoman, capable and perfect, but her brightness hides an equally superficial, cynical heart.
Why are these characters so unhappy with their lot? They are all privileged, comfortable and ensconced within seemingly happy families. An ethical dilemma is at the heart of both novels, which serves as a narrative device to expose the ambivalence of Gen X in the domestic sphere.
In House of Sticks, Bonnie’s non-confrontational husband Pete allows a friend, Doug, to intrude upon their domestic realm against her will. Doug comes across as a classic working-class loser, politely threatening, as if always challenging Bonnie to reject him without ever articulating this challenge aloud. Although he gets along well with her kids, Doug’s inability to find permanent work or a place to live means he encroaches on their lives without an end date, which seems like a form of torture to Bonnie, who refers to him as one of ‘these people’ who don’t have boundaries.
In the grand scheme of things, Doug’s intrusion in their lives doesn’t seem like the kind of event that could cause the disintegration of a contemporary nuclear family. The children love him and he brings them gifts; despite a distinctly leering demeanor, he never cracks on to Bonnie; and although he enters Bonnie and Pete’s house while they’re away (upon Pete’s invitation), he leaves no trace except the faint smell of a lady friend’s tawdry perfume and some empty bottles in the recycling bin. Yet his mere presence is what triggers the breakdown of Bonnie’s fragile fortress. As a result, Bonnie comes across as selfish and self-absorbed, hell-bent on justifying her need to keep her traditional family unit in a continuous ‘us against the world’ paradigm, yet hating herself for it.
The central ethical conceit in The Slap is the slap itself, which a grown man gives to an unruly child at a barbecue. The novel poses the question of whether it is okay to hit the annoying child of flaky parents who won’t do the disciplining themselves. Harry, the second-generation Greek-Australian man who slapped the child, is diametrically opposed to the child’s skippy hippy parents. But he’s also physically abusive in his private life. Friends and family align themselves on either side of the conflict according to their world-view, which simultaneously produces an addictive soapie effect and a complex document of current social mores and prejudices in the suburbs. In the aftermath of the slap, Hector quickly withdraws from his fantasy affair with the schoolgirl. As with House of Sticks’ Bonnie, the intrusion of a nasty social reality into his life causes him to retreat into his nuclear family unit.
These writers and their creations are very aware of the profound problems of identity and how they are influenced by broader social conditions. As ambivalent representatives of Gen X, the characters of Hector, Aisha and Bonnie rejected conservative, middle-class social values in their youth, and wanted different things for themselves. Bonnie reminisces about her life before children, developing her musical talents in share houses and playing for audiences. Her current unhappiness is also reflected in her envious admiration for a successful rock star friend, Mickey. At the ill-fated BBQ of The Slap, Hector – secretly high on amphetamines – is embarrassed to admit to his job as a public servant, bitterly remembering that his youthful dream was to be a jazz rock star. Aisha is left feeling suicidal when Rosie, her life-long friend and comrade in a wild youth lashes out at her: ‘Fuck you, fuck your cunt of a husband, fuck your children, your whole perfect, middle-class family.’ All three characters regress to taking party drugs or getting pissed to alleviate their misery and to feel young and free again.
The essence of the younger versions of these characters could also be gleaned from a lineage of Australian Gen X fiction, such as the urgency and anger in Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995); the irreverence of Praise by Andrew McGahan (1992); or, further afield, the aimless, cynical oddities of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World (1997). Life seemed immediate and excitingly hopeless for the characters in these novels. But had their lives continued off the page, had they finished their educations, got decent-paying jobs, met someone and had kids, they may have taken a more privileged position within the economic spectrum and ended up comfy and conservative in the domestic realm they once sneered at.
Which is exactly where Hector, Aisha, and Bonnie have found themselves in The Slap and House of Sticks. As such, they are characters who inhabit the domestic sphere very awkwardly; they seem self-absorbed and ambivalent, with a measure of self-hatred because of their retreat into middle-class comfort and the loss of dreams and values they once held true.
Another theme in both these novels is the connection to the next generation – the universal symbol of hope for the future. What have these characters got to offer their young? In The Slap, Tsiolkas seems to put most of his faith in the kids, the sympathetic victims of their elders’ cowardly behaviour. High-school graduates Connie and Richie – still smarting from being love-struck over sexy, older Hector – reach the end of the novel having made their peace and forged their ongoing friendship. The final chapter depicts them heading out to a music festival, high as kites. As strong as The Slap is as a social document of an older generation, this vision of youthful hope just seems like a rehash of Loaded, in which Tsiolkas depicts a younger, more bolshie Gen X, rampantly rejecting the old guard with rough sex and hard drugs.
It is interesting that this is what Tsiolkas seems nostalgic for in representing his young people. As fun and elating as it is, getting high and going to music festivals is not the symbol of freedom it once was. In House of Sticks, Bonnie’s children are written broadly and without real character. They are perhaps too small to be influential personalities and come across as props to Bonnie’s struggles. Despite this, there is one touching scene at the end that points to the everyday patience, effort and awareness that David Foster Wallace once described was a way to get out of ‘our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation’. One day in the lounge room, Bonnie pulls out her guitar and plays music for her daughter, who stops what she’s doing, sits on the couch and listens with rapt attention. Bonnie seems to come to an understanding that teaching her loved ones about what she knows to be good and true (music, art) is – as Foster Wallace urged – the way to grow.
It’s difficult to tell if Bonnie is meant to be quite as self-involved and unaware as she reads. Frew’s novel is perhaps an almost too subtle depiction of self-loathing, but she has successfully fleshed out the premise of an innocuous threat to middle-class stability, with a final demonstration that small sacrifices count for a lot. Tsiolkas has written a bolder and more consciously articulate novel that illustrates how the passions of youth might give way to a conservative, middle-class life. His vision of future generation is darker; he seems to be warning that purely self-interested cycles of human life will only be repeated over and over again.
It’s quite a shock, seeing oneself reflected in the literature of our contemporaries and not really liking what one sees there. On the surface, it feels as if these characters and narratives that might represent ‘my generation’ are just a bit too fixated on their first-world problems. Yet, social realist fiction would be boring if it simply presented the warmest, best behaved, most politically correct faces of humanity. Also, I suspect these particular representations of Gen X are part of a bigger picture, an age-old narrative loop describing the tensions that occur when the young inevitably grow older and have to sacrifice and compromise, and finally ‘grow up’.
Maggie Scott is a literary-cine-TV-phile. She writes on matters of the arts because she has big gaps in her knowledge of science.