Bret Easton Ellis and Generation-X’s Midlife Crisis

The MTV-generation is in the midst of a bit of soul-searching as they reach middle age, but Taylor Antrim finds a very different reaction—and signs of hope, sort of—in the new novels of Bret Easton Ellis and Jennifer Egan.

Sad white guys! The culture’s lousy with them: ruminative, melancholy, more or less privileged dudes age 35-49 wondering what it all adds up to. Last month the Times’ A.O. Scott called it the Gen-X midlife crisis, citing as evidence Sam Lipsyte’s hilarious sad sack novel The Ask and two spring movies, Greenberg and Hot Tub Time Machine. Add to Scott’s piece The National’s recent LP of gentlemanly malaise High Violet, and Bret Easton Ellis’ new novel Imperial Bedrooms, which finds the sociopathic boy drifters of Less Than Zero—Clay, Trent, Julian, Rip—still drifting, still sociopathic, but now unhappily hitting their 40s.

Egan it seems, like so many other artists and writers of her generation, has a case of the blues. (And count me in; I just turned 36—which was honestly sort of a bummer.)

Critics have roughed up Ellis’ novel for its go-nowhere noir plot (And fair enough: Ellis has never been strong on story, least of all here). But Imperial Bedrooms’ self-aware opening pages stylishly convey the bewildering disenfranchisement of a Gen-X idol. Clay was once immortalized for being young, trendy and damaged (by a novel called Less than Zero written by a college classmate of his). Twenty-five years later he’s done reasonably well in his screenwriting career, but having crossed the bright line of 40, his currency is gone. He’s a nullity who drinks and takes drugs to ward off a crippling, generalized fear. Meanwhile, Duran Duran songs exert a Proustian pull: “I fall asleep to the music coming from the Abbey, a song from the past, 'Hungry Like the Wolf,' rising faintly above the leaping chatter of the club, transporting me for one long moment into someone both young and old.”

(Clay does have contemporary taste in music too; in one scene he’s listening to The National, a band that has cornered the market on early-mid-age male sadness. Their latest, High Violet, is nervous, dark-toned, and brilliant, and it offers lyrics Ellis might be jealous of: “With my kid on my shoulders I try/not to hurt anybody I like./I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.”)

Imperial Bedrooms is not great, but in its better moments the novel contributes to our culture’s rich seam of aging slacker angst. Correction: aging male slacker angst. Aren’t there any bummed-out women past the age of 35 expressing their feelings?

There’s at least one: Jennifer Egan, 47, whose kaleidoscopic new novel-in-stories A Visit From the Goon Squad should cement her reputation as one of America’s best, and least predictable, literary novelists. Crowded with well-drawn characters and ranging in setting from 1970s Africa to near-future New York, this is a formally ambitious daisy chain of a novel that traces the lives of aging men and women falling in and out of the rock 'n' roll world. Full of lively, comic storytelling and resonant in theme—youth ends; how sad—it casts a downbeat and very of-the-moment mood.

Egan’s last two novels, Look at Me and The Keep, remain admirably hard to categorize: the first an earnest girl-coming-of-age story with a terrorist subplot and sharp cultural satire; the second, a metafictional-gothic-horror novel with commentary on technology addiction. A Visit From the Goon Squad resists easy summary as well. Like Arthur Phillips’ recent novel The Song is You Egan’s book celebrates the youthful rush of rock music—but she gives herself free rein in subject and setting, hopscotching through time and place and introducing characters before shelving them for chapters at a time. Good Squad does have a gravitational center though, and her name is Sasha, a nervy member of Gen X who works in the record industry and stays single into her 30s. We meet her in the novel’s opening chapter pilfering a wallet out of another woman’s purse in a New York hotel bathroom. It’s not that she needs the money; theft keeps her feeling alive, connected to her irresponsible youth. She’s seeing a therapist about her compulsion, but getting better (i.e. growing up) isn’t a happy prospect. “[She and her therapist] were writing a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings and second chances. But in that direction lay only sorrow.”

Adulthood brings sorrow: Egan’s book is straightforward on that point. Look at Sasha’s boss, record mogul Bennie Salazar, 44, painfully nostalgic for his years as a teenage San Francisco punk. These days he’s anxiety ridden, married, rich, and can’t get an erection. For the latter problem he’s taking an Aztec remedy for impotency: pinch flakes of real gold into coffee and drink. In two months he’s spent $8,000 on gold flakes. Egan writes: “A coke habit would have cost him less.”

Ted Hollander is another character deadened by adulthood. Viewing a relief of Orpheus and Eurydice in Naples while searching for a youthful Sasha (one of Egan’s detours into the past) he feels “a fibrillating excitement such as he hadn’t felt in years…” (Ironic of course that the Orpheus story—with its theme of don’t look back—makes him feel this way.)

By contrast Egan’s younger, precocious characters pulse with life. Lulu is the 9-year-old, eerily self-assured daughter of a disgraced New York publicist, and Jocelyn, a teenager in 1979 San Francisco, boldly carries on an affair with an older man. And then there’s a dazzling chapter set in the near future in which Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter Alison tells a story entirely through PowerPoint slides. Miraculously, the approach succeeds, feeling less like a gimmick than a fresh and ruthlessly economical take on narrative.

But even when the kids are in the picture, the shadow of middle age haunts A Visit From the Goon Squad. Egan it seems, like so many other artists and writers of her generation, has a case of the blues. (And count me in; I just turned 36—which was honestly sort of a bummer.) But here’s the upside: The aging Gen-X boy’s club has been broken up a little, and Egan’s obvious empathy for her characters feels like a balm. A Visit From the Goon Squad is the kind of sad book that makes you feel better about being sad.

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Taylor Antrim is fiction critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.