Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1155
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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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
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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 name for Billy Idol's vaguely seminal punk combo.
Generation X's Unique Selling Point is its fetching square format and wide margins peppered with zappy neologisms (e.g., “Ozmosis: The inability of one's job to live up to one's self-image”), cartoons and rather vapid sub-Jenny Holzer slogans (“You are not your ego”, “Bench press your IQ”). All of which is OK for the first few pages but rather rapidly runs out of steam, as do the novel's pretensions to deep-and-meaningfulness; i.e., a certain amount of irritating millennial tosh and much aimless use of nuclear symbolism.
Underneath the fancy-dan trappings, though, Generation X is a surprisingly endearing read: the tale of three middle-class drifters in their late twenties, refugees from yuppism, who have dropped out to Palm Springs, a kitsch oasis on the edge of the California desert. Here they work at aimless “McJobs” in bars and shops, and tell each other deadpan weird bedtime stories. It's a kind of updated Jules et Jim in which neither of them gets the girl: self-conscious as hell, but charming too.
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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 babe Stephanie shows up and unleashes a wanderlust he thought he'd filed away. Tyler, whose entrepreneurial goals are tidy as his hair, finds himself on the road, seeing the motor lodge vistas of his own land (“Convenience stores—the economic engine of the New Order”), and finally landing in his “personal Dark Ages” at a “McJob” on the wing computer at an L.A. Wing-World. In the final pages, as this post-Cold War Kerouac comes of age, Coupland returns to his book's road-novel roots, and finds there a rich and surprising love story. Coupland can dazzle through the cultural info-nonsense with channel-clicking speed, and here he has again captured the brood that grew up on cable and eco-disaster. His young central characters are cynically at ease with the apocalypse in a way that is brave and addictive. This funny, sympathetic and offhandedly brilliant book should become the program guide for Club MTV.
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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 has become the unofficial spokesman of people born between the early 1960s and early 1970s. The book climbed to the top of best-seller lists, sold 150,000 copies in North America, and was translated into 13 languages. Last year, the Vancouver-based author hosted a PBS documentary called The Search for Generation X, and rebuffed requests for advice on the subject by White House policy analysts. Now, Coupland, 30, has turned his attention to a younger generation. In Shampoo Planet, he weaves a wry, upbeat tale of an aspiring yuppie and his offbeat circle of friends, members of a generation that Coupland calls “the Global Teens.”
Although the author is almost twice as old as the main characters in Shampoo Planet, he creates in the book a fictional teenage world that is both convincing and highly entertaining. It is as though the decade that separates him from his latest crop of characters has provided Coupland with a sense of perspective, and levity, that was sometimes lacking in the often bleak, self-absorbed Generation X. And he says that he is glad to be freed from the obligation of representing a generation, a task that he claims he took on only reluctantly after writing the earlier novel. “With Generation X, what started out as characters in a book became representatives of a broad layer of people, and of changing times,” said Coupland in a recent interview. “Still, they were just characters in a novel. That is all they are in the new book, too.”
The third of four sons of a family doctor and his wife, Coupland's first artistic achievement came three years after his graduation from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver when, in 1987, he had a solo sculpture show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Soon after, the restless young man travelled to Hawaii, where he completed a two-year course in Japanese business science. (“I don't know what that was all about,” he says now). Turning to writing, he dabbled in magazine journalism and cartooning before beginning to write fiction—“cold turkey,” as he describes it—with Generation X.
Much of his new book's appeal derives from its likable main character, Tyler Johnson, a hip and hopeful college student living in the northeastern United States. Johnson is based on a character mentioned in Generation X, and Coupland said that he began writing Shampoo Planet in order to expand upon him. As well, he said, he wanted to write a novel with a more positive outlook. “I'm not Pollyannaish, but I'm optimistic about the future,” said Coupland. “I think Shampoo Planet has an optimism about it that Generation X does not.”
Like the Generation X characters, Johnson lives in a world pillaged of breathable air and career opportunities by the powerful baby boomers. Born on a commune in British Columbia, he lives with his divorced mother, Jasmine, a superannuated flower child who for years has kept her three children on “hippie parent alert, inspecting the microwave oven for chunks of hash, before friends came over to watch videos.” He reads Young Achiever magazine, keeps his room, which he calls “the Modernarium,” free of the “hippie, stained-glass decorating sensibility” in the rest of the house, and longs for a job at a local high-tech company.
Tracing a turbulent period during which Johnson breaks up with his girlfriend and begins searching for his father, Coupland keeps an eye trained on his hero's everyday quirks and adolescent philosophies. Among the young man's most prized possessions is an extensive shampoo collection, what his mother calls his “shampoo museum” and his girlfriend calls his “landfill starter kit.” But Johnson reasons that “what's on top of your head says what's inside your head. Once hair goes, all else follows.”
Although Johnson finds cause for hope in healthy hair, and is determined to make the best of his diminishing opportunities, he never completely liberates himself from the sombre outlook of the Generation Xers who preceded him. Johnson's approach to life is tempered by a sober assessment of a world going through “severe shopping withdrawal and severe goal withdrawal,” where convenience stores and the low-pay jobs that they offer appear to be “the economic engine of the New World Order,” and where the sight of a clear-cut forest is so devastating that it moves the young man to tears.
And Coupland makes sure that his hero's successes do not imply pat solutions for an age group facing enormous challenges. Even when an ambitious proposal to turn dump sites into amusement parks wins Johnson a job at the corporation that his mother once firebombed, he remains skeptical about his odds for long-term success. “Old people will always win,” he muses, “the system is absolutely rigged in their favor.” Without the pique of his first book, but with all of its punch, Shampoo Planet shows a maturing author artfully evoking the hopes and dreams of a generation that has good reason to have little of either.
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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 today?” he asks himself, on waking up each morning. “Maybe PsycoPath O the sports shampoo with salon-grade microprotein packed in a manly black injection-moulded plastic motor-oil cannister … ”, and so on through a shelf of similarly ominous sounding products.
