[Santa Fe Writer’s Project; 2022]

Truth and reconciliation: it’s not something we do well here in the United States. We’re much better at, and more enamored with, irony.

But Liz Prato is having none of that. “That” being the caustic irony that her (and my) generation tried to weaponize against the overwhelming bullshit of the Reagan-Bush era in which we came of age. As the title of her new essay collection, Kids In America: A Gen X Reckoning, makes clear, Prato is in search of honest answers to sincere questions like:

  • How did Gen X manage to fashion its youthful anger into such profound apathy?
  • How did Gen X’s obsession with lost causes distract it from seizing the opportunity to radically change this country for the better?
  • Why were Gen Xers such spectators, and how did spectatorship frame who they thought they were?
  • Why were Gen Xers content (at some level) to treat themselves as collateral damage?
  • How did Gen X become the owner of the most impoverished privilege enjoyed by any recent American generation?

And, most crucially:

  • Why should anyone give a fuck about Gen X in 2022?

Spoiler alert: Prato believes in caring. There would be no book to discuss otherwise, I suppose. But what’s perhaps most surprising—and affecting—about Kids In America is how Prato leverages form to bolster her arguments. These essays do not slot easily into any genre: critical, personal, or lyrical. But they are exercises in the style-slash-aesthetics-slash-ethics of the younger generations that now dominate American pop culture. They are, in a word that feels very Gen X-y in its mumbly adjectivization, “memoiristic.”

It’s a move both smart and deft. Gen Xers may not be well-represented in the multimedia franchises Millennials, Zoomers, and Alphas inhabit, but Prato does her damnedest to up the stakes for essentially supporting characters whose B storylines are in constant danger of derailing. (Not for nothing is Iron Man, the Asshole Jesus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portrayed by a quintessentially broken Gen Xer whose real-life struggles with sobriety are understood to give him permission to play every scene with sad dad bravado.)

Which is also to say that Kids In America thankfully doesn’t dwell on the common icons of the 90s: Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Quentin Tarantino, etc. Instead, Prato trains her attention on “lower” yet broader cultural phenomena. As her deconstruction (how 90s!) of Rocky’s role in endorsing rape culture demonstrates, that tactic works best when applied to the forces of normalization, not outliers whose own inner workings validate her methodology. Or take Beverly Hills 90210, the subject of what is arguably the book’s centerpiece. When 90210 wasn’t fluff or Velveeta, it was counterfeit and creatively bankrupt in its treatment of white affluence. But 90210 was also zeitgeisty in the way only a cultural expression always two or three steps behind the trends it’s chasing can be. As Prato points out, there was good reason for this latency: “It was a show about Gen X kids, written by late Baby Boomers, and produced by The Greatest Generation.” That this latency is easily explained, however, doesn’t make it irrelevant. Intergenerational conflict is part of every generation’s experience. Arguably, that conflict is more heightened now than it has been since the 1960s, perhaps because the warfare isn’t cold like it was for Gen X. Now it’s open.

Almost defiantly, Kids in America focuses on topics and themes that were the stuff of the very special episodes that filled Gen X’s latchkey primetimes: sexual abuse, whether perpetrated by trusted adults or peers who we thought shared our affinities; stereotypically virulent bigotry; hedonism; doing what’s right versus doing what’s “cool.” But even though Prato exposes plenty of personal details—most memorably in “A Change in Altitude,” a diaristic revisitation of her misspent summer of 1986—her lens is actually structural in the Foucauldian sense. Or, to use more contemporary parlance, “systemic.”

Prato’s concern with power dynamics and the role discourse plays in shaping (and constraining) behaviors is evident from the first pages of Kids in America. Take these sentences from “Gen X Prep,” the book’s opening essay/overture: “We are the last generation to live without fear of being gunned down in school. We are the last generation raised without awareness of neurocognitive disorders and mental illness in kids . . . We are the first generation to lose our virginity when sex was linked to a deadly disease—one that our president long refused to name, much less give a shit about.”

Here is where Kids in America does its heaviest lifting. Without being doctrinaire—by paying attention rather than theorizing—Prato reveals just how much death those structures have dealt. Moreover, she shows how our generation was among the first to be sacrificed to the far right-wing death cults that began amassing real political capital in the 1980s. “We lost ourselves to freak accidents and addiction and mental illness and suicide and rare cancers and white supremacy,” she reminds us. Relative to the Boomers and Millennials, our population was already thin. That it has been thinned further by American cruelty has been consequential for the course of history in ways we, as a species, probably don’t have time to try and comprehend.

Prato touches on this “issue” now and again, but this reader occasionally wished she confronted it more head-on. Essays like “Culture Shock,” about the isolation inflicted upon her mixed-race classmate, Bettina, in early 80s Denver, and “Blood Brothers,” which catalogs the particular forms of self-destruction sought out by white, hetero, cisgender Gen X males, certainly afford such opportunities. Luckily, the writing is bold and provocative enough to spur readers to pile on and plow forward with their own questions.

That said, one of many criticisms to be leveled at Gen X is that it’s never really gotten transcendence right. Prato, to her credit, works against that grain. In Kids in America’s third and final act, she opens her field of inquiry, writing essays that are ultimately about aging. Maybe, as the collection’s closing essay, “Falling Off Radar” (an ironic title) suggests, now is the time for Gen Xers to tell their truths, to write about the trauma we didn’t realize was trauma in the modern sense—that is, ownable and constitutive—as we were living through it. Prato holds up her friend Annie, who would have perished with her friends when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Scotland in 1988 had she not delayed her return to the United States, as a model. The essay’s final paragraph is worth quoting in full:

In 2019, Annie flew to Lockerbie, to the memorial built for her friends and the other victims. She talked with people who’d been there, on the ground, who’d sorted through the crash debris. And she wrote. She is still writing. She is putting a voice to her loss. The story of the bombing and how she survived belongs to her, and the story of my family and how I survived belongs to me. And the place where those stories crisscross is the story of us all.

I’m not sure I share the faith articulated here. Recent history, which may be the beginning of the end of history as we know it, does not make a compelling argument for the salvific properties of narrative, personal or otherwise. I suppose the operative question is whether enough ticks remain on the Doomsday clock for us to imagine workable alternatives to our present. I’d like to think so, but I’d also like to believe I’m less mired in a middle-aged nostalgia for mid-twentieth century progressiveness-cum-solutionism than I am. From that vantage, I can’t help but fear that we (Gen X) wasted too much of our prolonged adolescence cataloging our institutions’ obvious, ultimately non-fatal flaws—and then gamifying that habit.

Consequently, I kind of wish “Falling Off Radar” had ended a few pages earlier, with these words:

Annie finally accepted that she would never understand why she wasn’t on that plane, why her friends were. Why Abdel Basset al-Megrahi planted a bomb in the forward baggage hold that day.

“If you don’t accept that in some way, in some fashion,” she said to me, “how do you move forward?”

Then again, I am so Gen X it hurts. Yet it hurts less after having read Kids in America. Somehow, I am still here, and so I can say that I will happily read more books by Liz Prato.

Joe Milazzo is a Dallas-based novelist and poet. He is also an Associate Editor at Southwest Review and the Editor of Surveyor Books. You can learn more about his work at joe-milazzo.com.

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