Millennials vs Boomers

Boomer1     Daniel Torday     (2018)

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The hard-driving music, the hand-rolled joints, the idiosyncratic clothing, the privileged youth in prosperous times, the disillusionment with war that their elders got them into: it’s the Baby Boomers, right? Well, those descriptors could also be applied to the Millennial generation, except that Millennials might call those smokes “spliffs.”  

Daniel Torday’s deeply satirical novel pits the Boomers against the Millennials in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. It’s not clear whether the Boomers or the Millennials come out worse in his view, which is a very dark view.  

Millennial Mark Brumfeld has an editorial job in New York City and a PhD in English under his belt. He and  his girlfriend, Cassie Black, both play in bluegrass bands, groovin’ to retro tunes by the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley. When Mark’s career and relationship both fall apart, he has to move to his parents’ basement in Baltimore. He vents his rage against the economic machine in videos that he posts on the Dark Web, ranting about how the Baby Boomers have had all the luck and now refuse to retire to allow Millennials to secure jobs. Mark styles himself as “Boomer1,” even though he was born in 1980 (go figure). His ominous online mantras include “Retire or we’ll retire you” and “boom boom.”  

Some sections of this novel are presented from Mark’s viewpoint and other sections follow Cassie as she figures out her sexual orientation and her career trajectory. The main Boomer character is Julia, Mark’s mother, who was a musician on the fringes of stardom back in the late 1960s. She gets her chapters, too, sometimes flashing back forty years, but these chapters do not pack the power of the rest of the novel. The plot gets hot when Mark’s anti-Boomer videos spark a nationwide revolution among Millennials, leading to vandalism and violence against prominent Boomers and against the institutions that support them. 

I think that many of the Boomers do deserve blame for abandoning the causes of civil rights and pacifism that characterized their heyday in the 1960s. After the protest marches, the Boomers graduated, put on the suits, joined the establishment, and inherited money from the Greatest Generation. The Boomers could afford to buy houses because they had little or no student loan debt. And they spoiled their kids, the Millennials, nodding in agreement as those kids followed their dreams, however impractical. I understand the Millennial anger, expressed here by Boomer1 in portraying his parents’ generation: “They were not the purveyors nor the architects nor the executors of the noble task nor the players in the great game. They were the recipients of the spoils, and they basked in it. They received the signifier but not the sign, they were the first generation to have fall in their lap all the lucre without exerting one iota of the toil.” (112)  

However, novelist Torday liberally inserts indicators of ambivalence and incongruity into his characterizations and into his narrative. Both Mark and Cassie, for example, have alternate names. Cassie was born Claire Stankowitcz. Mark, in addition to his Boomer1 handle, calls himself “Isaac Abramson,” the biblical figure led to ritual sacrifice by his father. For all his education, Mark makes foolish financial choices that exacerbate his situation. (He thought he could get a tenure-track academic job in English? Really? That’s been a long shot since the 1970s.) Meanwhile, Cassie exploits the burgeoning world of banal digital news while she reveals Mark’s naiveté and the oversimplification of his anti-Boomer crusade. Symbols are also tossed around. Mark’s Boomer mother, Julia, had her hearing damaged in those amped-up rock concerts of yore and refuses to wear a hearing aid for her increasing deafness, so she truly can’t hear what Mark is saying about the Boomers.  

Boomer1 is an enigmatic novel, with no clear heroes or villains. Torday will challenge your assumptions and stereotypes with his well-paced and thoughtful novel.

A Connecticut Family

The Children     Ann Leary     (2017)

Oh, no, I thought—another fluffy tale of wacky, self-absorbed New England trust-fund kiddies seeking personal gratification at the expense of those around them. I almost sent The Children back to the library. But I kept reading and watched the plot twisting, folding back on itself, and finally turning dark, very dark. The fluff definitely receded.

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You have to pay close attention up front to sort out all the family connections in this novel. Charlotte Maynard, a 29-year-old single, agoraphobic woman, is one of the kiddies and is the narrator of The Children. She lives in a huge Connecticut house named Lakeside with her zany mother, Joan, who exercises excessively and pinches pennies ludicrously. Charlotte is involved intermittently with Everett, the groundskeeper at Lakeside. Charlotte’s sister is Sally, a gifted musician with mental health problems. Stepbrothers Spin and Perry Whitman are offspring from Charlotte’s stepfather’s first marriage, which ended acrimoniously when the stepfather, Whit Whitman, fell for Joan. As the novel opens, Whit has recently died, and the family dynamics are reshuffling. Got all that?

Spin, who teaches and lives at a nearby private school, arrives at Lakeside with a girlfriend, Laurel Atwood, who is preternaturally accomplished in skiing, fiction writing, and life hacks. Laurel’s life hacks veer daringly into illegal territory. Charlotte doesn’t see this as a problem, because she herself runs a profitable internet scam, a fake “mommy blog” with corporate sponsorship. But Sally, who is back at Lakeside from New York after losing her orchestra job, has serious reservations about Laurel.