Like the brand names with which it chooses to papier-maché together its portrait of the twenty-something generation, Coupland's fiction battles in a crowded marketplace. His first novel, Generation X, published last year, had difficulty standing out, not just from thematically similar works such as the films Slacker and Singles—with which it got rounded up in lifestyle features—but against previous portraits of youthful ennui: the blank generation, the nul generation, Bret Easton Ellis's LA deadbeats, or the generation before that, the original Generation X. What made Coupland think his were so different, so appealing?
As a defensive tactic in his second novel, he has opted, somewhat rashly, for in-built obsolescence. Shampoo Planet bitchily declares Generation X to be “dead” and moves on to what it calls “Global Teens”. The taxonomic bluster is misleading, for this is a more successful attempt to map out essentially the same sensibility.
Unlike the rich New Yorkers at the centre of 1980s bratpack fiction, Tyler and his family are lower middle class and live in the Canadian sticks. Though in their early twenties, he and his sister still live at home. Children of the Reagan era, they can barely remember John Lennon's assassination, and they know who he was only thanks to their divorced mother, Jasmine. A former earth mother of the 1960s, Jasmine is the butt of the novel's tartly humorous opening scenes, in which the children whisk “dinner knives blackened from hash hot-knifing from the sight of friends”, or intone “Earth to mother” whenever she starts to reminisce at the breakfast table. A typical setting for Coupland's plot might have come straight from a television sitcom: an old girlfriend of Tyler's past comes to visit, causing ructions with his present girlfriend, Anne-Louise, a flight to LA and an eventual reconciliation.
Generation X started life as a lifestyle guide, a genesis which showed in its rag-bag format: a collection of statistics and byte-sized aperçus studding a largely irrelevant narrative. In Shampoo Planet, Coupland has taken more care to dramatize his youthful attitudinizing, but only slightly. As in soap operas, scenes last only as long as the supply of witticisms. The book is in fact at its least strained when following the line of least resistence, devolving into a bundle of hip, slick theories, mottos and brand-name checks.
It is here that the success of a novel like this lies. Coupland certainly has an eye for the ersatz sentimentality of much contemporary youth culture. Generation X concluded with its protagonists surrounded by a crowd of adulatory spastic children; ends with a flock of spaniel puppies, licking Tyler's face. Images of babies and childhood fleck the book, and its cover apes the feel-good globalism of Benetton’s advertising campaigns. But the pressure of speaking for his generation sends Coupland off into bluff. His writing often has the air of making finer social distinctions than it is actually capable of. Tyler disdainfully notes “beatific Santa Barbara Jesus teens with velcro neon money belts”, which will get a laugh only from those who don't know that Coupland is winging it. Does he speak for a generation? Not really; Shampoo Planet speaks more of its own desire to speak for a generation than anything else, which is a different sort of blankness from the one advertised.
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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: it really was a bad day, right up to the moment Doug turned up, singed and distraught from an abrasive CBC interview.
He just barged right in, a bit before four in the afternoon—past the receptionist, past one of the undereditors, past my assistant, past all the people who are supposed to protect me. In nearly seven years as editor at Saturday Night, there has never been a more serious breach of security with the one exception of the lady body builder who came after me because we mentioned in an article that she once dabbled in steroids.
Mercifully, Doug has never been into steroids, just bric-a-brac. On this occasion, for example, he was carrying a plastic shopping bag with lots of stuff in it (scarf, notebook, one running shoe, Sony Walkman™, a book, and various magazines). Now that I think about it, I guess the bag wasn't plastic. Maybe heavy cotton. Definitely a breathing fabric. Dianne noticed it when she came into my office. How could she not notice, since she nearly tripped over it. She saw the bag even before she realized its owner—our Douglas—was mere inches away under my desk eating the last two “Nice” biscuits from the lunchroom's Peek Freans™ Family Assortment (Commercial).
But I get ahead of myself.
What I remember clearly was that Doug's bag was b-u-l-g-i-n-g. Like a street person's luggage. (I'd have said “bag lady's” in the old days, but Doug has trained me never to be gender specific unless I can see a safe exit.) I also recall the state he was in. You could tell how upset he was because his voice was high-pitched and he was letting out little moans as he dropped the bag, crawled under the desk, and hugged himself in the fetal position. I said, “Doug?” and he said, “Don't talk to me for a minute.” So I went to our lunchroom to fetch the aforementioned “Nice” biscuits because I thought he probably needed sustenance. Doug's quite thin.
I put the cookies on a Melmac™ plate and gently laid it beside him on the floor. I was still feeling maternal towards him in those days, thirteen months ago. Since then, I have met his real mum in Vancouver and quickly realized I had to write myself into a less redundant role. We communicate ecrivano a ecrivano now, with joyous flashes of mysticism and religion. …
Eventually, the crystals on the “Nice” biscuits—a Prozac™ derivative, I'm sure—did their work and Doug emerged from under my desk, at peace with himself and the universe. Just in time, too. He's young and can get away with this sort of thing. I'm developing arthritic joints and sitting swami-like on the floor to accommodate the sensitivities of a brilliant young writer who is also an Olympic-class control freak is not my idea of how to reach nirvana.
When we were both standing upright, we pretended that what had happened hadn't happened, so we shook hands and said “Hi” and “Great to see you” and “How's everything going?” and “Isn't that terrific news about the new book?” You can only do this with very special friends: mutual awareness, no explanations necessary. Doug and I always got along well, right from the first time we met at H's house. H, it is true, later killed himself. Although the suicide had nothing whatever to do with Doug or me, the stark fact of it nevertheless became a motif of our relationship, at least in my own mind. Clichés, mostly: nothing lasts, don't waste the day, fame is fickle, wealth doesn't bring happiness, brief life is here our portion.
Beyond the clichés, the simple truth of the matter is that I'm very proud of young Douglas these days. Very proud.
I was trying to explain to Barb precisely what a big deal Doug had become. Being difficult and judgmental, of course, Barb chooses to keep him “in perspective.” This means that, so far as she is concerned, Doug is still in the “Michael Arlen mode” (bright young thing, spirit of his age, etc., but still not ready for the high jump). I reject this line entirely. I know Barb only too well and if Doug ever went for her definition of “the high jump” she'd just raise the bar a few notches. I'd rather beat the drum for Doug just as he is today. I've seen his new book of short stories and I was smitten from the beginning. One at a time they came winging their way into Saturday Night's offices, and my favourite can be found on page 46 of this issue.
