Post-radical depression

We all know about ‘Chick Lit’ – the phenomenon of young female writers getting big advances for novels based on the singleton lives of themselves and their friends.

What’s next, it seems, is ‘Guilt-trip Lit’, where the menopausal mothers of the women’s fiction world turn their attention to the fucked-up lives of their grown-up children’s generation.

Or maybe it’s just Joanna Trollope. Trollope is acclaimed for chronicling, in painful, painstaking detail, middle-class family life in contemporary England. Now in her late fifties with children in their thirties, Trollope has devoted her new book, Girl from the South, to the trials and tribulations of thirtysomething singletons in London and South Carolina. The interesting question is not how well she does this – by most accounts, she pulls it off with characteristic skill – but why.

Trollope’s publishers, Bloomsbury, sent out a handy ‘Q & A’ with review copies of Girl from the South (1). Both the Qs and the As have been faithfully reiterated in media interviews. What’s the plot? ‘It’s about the plight of young singletons – the generation who seem to have so much, yet to be (great generalisation this, I know) so unhappy and lost.’ What inspired it? Bridget Jones. Why are thirtysomethings unhappy and lost? Trollope doesn’t really know. All she seems to know for definite is that what should have gone right has gone, somehow, badly wrong.

Trollope’s exposition of the thirtysomething problem seems similar to that put forward by several columnists, commentators and non-fiction writers of a certain age, and semi-articulated by the Chick Litters themselves. Too many choices, no sense of direction, unrealistic expectations and a sense of awkwardness between the sexes – all these are the dilemmas said to blight the lives of the generation currently hanging in the balance between youth and middle age.

The consensus, such as it is, rests on the notion that the youth of today are reaping the rewards brought out by the youth of the Sixties – namely, the smashing of stifling social conventions surrounding the family, church and traditional morality. Yet the new freedoms afforded by these upheavals has created a generation that does not feel free so much as disorientated; that is more likely to feel perpetually dissatisfied with nothing in particular than it is to be happy and liberated. This is true, so far as it goes. Where it leads us is another matter.

Trollope is no conservative. She clearly sees the Sixties as a time of great positive change; and, as she told Robert McCrum of the UK Observer, ‘the older generation feels exasperated by [the younger generation’s] inability to take advantage of what seems to us huge pluses’ (2). This exasperation is guardedly, almost guiltily expressed, and situated in a context of general sympathy for the thirtysomethings – because, as she says of her characters in Girl from the South, ‘I felt all of them…were trying to get somewhere.…I felt they were lost rather than spoiled, neglected rather than over-indulged’. (3)

Trollope is not alone in her refusal to condemn thirtysomethings, instead attempting to feel their pain. Those who came of age in the Sixties hold on resolutely to the positive aspects of that social change – sexual equality, the sexual revolution, the rejection of traditional norms and values, and so on. But they refuse to acknowledge the extent to which the Sixties project only succeeded halfway. It destroyed the old, certainly; but by failing to put anything new and progressive in its place, the Sixties legacy was uncertainty and insecurity.

The culture wars of the Sixties fed into the collapse of the left-right struggle for fundamental social change. In short, while the battle was won over whether individuals could sleep around and dress as they liked, the battle over competing visions of the world was lost. Having failed to change the world, the Sixties generation refocused their sights downwards and inwards, upon what individuals could gain from the new lifestyle choices now opened up to them.

Now, faced with the image of their children’s generation of sad singletons, their victory seems like a hollow one – and they feel, somehow, to blame. After all, if those who were young in the Sixties really felt confident in their achievements, they would be slating us rather than sympathising. But their search for reasons why they failed is taking them in all the wrong places.

In attempting to explain why the Bridget Jones generation went wrong, Joanna Trollope throws up a string of questions that she explores in her novel. ‘Do they have too much materially? Do they have too many choices? Did the Sixties Swingers make, actually, very careless and selfish parents? Are girls, especially, too romantically idealistic? Does the breakdown of family life make the young people turn to each other for support instead? Has the women’s movement a part to play?’ (4) These, too, reflect the explanations usually given for the thirtysomething crisis – and while they seem to make superficial sense, deep down, everybody finds them unconvincing. Having lots of choices does not, in itself, lead somebody to become paralysed by indecision, just as having lots of money does not inevitably lead to a wasted life.

The most popular reason for what went wrong – and the one Trollope seems inclined towards – is the parents. ‘We were the first hands-on generation’, she told me, at a launch event for Girl from the South. ‘Our children have seen us at our worst, as well as at our best. We were also a greatly divorced generation’ (5). Coming from Trollope, who has two failed marriages behind her, this is not a moraliser’s attempt to blame other people, but an expression of the self-doubt experienced by her generation about so much of what they thought they were doing right. Because they have not faced up to the failure of the Sixties project, they look towards the role played by their own behaviour. Which seems to me to be a self-flagellation too far.

Trollope’s insights into the characteristics of the thirtysomething generation are more perceptive and intelligent than many, and they are a welcome contribution to the debate. But what she describes as the ‘lostness, rudderlessness’ experienced by thirtysomethings comes from growing up in an insecure world, filled with superficial obsessions and devoid of big ideas. When our parents’ generation indulges us and blames itself, this doesn’t take anybody very far. Although, in Trollope’s case, it does make for another good novel.

First published by spiked, 22 February 2002.

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