Douglas Coupland Essay - Critical Essays

Coupland, Douglas (Vol. 133)


Douglas Coupland 1961-

Canadian novelist, short story writer, and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Coupland's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 85.

Labeled by critics as the spokesman of a generation at the publication of his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991), Coupland examines the vagaries of capitalist culture in his writing, interspersing his prose with references to consumer items, television shows, and other aspects of popular-culture. Coupland even crafts prose resembling the hypertext of computers—presenting a highly influential postmodernist pastiche. Seen as facile by some, many find that Coupland uncannily captures the zeitgeist of the late twentieth century. Though Coupland has protested the tag of “the voice of generation X,” he pursues a probing examination of the cultural values in which his characters, typically the young and disillusioned, search for meaning in the absence of God or any other traditional “metanarratives.” Confronted by pressing existential questions, Coupland's characters struggle to construct their own personal meanings from the culture and environment that surrounds them.

Biographical Information

Coupland was born on a NATO base in Baden-Sollingen, Germany, to Canadians Douglas Charles Thomas and C. Janet Coupland. Coupland's parents, originally from the Eastern Canadian cities of Ottawa and Montreal, migrated to the West Coast for a new house in a new suburb, pursuing a “sixties vision to unyoke themselves from the past” and to free their children from “the burden of history,” according to Coupland. The third of four sons, Coupland was raised in Vancouver. He studied sculpting at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, and later continued his studies in Japan and Italy. In 1984 he veered away from sculpting and embarked on a two-year course in Japanese business science in Hawaii which he completed in 1986. He then worked in Tokyo, but decided to return to Vancouver to pursue magazine writing. A series of lifestyle stories for a Montreal magazine led Coupland to publish Generation X. It was both a critical and popular success and Coupland was dubbed by reviewers and critics as the voice of “generation X”—a term used to describe those born during the 1960s and 1970s in the shadow of the baby boomers. The members of generation X are typified by sinking career prospects and increasingly trivial “McJobs” (Coupland's term) in an atmosphere of impending nuclear apocalypse. In spite of the apparent gloom of his subject matter, Coupland manages to infuse humor and optimism in his work. With the publication of Shampoo Planet (1992) he drew epithets from critics such as “the post-Cold War Kerouac.” Coupland has not consciously sought popular or commercial success; he describes his writing as “a big protoplasm of ideas that explodes and the characters emerge from the guck.” The emergent characters question their rootless existence and attempt to find significance in lives which are dominated by sophisticated technical gadgetry and material comforts. Coupland continued to inspect existential themes in Life After God, published in 1994, and in subsequent works such as Microserfs (1995), Polaroids from the Dead (1996), and Girlfriend in a Coma (1997).

Major Works

Coupland's best known work is his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. In a narrative comprised of several mini-narratives told by the novel's protagonists Dag, Andy, and Claire, the book focuses on three children of the 1960s who seek refuge from lives of diminishing prospects. Shampoo Planet, Coupland's second novel, juxtaposes the idealism of the 1960s with the materialist 1980s. The narrator, Tyler Johnson, is born on a commune, lives with his ex-hippie divorced mother, and wants to work at the local high-tech company. The narrator's choices tend toward idealism, and the novel is seen by commentators as presenting a more sanguine world view than Generation X. Idealism turns to transcendentalism in Life After God, a series of stories exploring religious and spiritual concerns. Life After God, Coupland averred, was written during a period of his life in which he was searching for a formal spiritual framework. Lacking a formal belief system, he developed a personal moral system in Life After God using components taken from West Coast suburban culture, such as shopping malls, nature, and fast-food restaurants. Microserfs returns to the mundane world of computer programmers and offers reflections on contemporary cultural values. The narrative centers on a group of Seattle-area “twenty-something” employees of the Microsoft empire who try to pursue their own dreams of success. The novel has been characterized as a “blend of Waiting for Godot and Melrose Place,” due to its “smart-alecky angst.” Polaroids from the Dead is a collection of 24 essays and stories that begins with descriptions of Grateful Dead concerts, and then diverges into accounts of varied locales such as East Berlin, the Bahamas, the Los Alamos nuclear site, Washington, Palo Alto, and Vancouver. Girlfriend in a Coma is in part loosely based on the true-life story of Karen Ann Quinlan, a New Jersey teenager who spent 10 years in a coma before dying in 1985.