Ever since he wrote Generation X three years ago and followed it up with Shampoo Planet, Doug has been a major literary and sociological event, especially in North America. In the States, he's cruising around in guru stratosphere: the Jack Kerouac of his generation (the post-boomer generation of disaffected techno-punks who don't know the words to either “God Save the Queen” or “O Canada”), a new-minted McLuhan, Homer to the microserfs. He's been on the cover of Wired. The op-ed page of The New York Times uses him when it tries to appear mod and rad. He is equally important, but for different reasons, to People magazine and The New Republic. Even the Dalai Lama wanted to meet him during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Doug agreed and managed to fit His Holiness into a busy schedule, but he wasn't as impressed with the Lion of Lhasa as he wanted to be. His Holiness may be enjoying the glitterati too much, Doug seemed to indicate. I don't agree. I like the Dalai Lama and I like Doug Coupland, so I feel that if I had been in Los Angeles, it would have made a difference:
“Your Holiness,” I would have said, “this is Douglas. He has his finger on the pulse of our age and you need to know him if you want to understand young people today and the blockade they feel trapped within. He's a nice guy, too: he knows all the slick and clever things that make you laugh, but you can still push right past all that and get quickly to a core that is honest and decent and full of wonder for the world around him.”
“And Doug,” I would also have said, “for heaven's sake, this is His Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who is a lovely, lovely god-man. Forget his relationship with Richard Gere, Doug. Think of the potential of his relationship with y-o-u. He is someone who would enjoy walking with you through the miraculous forest in Capilano Canyon as much as I did on that day I was feeling so low and you cheered me up. Think of the path His Holiness could lead you along, out and away from the blockade and into the sunlit uplands of life. He's shy and brave—very brave—and as full of the wonder of life as you are.”
They should have got on famously, and I regret the missed opportunity to bring together two such good friends in a little cosmos of mutuality. A lost occasion is like a junked cassette tape: difficult to play again.
Doug and I have known each other for the better part of a decade. When I first met him he was a junior employee at filthy-rich Vista magazine, Frank Stronach's state-of-the-art, late-eighties, greed-and-exceed publication (which was not destined to survive the rigours of the recession). Vista was also where Doug developed and refined a lot of his theories for Generation X. The perspective was riveting from his own office cubicle, or “veal-fattening pen” as he called the pre-eminent work space of our time, isolating its sinister interior meaning.
I had just started as editor at Saturday Night, so when we first met he was on the make and I was on the take. That's the way it often is at the beginning of editor-writer relationships. If you're lucky, an opportunity arises for mutual respect to grow and entwine a relationship, like stubborn ivy. Well … ivy or a mass of neurotic nerve endings. Writers are such creatures at times, with equal measures of bravado and egotism masking hideous insecurity. Yet good editors are always on the prowl for new blood. Also, they always esteem and worry about their best writers in ways that sometimes not even lovers would understand. Before my very own eyes, Douglas grew from the nervy kid at Vista to the self-wrought oracle of our age, and he did it with a distinctive style and up-market hustle that still leaves me breathless. Not once, so far as I can tell, did he do a sleazy thing to get where he is. He trudged all the way on his talent alone. Owen Glendower could only “call spirits from the vasty deep”; Douglas Coupland dredges them up everywhere—from microchips to the refuse bags of plastic surgeons in southern California.
I have a prized cache of Couplandiana in my office: a collage on my wall, innumerable faxes in my files, a box of bribes he once sent me from southern California before he wrote Generation X and still had to hustle story ideas. It was a wonderful idea too, the best story idea I've not been able to get into print. Doug was going to go undercover at a McDonald's™ restaurant. He would stay there until he was either fired or named employee-of-the-month—whichever came first. Genius that he is, instead of doing it he identified “McJobs” as the highest sort of employment many members of his turned-off, cynical generation would be able to attain, and astutely left the grunt work of serving the fries to others.
Under my desk, I'm thinking of placing a brass plaque. This is what it would say:
On February 5, 1993, Douglas Coupland hid out here briefly to ponder his life thus far. Upon emerging, he headed directly to the next plateau. This space is now reserved for writers who, having achieved much, need a moment's rest before going on to do even greater things.
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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, now 32, succeeded where many others fell short: It got inside the heads of twenty- and thirtysomethings coming of age in this “accelerated culture,” as Coupland called it.
Media and entertainment types still try to quiz Coupland—a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The New York Times and Wired magazine—on what makes the generation tick. But that's a McJob (defined in X as “low-prestige, low-dignity”) from which the former art school student shrinks. “I speak for myself, not for a generation, I never have,” he asserts. “I seem to travel through life with that one disclaimer.”
His new book, Life After God, may help him shed that onus. Like his choice in movies (Shadowlands won out over Reality Bites), Coupland's collection of short stories leans toward the serious. What's on his mind is on display in Life After God, out three weeks and No. 207 on USA TODAY's best-sellers list.
As the self-styled protagonist puts it in “1,000 Years (Life After God),” the book's last story, growing up “ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless. … (But now at 30) I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched.”
Coupland recently described how he turned his back on irony—“one of my most powerful writing tools”—during a recent progression of e-mail messages, phone conversations (“E-mail-only relationships only go so far”) and over a pasta dinner at a Washington, D.C., restaurant.
Early in a 10-city book tour that just ended in the Pacific Northwest (“It was quite the Tupperware experience”), Coupland looks every bit a “slacker.” His usual cherubic, inside-bookcover likeness has been overrun by several days' worth of auburn stubble, in part to hide the recent removal of a longtime scar.
Born Dec. 30, 1961, on a Canadian NATO base in West Germany, Coupland was raised in Vancouver, where he still lives, as do his parents. But his rich, borderline-nasal monotone is nearly accentless (“from ‘nowhere,’” he says).
Spirituality replaced the material world by accident for Coupland. In search of a low-tech topic after writing his take on ambitious twentysomethings, Shampoo Planet, Coupland decided to explore—no kidding—the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1847. But somehow, short stories “started popping out of me.”
