Pop Art and Gen X

Among the recurring extra-textual elements of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (bumper stickers, textbook styled definitions, cloud images on the first page of each chapter), are pop art images inspired by 1960’s artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein’s signature style is a combination of the comic and the advertisement, most recognizable for their shraply defined figures, bold lines, speech bubbles, and the use of Benday Dots. Lichtenstein frequently used actual comic-book panels for his subjects, drawing from DC Comics’ Run for Love! (for 1963 work Drowning Girl) and All-American War (for 1963 work Whaam!). Usually, Lichtenstein would select frames relevant to pop culture. His most famous images are those of women making comments about relationships, though he produced many pieces focusing on war as well.

The website of British contemporary art museum the Tate Modern describes Lichtenstein’s methods in producing his work this way by writing:

Throughout the 1960s, Lichtenstein frequently drew on commercial art sources such as comic images or advertisements, attracted by the way highly emotional subject matter could be depicted using detached techniques. Transferring this to a painting context, Lichtenstein could present powerfully charged scenes in an impersonal manner, leaving the viewer to decipher meanings for themselves. (Read here)

The way that Lichtenstein changes these images can be seen by visiting David Barsalou’s website, Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein, which features the original comic book version of the image alongside Lichtenstein’s appropriated version.

Conceptually, Lichtenstein’s pop art is a perfect match for Generation X: the characters in the novel struggle with the conflicts between their emotions and what is presented to them in culture: they attempt to escape the kinds of situations represented by the images, but ultimately end up facing them regardless.

The image that appears next to the title page of Generation X complies exactly with Lichtenstein’s style: it features a close-up of a woman’s head in bold lines and a Benday Dot background with a speech bubble reading “Don’t worry, Mother…if the marriage doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced.” Others include a woman sitting in front of a computer at a desk, saying, “I try to imagine myself in this same job one year from now…but I’m just not seeing any pictures” (34). Another: two men looking at records, one saying to the other, “The Violet Roadkills used to be way better…back before they sold out” (85). Another: a woman with a styled bob looking into a hand-held mirror saying, “Hang on Brad…my hair doesn’t look 1940’s enough” (89).

The “I’m just not seeing any pictures” corresponds with the definition for “veal fattening pen,” i.e. a cubicle, that Coupland offers (20). Claire, Dag, and Andy have all avoided what they consider to be soul-crushing work situations by getting less ambitious “McJobs,” but they still don’t seem to be “seeing the pictures” that the woman in the image yearns for. Andy, for instance, runs from a prestigious internship in Japan when he realizes that he doesn’t want to be like the successful Mr. Takamichi, whose most prized possession is a paparazzi shot of Marilyn Monroe featuring frontal nudity. The fact that Mr. Takamachi’s fumblings are rooted represented by the quintessential pop-culture icon furthers the connection with the Lichtenstein-inspired images.

I broke out into a sweat and the words of Rilke, the poet, entered my brain–his notion that we are all of us born with a letter inside us, and that only if we are true to ourselves, may we be allowed to read it before we die. The burning blood in my ears told me that Mr. Takamachi had somehow mistaken the Monroe photo in the safe for the letter inside of himself, and that I, myself, was in peril of making some sort of similar mistake. (58)

Despite Andy’s decision to run from the job to avoid Mr. Takamachi’s fate by working a McJob a living in a bungalow amongst his friends, however, he still must face the challenges of emotional disconnect that Lichtenstein’s work suggests. Just as Lichtenstein’s use of advertising techniques causes a sense of detachment between viewers of his works and the characters and emotional problems suggested by them, Coupland’s characters at times seem unable to form the strong bonds they long for: despite their closeness, any one of them could potentially leave at the drop of a hat (i.e. Dag’s foray to New Mexico, Elvissa’s abrupt decision to leave the group and her friendship with Claire and become a gardener at a convent); a reminder of the difficulty (or even impossibility) of avoiding the prevailing, cultural sense of detachment.

The fact that a reader of Generation X must  shift back and forth between reading the main narrative to the comic-like images further contributes to the overall sense of disconnect present in the work. The reader is likely to be distracted by the image, and taking the time to view it, read the speech bubble featured in it, and process its meaning as a whole makes for a disorienting experience upon returning to the novel’s main narrative. Choosing not to regard the images at all, conversely, is likely to create a sense of uneasiness about missing out on key concepts and deviating from the standard reading process of evaluating everything on the page. Ultimately, Coupland’s inclusion of pop art into Generation X enforces the novel’s overarching theme of disconnect both in subject matter and form.

Elise Hawthorne


~ by elisehawthorne on February 22, 2010.

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