Critical Reception

Critic John Fraser calls Coupland “a major literary and sociological event … cruising in guru stratosphere … the Jack Kerouac of his generation”; while others, such as Genevieve Stultaford, refer to him as “a cult writer for the disaffected.” Coupland, however, protests: “I speak for myself, not for a generation, I never have.” Still, critics insist on Coupland's immense influence and skillful ability to express the concerns of his time. G. P. Lainsbury, assessing the strength of Coupland's style, wrote that Generation X succeeds in encountering “the largeness and complexity of the postmodern world.” “Coupland teaches survival of the hippest as the world plunges toward a ‘new thought-based economy,’” according to Stultaford. This same “hip” style is noted by John Burns who describes Polaroids from the Dead as “a hip swipe at the crumbling barrier between fiction and non-fiction.” Peter Jukes characterized Microserfs as follows: “It begins to do for the modern information worker what Gogol's Diary of a Madman did for the poor white-collar clerks of Tsarist Russia.” Along with praise for Coupland's powerfully astute observations of modern life, critics admire his unique descriptive style and the specificity of his narrators' descriptions of contemporary culture. Several commentators praise Coupland's ability to not only reflect popular culture, but to actually create a new “cultural lexicon.” Yet others complain that the point of Coupland's cleverness is often lost; one reviewer stating that Coupland “utterly botches the job” as explorer and documenter of contemporary society, offering caricatures in place of characters. Most reviewers, however, sense in Coupland an engaging earnestness not present in other writers with similar approaches and thematic concerns. He differs greatly from writers of “cyber-reality” or cyber-punk such as William Gibson in that he is not “obsessed by pixels and bits,” writes Peter Jukes. Noting Coupland's affinity for capturing human emotion and frailty, Jukes writes: “Coupland's subject is the ‘biomass’ squeezed between the silicon, the ‘carbon-based forms’ that still sweat, flake away, love, grieve and fail.”

Principal Works

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (novel) 1991

Shampoo Planet (novel) 1992

Life After God (short stories) 1994

Microserfs (novel) 1995

Polaroids from the Dead (essays and short stories) 1996

Girlfriend in a Coma (novel) 1997

Miss Wyoming (novel) 2000

(The entire section is 34 words.)


John Williams (review date 29 May 1992)

SOURCE: “Charmers,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 5, No. 204, May 29, 1992, p. 40.

[In the following excerpt, Williams discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Generation X.]

Coupland has come out of nowhere with Generation X, a book enveloped in clouds of hype optimistically proclaiming it as that publishing Holy Grail, “the new Catcher in the Rye”. Here at last, so the hype has it, is the book that defines a twentysomething generation, Generation X: a term publishers seem inordinately pleased with, considering it has had at least two previous outings. First it was the title of an early 1960s piece of youth-cult sociology, and then...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Sybil Steinberg (review date 15 June 1992)

SOURCE: Review of Shampoo Planet, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 27, June 15, 1992, p. 82.

[In the following review, Steinberg exposes Shampoo Planet's “road-novel roots.”]

Just a year after the cult success of his Generation X, with its tales of 20-somethings, Coupland takes on the vid-kids one dance-step younger. With hair-care perfection and spot-on irony, Tyler Johnson, this book's [Shampoo Planet] narrator, emerges from his hippie mom's two divorces and his hometown circle of friends to wander Europe (“I'm overdosing on history here”). But once he's safely back home and with his steady girlfriend Anna-Louise, his Euro-fling...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Victor Dwyer (review date 24 August 1992)

SOURCE: “Puberty Blues: An Author Scans a New Generation,” in Maclean's, Vol. 105, No. 34, August 24, 1992, p. 60.