Coupland fashioned them into small books, bound at a nearby Kinko's Copies center, that he gave to friends. “I had no idea they'd become a book-book until near the end.”
So that Life After God kept the feel of these “mini-books,” Coupland asked that it remain smaller than the average hardback. It fits in your back pocket. The back inside cover flap reads: “Please remove cover jacket flap before reading.”
Why? “So the book won't be judged by its cover, and so readers will be aware that they are holding this oddly retro little zero-tech paper-and-word object called a book.”
Coupland constantly tosses out phrases like this. Description and summarization are his specialties. For instance, he can succinctly name as-yet-unnamed objects. At an after-reception reception, small wine glass holders that attach to dinner plates are marveled at. “Schmooze clips,” Coupland deems them.
Longtime Vancouver friend Ian Verchere, a video game developer, says Coupland is always in detail-gathering mode, “like a sponge. If he were at dinner with you, he'd be soaking it all in.”
Details fascinate him. In preparation for doing a story for Wired about young Microsoft employees, Coupland actually moved in with some. “I Gorillas-in-the-Mist-ed with all these people. I feeded with them, went bulk shopping with them.”
Management at the secretive software developer apparently was disconcerted that Coupland nailed personality profiles dead-on with his own neo-journalistic style. “You see yourself in his writing,” says Wired managing editor John Battelle.
Being a writer wasn't in Coupland's plans. But after art school, he began working for a Montreal magazine to fund his sculpting pursuits. A series of twentysomething lifestyle profiles netted him an advance to write a handbook describing the generation. That book mutated into X.
Coupland put some of his art background to use in fashioning six 30-second co-promotions with MTV for Life After God running on the channel throughout this month. Various Coupland personas—“sub-Dougs,” he calls them—appear in the spots.
In one, his living disembodied head nuzzles an early Macintosh monitor—an avant-garde still life. In another, a full-bodied, wool-jacketed Coupland mugs with an unlit pipe in a grainy noir-ish clip. Yet another black-and-white spot has him bewigged as the desert drifter. Over the videos, he reads Life After God sound bites.
The stories reveal a change that Coupland says he's undergoing, a realization that “the Other World (as described—or at least alluded to—in Life After God) is more ‘real’ than our everyday allegedly real world of keyboards, coffee mugs, Toyotas and newspapers, etc. and is hence more worthy of exploration.”
All this probably bubbled forth, Coupland says, because he wrote the stories at a “down period of my life.” Tools he needed to cope “with loss and mortality,” like religion or another belief system, weren't there.
“For me there was nothing—not even the seed of a religious experience to grow from—and I found that I had to build (and continue to) try and build some sort of faith for myself using the components taken from disposable West Coast suburban culture. Malls and nature and fast-food places.”
Coupland's parents wouldn't talk about religion when he was growing up, and the family never celebrated religious holidays like Christmas or Easter.
Likewise, Coupland's characters must cope with divorce, separation and death without benefit of a religious foundation. They ponder how people relate to each other, “to time, to memory, to loss, nature and faith.”
In “1,000 Years (Life After God)”, the main character finally quits taking anti-depressants, gets to know himself and accepts that he needs God to make him a better person.
The stories ring true because Coupland “went to the desert. He went to the valley,” Wired's Battelle says. “Then he created all these great characters that exposed the physical surroundings and then the thoughts you have in those surroundings … like in a car, a desert, the woods.”
Coupland believes his work has found sanctuary in the religious realm. “Everything I write or think about now seems, in the end, to veer toward the religious,” he says. “I can't alter this, and so I try to create from it. This wasn't something I ever expected to happen.”
“I don't know what I ever really expected, but it certainly wasn't this.”
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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 that has often filled it.
It was Coupland whose Generation X gave an impressively sharp voice to the over-educated, under-employed and under-awed children of the 1960s. Shampoo Planet followed and continued to revel in noisy “Time, with its grand, unfightable sweep … foaming, raging and boiling”. Life After God is Coupland's third book, and like third books by Janowitz and Ellis, it is the product of a crisis of seriousness, of hesitance. The change is marked: Shampoo Planet ended with: “wake up—the world is alive”; whereas the tone of this book is—shucks: “life just catches up with you”.
Life After God is a collection of stories with Coupland's narrative breath alarmingly thinned by altitude. “In the Desert” (prefaced in aerosol by “You are the first generation raised without religion”) and “1,000 Years [Life After God]” are the longest and least ineffective. In the latter, Coupland articulates his concern: “Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless.” Paradise for Coupland is his endlessly lamented youth, spent among swimming pools and Lego, Kraft dinners and malls, TV and books about Andy Warhol. These stories head back for it and end up camping in the forest, where time passes naturally and God supplies “the words that tell us we are whole”.
It is an old story. In Generation X he called it “Me-ism”, and it is motored here by a narcissistic sulk rather than the recovery of a “sensation of wonder”, which he correctly identifies as the problem. These stories work up to, rather than out of that sense, while Coupland spends his depleted resources hauling proprietorial inverted commas up around words like nice and normal.
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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 begins, “Michael locked himself in his office and he won't come out. Bill (Bill!) sent Michael this totally wicked flame-mail from hell on the e-mail system—and he just wailed on a chunk of code Michael had written. … The episode was tinged with glamour and we were somewhat jealous.”
Michael—“Using the Bloom County-cartoons-taped-on-the-door index, Michael is certainly the most sensitive coder in Building Seven”—lives with our protagonist, Daniel Underwood, and four others in a college-style group house littered with Nerf toys and pizza boxes, a few miles from the Microsoft “campus.” Microsoft employees are the kind of folks, Coupland reports, who keep kayaks as props in case anyone asks them if they have any hobbies. Daniel, no more gregarious than they, is a red-cheeked American boy—works hard, loves his folks. His mom is sweet, kind and still uses an I.B.M. Selectric; Dad, a specimen of Reaganvintage upward mobility, was hired away by Big Blue from academia in 1985. Daniel's younger brother, Jed, Mom and Dad's favorite, died in a boating accident—“a Labor Day statistic”—when Daniel was 14. Haunted by survivor's guilt, Daniel begins tapping out a diary while writing line after line of bug-free computer code.
