Ex-Child Prodigies and Broken Promises: The Millennial Meta-Narrative of Coping with Failure
Edgar and I started dating in May of 2012, and while we don't really remember exactly when, we try to celebrate it in our own way (obviously, as a married couple, the wedding anniversary takes precedence these days, but having excuses to celebrate isn't a bad thing by any stretch.) Given our recent viewing habits, I got us a subscription to Crunchyroll and VRV, where we have already worked our way through Mob Psycho 100 – an excellent anime that I've heard referred to as “Post-Shonen”, which interested me a great deal – but also started watching a comedy series called Gary and His Demons.
It's an uncomfortable show, deeply in the “black comedy” zone of the genre spectrum, but there's another element at work that made it resonate with us. Both Edgar and I were positioned, when we were younger, as child prodigies: we were “special” in some way. I survived a traumatic brain injury when I was very young, and graduated with honors from both high school and college. Edgar has been working in publishing since age 10, and put out poems and stories in a professional capacity before reaching the age of majority.
At the risk of telling too much: both of us crashed and burned. Oddly, both in 2009 (though I had a second, much more literal, crash in 2012, which knocked me out of the MFA program that I was in at the time.) Perhaps this attuned us to what I'm calling “The Millennial Meta-Narrative”: the story of a formerly successful person who comes back and finds (if not a reclamation of their recognition) peace with the world.
You can find examples of this in Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails (2006, Punk Planet Books) and Gerard Way's Umbrella Academy (Dark Horse, 2007-2013), which are clear precursors, but it has received a bit more of a flowering in Lev Grossman's The Magicians Series (2009, 2011, 2014; Viking), and. my favorite of the lot, Edgar Cantero's Meddling Kids (2017, Doubleday and Blumhouse), though there are still others – the genre in question seems to be resonating with the cadre of adults who came of age around the 2008 Financial Crisis.
In television, there is the aforementioned Gary and His Demons, but a more widely recognized form (isolated from some other elements that I feel make the genre really shine) is BoJack Horseman.
I was unintentionally introduced to this genre when I happened upon The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander (an author whose Chronicles of Prydain books had been my introduction to fantasy,) in the school library during Junior High without having access to Westmark. There's a certain feeling that permeates the second books of trilogies when isolated from their surroundings, like finding a severed limb on the sidewalk: something happened here, and I can puzzle out a bit of it, but not all.
I think that this resonates with many of us because we were given such reason to hope for the future when we were younger and it didn’t pan out. We were born in the “End of History,” when western liberal democracy had triumphed over the Soviet Union, and the future was supposed to just be an asymptotically perfecting version of the present with no huge revisions.
Then September 11th happened (interestingly, my birthday is September 10th. The towers fell on the Tuesday after my 15th birthday; I had a bit of a crisis in 2016 when I realized I had lived as long after this event as I had before it,) and we were thrown into a world of constant war, but it was far from home.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and brought the chaos abroad back home. We were confronted with the fact that we had lived in a temporally-bounded island of stability, surrounded by an ocean of uncertainty. The images on the news began to shatter those walls. We were forced to acknowledge: This could happen.
And finally, the 2008 Financial Crisis robbed many of us of our futures. We had grown up being told that anything was possible, that with enough grit and determination you could achieve any goal. When the market indicators returned to normal around 2012, we didn't see a rush of new opportunities. Even the best-off among us will have our wages depressed for the rest of our lives because of that.
As an aside: I think that the Obama presidency, while better than a hypothetical McCain or Romney presidency, was a bit of a disappointment. The needle could have been moved, but instead of saving the people, banks and automakers were bailed out. Our parents lost their homes, and we lost our futures.
This is the culture we live in, so an aesthetic reaction is inevitable: here we have a generation of people who had been told that the world was their oyster, that there were endless opportunities ahead of them, and then we're told as we get to the on-boarding platform for the ride, it closes down and we've got to wait. It's no wonder that we're upset. It's no wonder that our heroes aren't those who made it. Our heroes are those who crashed and burned and crawled from the wreckage.
The Millennial Meta-Narrative, as I see it, goes like this:
We are introduced to a broken person who was once a success.
We are shown the world that they live in.
Some factor calls this broken hero back into the arena they once had success in.
We are shown a deconstructed, horrible version of what that is.
The hero succeeds or fails, but moves a step closer to closure or enlightenment because of it.
Perhaps they don't necessarily become a “good” person (whatever that means,) but because many of us may never own homes or raise children, some of us have come up with our own signifiers of adulthood: we are polite and stoic, we clean up after ourselves, we work hard. To many of us, our elders seem to lack many of the things that signify true emotional adulthood, and so it is this personal development that allows us to ride the utopian impulse to adulthood, even if we're crashing on the couch or working three jobs.
I'm thinking as I write this, and I think that another great example of this meta-narrative might be the movie Mad Max: Fury Road – it fits all the necessary beats. This suggests something else, a potential connection that might easily explain it: what we have here is a sort of heart-transplanted parody, with irony cut out and replaced by a core of radical sincerity (though this seems an odd thing to say when considering BoJack Horseman as an example).
Another possibility, a bit early and oriented to a younger audience might be Avatar: The Last Airbender, especially those episodes that deal with the central character grappling with his destiny and the moral weight of what he needs to do to fulfill it. But when you get down to it, the central character, Aang, is a deeply traumatized child and the survivor of a genocide, told to shoulder a heavy burden for the sake of the entire world. Behind a blithe exterior, you get the sense of an emotionally under-equipped mind trying to find connection and fulfillment in a world that demands everything from him.
This generational meta-narrative is, I feel, a more conventionally prosocial aesthetic reaction to our situation than we could have had. To some extent, that’s a good thing and to some extent I feel it’s a bad thing. There are other reactions, and I feel that it’s better than the other most common aesthetic seized upon by members of my generation, what I think of as the “conventionally antisocial hedonism” that many millennials are lambasted for (as if the grift behind the Fyre Festival was anywhere near as notable as those behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis or the ongoing Student Loan crisis.) I feel that both are a sublimated
Other media has taken less conventional approaches, seeming to go so far as to paint the situation that birthed the Millennial Meta-narrative as less forgivable – not a foreclosure of the future but a saturnine feeding frenzy, to which the only acceptable response is outrage. The video game Persona 5 is the clearest example of this that I can think of, but I think that it is probably going to be the meta-narrative for the more conscious members of the generation following my own (I think “Gen Z” is as awful a name as “Generation Y” and I can't wait for someone to come up with a better name.)