Boomer1 by Daniel Torday
Sure, every generation despises the cultural values of the generation that rises to replace it. If you’re 50, scientific laws guarantee that music popular among contemporary 15-year-olds will sound awful to you. In Boomer1, Daniel Torday imagines the converse. A millennial takes to YouTube to identify what he perceives as the unforgivable crimes of the baby boomer generation, who’ve allegedly hoarded all the jobs to bleed the economy dry. This story is a darkly funny meditation on how times evolve, and the inevitable casualties of war during such transitions. Torday is a fiction writer far better than we probably deserve, but his excellent prose and insightful observations make all the more pronounced the novel’s shortcomings in pacing and balance. Still, Boomer1 soars in its perceptive portrayal of the music scene, digital journalism and literary publishing. Despite being set in 2010, it’s amazing how much this is very much a novel of our times.
Mark’s twenties didn’t go all that great. He played in an NYC-based band for several years, went back to school for a PhD in English, then found himself unable to land a job as a professor. He waltzed through a relationship with bandmate Cassie, and was far too tone-deaf to anticipate she might not be on board with his marriage proposal. (It turned out she was not.) Plagued by debt and unemployment, he retreats to his parents’ Baltimore home, helmed by his mother Julia, a former musician herself. Stewing in his parents’ proverbial and literal basement, he reaches a conclusion on the cause of the job scarcity: The baby boomer generation is greedily holding onto their jobs far longer than warranted. He takes to YouTube to anonymously air his grievances, and his series of videos quickly becomes a viral sensation that balloons into a movement, complete with protests and eventually terrorism.
The narrative devotes separate attention to Mark, Cassie and Julia, but unfortunately only Mark’s throughline comes across as the true point of the book. Cassie and Julia’s threads, while engaging in themselves, read like expanded short stories that pre-existed the core idea for Boomer1. At times Torday’s attempts to connect the threads feel forced and even distracting in their repetitiveness. During an extensive treatment of Julia’s backstory, the narrator states multiple times that Julia was contemplating all these heavy topics while cleaning out the room that her son would now move back into. Meanwhile, after the collapse of Cassie and Mark’s band and relationship, Cassie navigates the world of digital media journalism and doesn’t look back—except when the author forces her to do so. The way the characters reunite in the latter phases of the story appears to be for its own sake, and to warrant this Today included an (admittedly entertaining) section on why people should stay in touch with their exes.
Boomer1 is a tale of intergenerational differences and each group’s propensity to lash out at the other. Julia views streaming video as responsible for millennials’ misguided understanding of how time works. You can play, skip, replay, jump ahead and rewind, all resulting in an illusion of control that’s bound to backfire in the context of reality. It’s emblematic of Mark’s gross misperception of cause-and-effect; when he’s denied the marriage and job security to which he feels entitled, he takes to YouTube to whine, quickly finding an audience eager to eat it up. Julia herself suffers her own perceptual impairment, in the form of considerable hearing loss due to years of abuse by concert amplifiers. In order to perceive the world around her, she relies on lip reading, application and recognition of prior knowledge, and searching for what she expects to find—all the necessary ingredients for confirmation bias.
Yet, are all these intergenerational differences arbitrary? Is each respective generation trapped in its own Plato’s cave, incapable of true empathy and communication with members of a different cave? Torday acknowledges this possibility, and in doing so widely avoids reaching too far in an attempt to draw definite sociological conclusions. The effectiveness of intergenerational “warfare” is also highly suspect. A boomer can lecture a millennial for being lazy and entitled, and a millennial can criticize a boomer for being curmudgeonly and selfish, but in either case their respective fortresses of identity remain intact indefinitely. Adding violence and terrorism to the equation does not move this needle any further.
It’s fairly disappointing that only one of the three protagonists moves their lives forward meaningfully, while the other two languish in stasis, even regression. Through this contrast, Boomer1 demonstrates that the generation you’re born into does not dictate your fate, and shouldn’t be held solely responsible for your success or failure. Torday also doesn’t forget to point out that the wheel of time continues its turn. In the book’s later sections we get subtle indications that the millennial generation must eventually forfeit its infancy. Mark and Cassie see their first signs of crow’s feet, and the next generation slowly starts to carve their identity and in doing so displace them, perhaps one day to rebel against them.