In ordinary times we might expect Daniel's tale to hang conveniently on the struggle to shake this morbid legacy and declare psychic independence from his parents (all of them—biological and Bill) and the ghost of his brother, the Labor Day martyr. Not: Dad is called to a big meeting, expecting a promotion, and—surprise!—gets fired. “This whole restructuring business.” Soon enough, for ours are not ordinary times, Dad is working under his son in Michael's hardscrabble video-game startup, a fiftysomething (Generation L?) reduced through computer illiteracy to childish impotence in a contracting economy.
Coupland here is mining urgent territory—a new social realism for the dawn of Postindustry and its unholy trinity of data, downsizing and Darwinism. He's investigating a curious sociological quirk of our age: What happens when the very cultural imagination of a society, nay, the very cultural imagination of a planet, is chartered by an elite of preternaturally gifted computer geeks who play with Nerf toys? (Warning: The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas; the last time a shift this epochal occurred, the world started remaking itself in the image of English shopkeepers.) And he is offering a fictional ethnography of the company that now stands poised to take over every last bodega in cyberspace. Important stuff.
It's a shame, then, that Coupland utterly botches the job. Enumerating this book's failings is like flaming fish in a barrel. In place of characters, he gives us caricatures—Xers spouting on about “Mattel Hot Wheels tracks,” Star Trek and “that old '70s song, ‘Convoy.’” In place of subtle insight wafting from the textures of his storytelling, he hammers meaning at us through the Delphic pronouncements the Microserfs are always nattering at one another. I turn to one at random (I'm serious): “I have noticed that on TV, all of these ‘moments’ are sponsored by corporations. … Karla said, ‘I think that in the future, clocks won't say three o'clock anymore. They'll just get right to the point and call three o'clock, ‘Pepsi.’” And again (I'm not cheating): “
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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 fiction, he seems to express that sentiment through his characters:
Michael was on a rant, quite justified, I thought, about all this media-hype generation nonsense going on at the moment. Apparently we're all “slackers.” “Daniel, who thinks up these things?”
Of course, Coupland thinks up these things. Perhaps not the slacker part of it, but there is a certain amount of “media-hype generation nonsense” in his constant references to mid-'80s sitcoms, The Gap, and Cap'n Crunch. He has continued this with Microserfs, except that here most of the cultural touchstones are technologies.
The book's first chapter was originally written as a short story for Wired magazine, that eminently unreadable bible of the information superwhatchamacallit. The novel is a series of entries in the PowerBook journal of daniel@ microsoft.com, also known as Daniel Underwood, a 26-year-old programmer whose “universe consists of home, Microsoft, and Costco.” His friends and co-workers (same thing) are Todd, Susan, Karla, Michael, Bug, and Abe, all of whom he describes in typical Couplandesque fashion—by listing their dream categories on “Jeopardy!” Daniel's own list, for example, includes “Trash TV of the late ‘70s and early ’80s”; Bug's includes “Macintosh products” and “Psychotic loser friends.”
The title is actually a bit deceptive, because Daniel and his geek friends only work at Microsoft for 89 pages. Then they leave their fief in Redmond, Washington, and head for Palo Alto, California, where they form their own company and develop a computer game called Oop! (Object Oriented Programming), sort of a virtual Lego for CD-ROM.
The decision to leave arises from a desire for “a chance to be ‘One-point-Oh.’ To be the first to do the first version of something.” Spending countless hours coding Oop! Daniel and the troops have little time for a life, a fact not lost on them; the main characters are all highly observant, introspective, and almost painfully ironic. They are, in fact, like most of Coupland's characters: coldly viewing themselves in terms of consumer culture (“I'm vulnerable to identity changes because I'm so desperate to find a niche. I'm like Crystal Pepsi”), yet at the same time capable of shameless sentimentality:
It was actually a lovely, lovely day and the sun was hot and we walked down the streets, and the colors were so exotic and bright and the air so quiet and we felt alive and living.
Microserfs is in many ways a more formally innovative novel than Generation X, as Coupland successfully uses clever textual devices to articulate the technology inherent in the narrative. E-mail, for example, is rendered in a familiar Macintosh screen font, complete with the spelling errors that so frequently appear in hastily sent transmissions. In addition, Daniel wonders:
What if machines right now are like human babies, which have brains but no way of expressing themselves except screaming (crashing)? What would a machine's subconscious look like?
Given the task of rendering it on the page, Coupland uses huge typefaces, white space, lists, and staggered text blocks to give the impression of scattered mechanical thoughts. Of course, Daniel's computer ends up forming thoughts remarkably similar to those of Daniel himself.
Ultimately, as in the story “1000 Years” from Coupland's collection Life after God, the characters in Microserfs are saved from cynicism and despair by rather conventional wisdom that shakes them out of the amorality of their technological milieu. One can almost hear Coupland's own voice when, in a moment of drunken lucidity, one of his characters remarks: “You can't use tech culture as an excuse not to confront personal issues.”
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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 to call them. In his latest iteration, the disaffected young people or serfs all work at Microsoft, a place ruled by an amoral force of nature known as “Bill” (as in “Gates”). The serfs speculate on the limits of Bill's seeming omnipotence and ponder the billion-dollar swings in Bill's stock with the awe of preliterate hunter-gatherers watching the tides.
But despite its title, and to the certain disappointment of Microsoft voyeurs, Microserfs isn't really about Microsoft. It isn't even a novel so much as a long series of anecdotes purporting to reflect on the weird lives of young people in today's transient, downsizing economy. Coupland has compiled a homeric catalogue of post-boomer iconography that caricatures the smart-alecky angst of self-indulgent people in their 20s and 30s. It's a blend of Waiting for Godot and Melrose Place.