[In the following review, Dwyer compares the themes and characters of Shampoo Planet to those presented in Generation X.]

Ever since he characterized the outlook of his generation as one of “lessness—a philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself to diminishing expectations,” Douglas Coupland has been a case study in success. With the 1991 publication of his first novel, Generation X, in which he coined several such expressions and spun a story of three twentysomething friends living in the shadow of the older baby boomers, Coupland...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Tom Shone (review date 19 February 1993)

SOURCE: “Teen Themes,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4690, February 19, 1993, p. 23.

[In the following review, Shone comments on the novel Shampoo Planet, noting Coupland's affinity for cataloging youthful attitudes, hip theories, and witticisms.]

An extensive collection of hair-care products was one of the ways in which Bret Easton Ellis indicated Patrick Bateman's psychosis in American Psycho, his shocker of two years ago. In Douglas Coupland's second novel, Shampoo Planet, it acts as an index of a different sort of psychosis: the rapturous self-absorption of its narrator, Tyler, in his own consumer cosmos. “Which shampoo shall I use...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

John Fraser (essay date March 1994)

SOURCE: “The Dalai Lama of Generation X,” in Saturday Night, Vol. 109, No. 2, March 1994, pp. 8-9.

[In the following review, Fraser presents a subjective portrait of Coupland, revealing details of the novelist's biography and relating them to Coupland's fiction.]

The day Douglas Coupland hid out under my desk was not the best day for me either. For one thing, the comptroller had snitched to the publisher that my editorial costs were up for the second month in a row. And, as usual, the undereditors were trying to make sure I ruled nothing around this place except my CD player (and that only if I kept the volume low). So this isn't just a cute column opener:...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)

Mike Snider (essay date 7 March 1994)

SOURCE: “The X-Man,” in USA Today, March 7, 1994, pp. D1-D2.

[In the following essay, Snider outlines the development of Coupland's career and the evolution of his thematic interests.]

A makeshift sign on the ticket window reads: “9:50 show—Reality Bites—sold out.”

“See, they don't need to make my book into a movie. Everybody else already has,” deadpans Douglas Coupland, whose 1991 campus cult-hit novel Generation X made him a sought-after, yet reluctant, spokesman for the post-baby boom generation.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (its full title), the first novel from the Canadian writer,...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)

Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 29 July 1994)

SOURCE: “Trouble in Paradise,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 7, No. 313, July 29, 1994, p. 39.

[In the following review of Life After God, Mannes-Abbott summarizes the issues raised in Coupland's work.]

A couple of years and novels separate Douglas Coupland and Jim Lewis, while a couple of words describe their projects here. They are both books about the possibility of and the necessity for New Edens: oases for desert life. Like a number of American writers over the past decade, from Easton Ellis, Janowitz and McInerney to Cooper and Tillman, their point of departure is the blankest of blank pages. Both books are written against the affectless prose...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Rick Perlstein (review date 26 June 1995)

SOURCE: Review of Microserfs, in The Nation, Vol. 260, No. 25, June 26, 1995, p. 934.

[In the following review of Microserfs, Perlstein critiques the value of Coupland's insights into contemporary culture.]

The Microserfs of Douglas Coupland's latest novel [Microserfs] are the men and women in the gray flannel shirts, working through the weekend. Boys and girls, really: These twentynothing vassals of Bill Gates's software empire live mired in bogs of arrested Oedipal development, toiling away days and nights in desperate competition for even the malignant attentions of an imperious and absent Father. “This morning, just after 11:00,” the book...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Dan Bortolotti (review date September 1995)

SOURCE: “The Powerbook of Daniel,” in Books in Canada, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, September, 1995, pp. 30-31.

[In the following review, Bortolotti considers the ways in which Coupland's characters come to terms with the “amorality of their technological milieu.”]