This is the setup, but I won’t spoil the plot development for you. Author Ann Leary takes the basic framework  in directions you’d never expect, with characters who are believable despite—or maybe because of—their oddities. We see people and events through the eyes of Charlotte, which creates a layer of reportorial unreliability, since Charlotte is an admitted scammer. Through Charlotte, Leary pokes fun at several aspects of contemporary culture, especially internet culture. For example, Charlotte’s wildly successful blog revolves around children whom she’s invented (another reference to the novel’s title), and Leary revels in skewering the blog’s fervent mommy-followers. The technological references, which are up-to-the-minute as of 2017, may soon date this novel, but for now it’s trendy in a good way.

The pace of The Children is fast, the dialogue is clever and authentic, and the storyline is well executed. I see the novel as a work of warning about the consequences of seemingly innocuous lies and the seeming innocuousness of consequential lies. The human heart can have unexpectedly sinister depths. That’s the dark part. Yet Charlotte reminds us that we can always count on the stars, which are as stable as it gets in our universe. “Once you find Polaris, you’ve found true north. You can navigate anywhere from there.  Find a landmark . . . You have to find a hill or a house or a tree while it’s still dark; that way you’ll be oriented the next day, when the stars are gone.” (245)

Bonus Post: Big Data

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are     Seth Stephens-Davidowitz     (2017)

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Forget all those social science surveys that ask 200 people about their sexual preferences or their attitudes towards those outside their own racial group. Everybody lies, or at least enough people lie to make the results of such surveys highly suspect. We also lie to our families, to our friends, and to our doctors. This is the message from economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who mines vast troves of anonymous data from Google searches, social media sites, and similar sources to try to get closer to the truth.

Stephens-Davidowitz has an engaging way of presenting the complex statistical analyses that he performs. He proceeds by topic, telling stories that uncover fallacies in our assumptions about subjects such as prejudice, child abuse, abortion, economic mobility, and basketball stardom. For example, there’s an assumption that African American boys from impoverished neighborhoods have a good chance of making it in the National Basketball Association. Stephens-Davidowitz crunches the Big Data and finds that it’s actually mostly middle-class African American boys who succeed in basketball, though there are notable exceptions, like LeBron James.

The analyses of Americans’ views on race—particularly in relation to the presidential elections of 2008, 2012, and 2016—are enlightening. Stephens-Davidowitz studied millions of Google searches for such topics as racist jokes, as well as the rise of the website Stormfront, which he describes as “America’s most popular online hate site” (137). He concludes, “Trump rode a wave of white nationalism. There is no evidence here that he created a wave of white nationalism. Obama’s election led to a surge in the white nationalist movement. Trump’s election seems to be a response to that.  . . .States disproportionately affected by the Great Recession saw no comparative increase in Google searches for Stormfront.” (139) In other words, racism has probably played a larger role than economic hardship in recent elections.

To his credit, Stephens-Davidowitz does not view everything through the lens of the internet. “The Big Data revolution is less about collecting more and more data. It is about collecting the right data. But the internet isn’t the only place where you can collect new data and where getting the right data can have profoundly disruptive results.” (62) He recounts the story of how one horse enthusiast’s meticulous data collection about the physical characteristics of race horses led to a highly accurate method for predicting winners.

Stephens-Davidowitz does touch on the issue of the ethics of tapping Big Data for understanding human nature, particularly with respect to financial transactions. “Do we want to live in a world in which companies use the words we write to predict whether we will pay back a loan? It is, at a minimum, creepy—and quite possibly, scary.” (260) He also has plenty of cautions against confusing correlation with causality. But I would have liked to see more discussion in this book about the ethical implications of using Big Data in the first place. Do we give up all our rights to privacy when we initiate a search on Google, even if big data is supposedly anonymous? Where are the protections for human subjects that are required in more conventional social science surveys? How can we be sure of the motives of the data seekers typing in those Google queries?

And what about corporate abuse of Big Data?  Stephens-Davidowitz says, “Data on the internet . . . can tell businesses which customers to avoid and which they can exploit. It can also tell customers the businesses they should avoid and who is trying to exploit them. Big Data to date has helped both sides in the struggle between consumers and corporations. We have to make sure it remains a fair fight.” (265) I’m skeptical that consumers can be protected against corporations in the current political climate. And the conclusions that Stephens-Davidowitz presents about Americans’ racial prejudices must be pretty disheartening to anyone interested in societal equity and social justice. All the more reason why you should read this important book, which explains an effective means of probing the truth beneath the lies that everybody tells.

This post was a mid-week bonus. Come back to the Cedar Park Book Blog on Friday for the regular post!