The story unspools in the form of the computer diary of Dan Underwood, a 26-year-old software tester at Microsoft who lives with five co-serfs in a group house near Seattle. He and his pals suffer the surreality of sleep-deprived, round-the-clock desk work. This self-described nerd inserts at least one pop culture reference in every sentence. When Dan falls in love with a colleague named Karla, he marvels that “She was like an episode of Star Trek made flesh.” Often he dispenses with complete sentences and simply makes lists, as when he describes himself and his friends according to their ideal Jeopardy! categories. (His roommate Susan: “680X0 assembly language; Cats; Early '80s haircut bands; ‘My secret affair with Rob in the Excel Group’; License plate slogans of America; Plot lines from The Monkees; The death of IBM.”)
About a quarter of the way through the book, the scene shifts permanently out of Seattle. While on a mysterious trip to California, Michael, one of Dan's housemates and a rising techie star, invites his comrades back at Microsoft to join him in a new company he's starting up. The chance to create a brand-new product has an irresistible appeal to Dan and his world-weary friends.
Once ensconced in a former rumpus room in Dan's parents' house in Palo Alto, the new company, called Interiority, sets out to create a “virtual Lego” program called Oop! Dan haphazardly documents the adventures of a Silicon Valley startup, from the sleepless rush to bang out a prototype, to creepy venture capital meetings.
It's not exactly a compelling story line, but at least it's funny. Structuring the book as a diary lets Coupland toss out hilarious throwaway scenes. Ethan, Interiority's marketing guy and token boomer, is a dapper, smarmy Valley veteran who feeds sea gulls Band-Aids peeled from his finger. As Dan notes in his diary, “Ethan says Type-A personalities have a whole subset of diseases that they, and only they, share, and the transmission vector for these diseases is the DOOR CLOSE button on elevators that only get pushed by impatient, Type-A people. Ethan pushes these buttons with his elbow, now.”
What keeps you laughing is the compulsive specificity of Dan's descriptions. At a local bar, Ethan trips and spills flaming sambucas on Susan, setting her on fire. But Ethan doesn't just trip. He trips over a lunchbox. And it's not just a lunchbox. It's a Planet of the Apes lunchbox. And then there's the refined geek humor: “I sandpapered the roof of my mouth with three bowls of Cap'n Crunch—had raw gobbets of mouth-beef dangling onto my tongue all day,” says Dan. “It hurt like crazy, and it made me talk with a Cindy Brady lisp until late afternoon.”
But humorous vignettes and technohipness notwithstanding, the premise of Microserfs is thin. Young people are depressed at work, feel all empty inside, have some personal issues, change jobs. But their overweening angst seems out of proportion to their circumstances. They “have no lives.” Well, what about the guy who works 14-hour days at the bodega?
If you remove the funny bits from Microserfs, what you end up with is one of those teensy life-affirmation books bookstores keep next to their cash registers. Coupland's characters are so busy being flip and ironic that when they do try to say something sincere about love or life, they melt into dopey sentimentality: “I want to remember that love can happen.” Or: “I know I'm sort of a nerd and I don't dress nicely and I grouch out at times, but I still want to be me.” What self-respecting Xer would say something like that? It's so … Helen Reddy.
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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 irreverence of everyday life.
Douglas Coupland has taken us a step closer with his new book Microserfs—perhaps the first great work of cyberrealism. Where others are obsessed by pixels and bits, Coupland's subject is the “biomass” squeezed between the silicon, the “carbon-based forms” that still sweat, flake away, love, grieve and fail.
The novel takes the form of a diary: a young Microsoft programmer called Daniel leaves Bill Gates' “campus” and moves to Silicon Valley to form a multimedia company with a group of friends. One might suspect—from the author of Generation X—that this is just a case of trend-spotting, an attempt to keep his finger on the pulse. But Microserfs is a much more unlikely and impressive feat. 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. This is the bizarre, compelling “Diary of a Geek”.
The acuity of Coupland's insights can be checked against a journalistic account of the same subject. Frank Moody's I Sing the Body Electronic is the fruit of several years at Microsoft, following the designers and developers working on a children's encyclopaedia—codenamed Sendak—as a follow-up to the best-selling Encarta CD-ROM. The narrative follows the story of project management and mismanagement, vaulting ambitions and missed deadlines. It reveals the deliberate, pressurised “chaos” that has made Microsoft the most successful corporation of the past decade, and Bill Gates the richest man in the US.
Read in succession, real and fictitious people and incidents merge or overlap. Both books capture the strange disconnected hothouse of Microsoft's Redmond HQ, in which employees seem to spend their entire waking hours working, checking “Winquote” for the latest share price and awaiting the next “vesting party”, when the lucky stock holders cash in and leave.
But money hardly seems to be their main motivation. By far the most vivid character in Moody's book—the programmer Kevin Gammill—is straight from the pages of Coupland, playing loud grunge music, living on a diet of adrenaline and aspartame. He spends weeks locked in a dark room, looking for an errant bug some disaffected programmer has hidden in a piece of software—“Slayer sucks like a vacuum”.
Though Gammill has earned enough in stock options to retire, this just seems to drive him to spend longer at his PC, engaged in some endless quest to translate himself into binary code, mortally afraid of becoming “nonlinear” or “random”. Behind Gammill floats the bespectacled prototype of Bill, the master Geek.
If Moody often reads like fiction and Coupland like journalism, it is a tribute to both books. But while I Sing the Body Electronic is an essential guide for anyone interested in the new forms of production, Microserfs is indispensable to everyone involved in modern life.
The novel is more than just a study of geekonomics and geekology. The title refers to the more profound theme of how, at the micro level, we are all slaves to the information that bombards us: the codes, bugs and logic bombs that are softwired daily into our brains. Daniel proposes calling his start-up company “Interiority” and as the group sets about rendering the whole world in a kind of virtual Lego, the hero finds his unconscious filled with Ikea furniture, Gap clothes, snatches of Bewitched, Star Trek and Roadrunner cartoons. Coupland fleshes out the theory, first posited by Richard Dawkins, that cultural artefacts may use our minds in the same way genes use our bodies. The book is a hymn to the “meme”, the catch songs, TV programmes, brand names and slogans that colonise our inner lives.
This is not an entirely new thought, but no one has yet applied it with such rich amusing detail to the information revolution. And whereas a cultural critic would probably dwell on the subject with Orwellian gloom, Coupland's is a wiser, saner view of a two-way process.