Though he continues to reap the benefits of it, Douglas Coupland says he has tired of being the voice of the twenty somethings. He won't even discuss Generation X in interviews any more, and he recently argued in Details magazine that it was boomers in the media who appropriated his lexicon and turned him into a spokesman for the demographically challenged. In Microserfs, his fourth book of...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

James Aley (review date 18 September 1995)

SOURCE: “Tales from Slacker Hell,” in Fortune, Vol. 132, No. 6, September 18, 1995, p. 235.

[In the following review of Microserfs, Aley evaluates the substance of Coupland's characters and prose style.]

Toward the end of Microserfs, Douglas Coupland's latest novel, one of the characters angrily demands to know who on earth ever started the media hype surrounding “slackers,” that allegedly disaffected cohort of people born in the 1960s and the early 1970s.

Who, indeed. Coupland is the author of Generation X, the urtext of slackerhood, and has made a career of plumbing the minds of baby-busters, Xers, or whatever you want...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Peter Jukes (review date 10 November 1995)

SOURCE: “Get a (Digital) Life,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 378, November 10, 1995, p. 37.

[In the following review, Jukes compares a journalistic account of the computer software profession with Coupland's Microserfs and assesses the novelist's depiction of cyberculture.]

The digital revolution has brought its prophets and mystics—the breathless theorising of Wired, or William Gibson's disembodied cyberspace—but what it has so far lacked is a sober, wry realism. It is as though the Late Gothic Age were to be remembered solely through Aquinas' theology or the visions of Dante, without a Chaucer or a Rabelais to chronicle the carnal...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)

G. P. Lainsbury (essay date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “Generation X and the End of History,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 58, Spring, 1996, pp. 229-40.

[In the following essay, Lainsbury examines the philosophical and cultural context of Coupland's Generation X.]

Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture is an example of that rarest of literary phenomena—a “serious” novel that has achieved widespread popular recognition. According to the perverse logic of the literary establishment, the novel's popularity calls into question its validity as a literary text. And yet this is a novel worth looking at seriously, if only for the influence it has had on contemporary...

(The entire section is 4718 words.)

John Burns (essay date May 1996)

SOURCE: “Polaroids from the Head,” in Quill and Quire, Vol. 62, No. 5, May, 1996, pp. 1, 32.

[In the following essay, Burns provides a character sketch of Coupland, relating his observations of Coupland's fiction.]

Douglas Coupland is trying to sneak a peek at my notepad. He surveys the few lines I have written there, then leans back, and as our waiter approaches, mentions casually that I possess the handwriting of a serial killer. I harbour little doubt he is well versed in psychopath chirography, so I take care to hide my notebook from the staff here at Capers, a wholefood restaurant in downtown Vancouver.

Doug Coupland and I are indulging in...

(The entire section is 1370 words.)

Genevieve Stultaford (review date 13 May 1996)

SOURCE: Review of Polaroids from the Dead, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 20, May 13, 1996, p. 66.

[In the following brief review, Stultaford provides an outline of the plot, themes, and style of Polaroids from the Dead.]

A cult writer for the disaffected (Generation X), Coupland combines manic poetry and scary precision in his dazzling, deft takes on modern life and non-living. Illustrated with 42 black and white photographs, this collection [Polaroids from the Dead] of 24 mini-essays and short fictions (all but three of which ran in Spin, New Republic, etc.) opens with several pieces on a series of Grateful Dead concerts that...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Maclean's (review date 20 April 1998)

Maclean's (review date 20 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Life After Irony,” in Maclean's, Vol. III, No. 16, April 20, 1998, p. 61.

[In the following review, the critic provides a summary of the features of Girlfriend in a Coma and considers Coupland's development as a writer.]

Douglas Coupland gives the impression of someone in a hurry—and he is. In Toronto for a brief stopover last month, just a couple of weeks before the release of his latest novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, the Vancouver-area writer has popped in to the Art Gallery of Ontario to take in exhibits featuring two of his favorite artists. First, it's The Warhol Look, a...

(The entire section is 1482 words.)