The Middle-Aged Man Confronts the Bright-Eyed Kiddies

This is my second post on Greenberg and my first on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I just finished.

Even if you haven’t seen Greenberg, you probably saw the ads/previews [this part starts at 2:09] including the scene where the 40 y.o. Greenberg sits uncomfortably, surrounded at a party by young 20-somethings, expressing his sense of generational alienation: “your parents were too perfect at parenting.  All the Baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs?  You’re all ADD and carpal tunnel… Hope I die before I meet one of you in a job interview.”  Part of what’s funny about the scene is Greenberg’s fight with some of the party-goers about what music to play.  He’s just done cocaine and thinks Duran Duran would be the perfect soundtrack; interestingly, the kids don’t want to play anything current, but AC/DC (I think).  Suggesting that part of the generational divide has to do with the lack of generational divide.  Greenberg actually shares many of the same cultural references and touchstones with these kids, there isn’t the easy and maybe comfortingly blatant taste gap, which renders more ambiguous and unsettling the sharp differences that do exist.  That he wants to listen to Duran Duran definitely marks him off from them, but not for completely obvious reasons.

There’s a similar scene in Freedom when two of the 40ish protagonists, Walter the environmental lawyer and his college roommate Richard Katz (once the leader of the punk band the Traumatics, now achieving new success with an alt-Americana outfit called Walnut Surprise) go to a club in Washington D.C. to see “the suddenly hot band Bright Eyes, fronted by a gifted youngster named Conor Oberst.”  Walter, who is (at this point) idealistic and enthusiastic, loves the show, but it freaks Richard out:

Katz hadn’t gone to a show as an actual audience member in several years, he hadn’t gone to hear a kiddie idol since he’d been a kiddie himself, and he’d become so accustomed to the older crowd at Traumatics and Walnut Surprise events that he’d forgotten how very different a kiddie scene could be.  How almost religious in its collective seriousness…. He and Walter were at least twice the age of everyone else at the club, the flat-haired boys and fashionably unskinny babes….

Kiddies were streaming onto the floor from every portal, Bright-Eyed (what a fucking youth-congratulating name for a band, Katz thought) and bushless-tailed.  His feeling of having crashed did not consist of envy, exactly, or even entirely of having outlived himself.  It was more like despair at the world’s splinteredness.  The nation was fighting two ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster over, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids… with their sweet yearning, their innocent entitlement — to what?  To emotion.  To unadulterated worship of a superspecial band.  To being left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or so on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders…. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being.  A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming.  And so said to him: die.

Completely brilliant and spot-on!  Further evidence of some kind of new generation gap emerging.  I came across this hostile review of the Gary Shteyngart novel that reads it as an “attack on the young,” a mocking salvo in the war between the bitter, uglifying 39-year-olds and the hopeful, pretty 24 year-olds.

It is so on!  As an aging hipster who tries to “keep up,” I’ve definitely been there.  Last year we went to see Richard Thompson and Joanna Newsom (different shows) in close succession, and it was weird how we seemed to be among the youngest in the whole place for Richard T. and among the oldest for Newsom.  It almost felt a little creepy in the latter show.  The Buskirk-Chumley keeps the lights on pretty high and so it all feels very blatant and unavoidable: “yes, I could almost be your dad, is my non-youthful presence a downer for you?”

By the way, for the record, I am a big Conor Oberst fan.  He is now 30 years old, though, so may not be entirely on the side of the kiddies anymore (or quite as bright-eyed — actually my favorite of his albums is his most recent solo record on which he is definitely more jaded than he used to be).  Wonder if Franzen or anyone let him know about the reference or if it came out of the blue; kind of a cool tribute, really.  (There’s also a funny passing reference to Ian McEwan — the character Joey got Atonement from his sister for Christmas and he “struggles to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings;” since Joey is a young Republican, this is not necessarily a diss on Franzen’s part, though a little tricky to interpret.)

Also for the record, Freedom is, as advertised, brilliant and memorable.  I couldn’t stop reading it and got through a big chunk in one long insomniac session.  It feels almost eerily of the moment, the Way We Live Now, unsettlingly consonant with the bad vibes of the summer of 2010 with its gushing oil spill, environmental despair, and calcifying angry politics.  Probably the single most memorable moment of the novel involves the speech that takes a wrong turn and ends with the speaker screaming “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!  WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” until he’s pulled from the mike and violently beaten up (the video of the speech becomes a Youtube internet meme).