Whether it is a brilliantly dramatised “Venture Capital” meeting, or the story of two bodybuilders who become Marxists (for a month), or the executive who falls in love with a s//he entity of the Net, Coupland shows his characters absorbing and subverting the codes that try to swamp them. Often, he combines an essayist's flair for ideas with a dramatist's gift for people and situations.
Microserfs is a book of coding and forgetting, sustained by the deeper, more painful memories almost overwritten by the buzz and flux. For Daniel, this is primarily the memory of his younger brother, who died at the age of 12. The boy is only mentioned a couple of times in the diary, but his absence informs everything, right down to Daniel's secret password—HelloJed.
If, as a character, code is the architecture of the 1990s, then Coupland shows it can be made into startling monuments, and sometimes moving cenotaphs. Obsessed by their obsession with work, his characters constantly wonder if they should “get a life”. But they soon return from their forays into the real world, back to their computers, to transform themselves into digits that avoid decay and death. This symbiosis between Geek and Machine is not some new digital barbarism, but a version of the old transaction made by poets and scholars, between the life we can “get” now and the more prolonged versions in paint, stone or text.
Coupland only rams this theme home in the last section, when Daniel's mother suffers a stroke and overcomes her aphasia by typing messages into a PC: this is a rare moment of awkwardness. On the whole, Microserfs is a tough and raucous celebration of our ability to reinvent and remember ourselves. And it paints a vivid picture of the new geek priesthood, sitting like monks in their VDU-lit cells, embellishing the margins with hieroglyphs, and keeping our culture alive.
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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 culture. Generation X achieves its effects by taking aim at concerns close to the heart of middle-class, North American life, an intention dismissed by contemporary critics obsessed with the appeal of the marginal, the ethnic, the oppressed—anything but the kind of relatively comfortable, suburban, middle-class existence that most book-reading North Americans live, no matter how much they might protest against it in the subversive space of their private lives. As Andrew Palmer, the novel's central character, puts it: “You see, when you're middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied” (147).
What is characteristic of most of the literary writing being done in Canada at this time is its inwardness, its emphasis on the liberation of individuals within the private sphere allowed them within late capitalist reality. As Brian Fawcett points out in an essay entitled “Something Is Wrong with Alice Munro,” the kind of low-modernist approach that has become the unofficial CanLit orthodoxy takes too small a bite into “the enormously enlarged complexity of the human condition” as it manifests itself in the late twentieth century (69). Fawcett's argument centres on the assertion that this kind of fiction is an ineffective medium for the promotion of social change, “that private liberation doesn't create a liberated world” (71). Fawcett proposes that literature can reclaim the kind of effectiveness it had in the pre-television era by adopting some of the assemblage techniques used in other art forms—combining “Historiography, reportage, philosophical analysis and a massive influx of data … along with a dose of murderous scepticism concerning the word ‘fiction’”—and by determining the contexts in which “printed literature remains more effective and efficient than any other medium” (73), describing “the full vertical density of human reality” (74). Fawcett is talking about a literature that is willing to confront that area where public and private interests meet, a literature in which writers acknowledge that there is more to being a human being in the late twentieth century than the gratification of obscure, élitist, aesthetic impulses.
What Fawcett outlines in his essay are some possibilities for a renewed Canadian literature, a literature that recognizes the postmodern as a moment in “the perpetual ‘revolution’ and innovation of high modernism, … a cyclical moment that returns before the emergence of ever new modernisms…” (Jameson xvi),1 and that pursues with vigour the problem of the cosmopolitan self of the Enlightenment metanarrative of emancipation, the subject of Eurocentric history. It appears to me that Coupland was intuitively responding to such a challenge when he set out to write Generation X .2
There can be little doubt that Generation X is intended to be a text that tests a reader's preconceptions as to what a novel should be. On the most obvious level this is apparent in its embracing of technological innovation and its appropriation of techniques from other media. The infoblip sidebars are indicative of a joy taken in the sheer profusion of terminology—they are a mutant crossbreed of the continental aphoristic tradition and the pragmatic considerations of magazine journalism in an era of declining print literacy. The reader is aware at all times of being inside a constructed thing rather than inhabiting the capitalistic dreamspace of contemporary realism, where the experience of fictional others is offered up as yet another mode of consumption. Coupland's training in the visual arts influences his construction of the book. Even its size and shape serve to defamiliarize the reader. It just does not look like a novel. Then there is a bizarre juxtaposition of the bland homogeneity of the well-groomed, white, middle-class cartoon characters and the flip iconoclasm of their utterances, not to mention a hip reference to the American pop art tradition of Roy Lichtenstein et al. Finally, there are the omnipresent paragraph symbols and the cloud-motif “openings” at the start of each chapter—a stylistic tic that calls attention, through their absence, to the conventions of the literary presentation of material.
Generation X is a novel that addresses both public and private issues of concern to the cosmopolitan self trying to make its way through the confusion of a late capitalist world. That the novel will address the economically emancipated private self of bourgeois individualism is made clear in the opening scene, where the young Andrew Palmer travels into the heart of the North American prairie to witness a total eclipse of the sun. He comes not as a young scientist but as a precocious philosopher concerned with authenticity. There, at the moment of singularity, he experiences the mood that will thereafter define his existence, “a mood of darkness and inevitability and fascination—a mood that surely must have been held by most young people since the dawn of time as they have crooked their necks, stared at the heavens, and watched their sky go out” (3-4). Of course, what separates the experience of the generation of young people to which Andrew Palmer belongs from all preceding generations is the ontological status of the sun. The sun is still the life source, but it no longer occupies the unambiguous central and positive position it has had in virtually all human symbologies; now it is also a potentially lethal entity. The first chapter of Generation X is thus called “The Sun Is Your Enemy.”
The parts of the novel that concern the private experience of the individual deal with phenomena such as transcendent moments, what one character calls “takeaway,” the one moment that “defines what it's like to be alive on this planet” (91), and magical gestures such as the Christmas morning candlefest scene (145-47), where all the witnesses to Andrew's pyrotechnics experience distortions in their experience of time and space, partaking in something bordering on the mystical. The novel ends on another such note, when Andrew is touched by the forces of randomness, singled out from the crowd of tourists who have stopped to witness the “supergravitational blackness” of a stubble field by a “cocaine white egret” (177), which grazes his head with its claws, cutting his scalp. This gesture signals with infallible, theological logic to the dozen or so mentally handicapped teenagers who witness it that he is a holy man, one to pay obeisance to, and they bury him in a “crush of love” (179) in an attempt to express their sense of love and wonder. These parts of the novel contain most of its lyricism, but can only achieve their full resonance within the context of the novel's public aspects.
Coupland has stated in various interviews that his novel was originally intended to be a nonfiction handbook of Gen X behaviours and attitudes. This original intention accounts for the inclusion of the statistical appendix and the essayistic nature of the many acute observations about those who come before and after the shin jin rui3; the naïveté of the parents who “take shopping at face value” (68); the babyboomers, whose stranglehold on the social, economic, and psychic agenda of North American life provides the hegemony against which Gen X struggles in vain; and those perky, postliterate global teens who “embrace and believe the pseudo-globalism and ersatz racial harmony of ad campaigns engineered by the makers of soft drinks and computer-inventoried sweaters” (106). Coupland documents the lifestyle options open to postboomers, from basement suite subculture to conspicuous minimalism. In a world that “has gotten too big—way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it” (5), Coupland creates a number of interlocking narratives in an attempt to confront the largeness and complexity of the postmodern world, rather than creating either a high-modernist, self-referential monument, or a work based on a “realistic epistemology, which conceives of representation as the reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies outside it” (Jameson viii).
Generation X is a meditation on the end of history. The year 1974 is assigned occult significance as “the year after the oil shock and the year starting from which real wages in the U.S. never grew again” (40). These are the events that mark the great divide between the historical and posthistorical eras—the profound structural changes in the world economy that mark the emergence of late capitalism as a distinct stage in the evolution of how human beings organize their existence on the planet.4 The optimistic spin put on the prevailing reductive orthodoxy is that the world has been saved from history by the free market.
Coupland's decision to write a novel rather than a work of nonfiction is interesting. In his foreword to Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Fredric Jameson notes that Lyotard argues that the “revival of an essentially narrative view of ‘truth,’ and the vitality of small narrative units at work everywhere locally in the present social system, are accompanied by something like a more global or totalizing ‘crisis’ in the narrative function in general” (xi). The crisis of legitimation is the result of the lack of validity assigned to the teleological metanarratives of emancipation, those world-historical narratives that justify the sufferings and injustices of the present in terms of a better future, in the various postmodern perspectives.
This is the end of history that Francis Fukuyama talks about in his influential essay in the National Interest, the end of an era of global ideological conflict that called upon individuals to display romantic virtues such as “daring, courage, imagination, and idealism” (18) in the pursuit of competing visions of utopia. Fukuyama proposes that the grand march of history “will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” (18).5 According to Fukuyama, Western liberal ideology has won the world-historical game of Hegelian dialectic, but at a cost. With the end of history as it has been known up until now, mediated by the metanarratives of European metaphysics, comes a loss of a sense of the possibility of the meaningfulness of a commitment to something larger than the self or the economic extensions of the self. As Lyotard explains, capital “does not need legitimation” (Postmodern Explained 59). Ideas such as political commitment are radically undermined by the new world order of boredom and economics. Distinctions are meaningless in the posthistorical global village; everywhere is the same because the same stores are found in minimalls anywhere (Coupland 4). Members of Gen X are addicted to “newspapers, magazines, and TV news broadcasts,” and yet “nothing [of any real consequence ever] seems to happen” (7). Crisis is everywhere, omnipresent and perpetual, but it all seems to fail to add up to anything more significant than the psychic state of panic itself. There is no middle ground between Historical Under- and Overdosing (7, 8). “Spectacularism” itself, “a fascination with extreme situations” (50), is the birthright to those suckled under the sign of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The most extreme of all possible situations is nuclear conflagration itself, and it has always been taken as a given by members of Gen X that this is how their world will end. Thus, it should come as no surprise that a good part of Gen X imagination is devoted to the idea of apocalypse.6 Coupland shows how the imagination deals with the unimaginable when he coins concepts such as “Survivulousness: The tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on earth” (62), or “Mental Ground Zero: The location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall” (63). The end of the cold war is an anticlimactic end of history for the characters in Generation X, because they had always taken for granted that the end of history and the end of the human species would be synchronous events. Now they have to try to reconcile themselves to living in an era where they will die alone and where their deaths will signify nothing.7
The Vietnam War, an ironic, last-gasp attempt to reengage state action and the historical metanarrative of emancipation, was a staple in the television diet that helped to form the consciousness of Gen X. It was part of the “background color” of a Gen X childhood. As Andrew Palmer says, “they were ugly times. But they were also the only times I'll ever get—genuine capital H history times, before history was turned into a press release, a marketing strategy, and a cynical campaign tool” (151). It is ironic that the only history Gen X ever knew firsthand was also centred on the only war that America ever lost outright (the war of 1812 is usually considered a draw). There is a pervasive sense among members of Gen X that Henry Luce's “American Century” is already over, that the most ambitious political and social experiment in the history of the world peaked with the official optimism of the late fifties. Members of Gen X gird themselves for this new reality with philosophies such as “Lessness: A philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself with diminishing expectations of material wealth” (54). It is by now a truism among economists that young North Americans can no longer count on surpassing their parents' standard of living, that, in fact, they would be lucky just to equal it. Raised in a level of material comfort heretofore unknown to human beings on a mass scale, members of Gen X mask their sense of betrayal and hopelessness with cynicism.8 Everything is a joke when the master narratives of European history no longer serve to legitimate the way things are. Party politics are “corny—no longer relevant or meaningful or useful to modern societal issues, and in many cases dangerous” (80). Distrust of politicians is nothing new, but widespread distrust of the whole democratic process, of the system itself, is.
The cynicism of Gen X might be usefully compared to what Arthur Kroker, Marilouise Kroker, and David Cook call “a carnivalesque mood of bitter hysteria at already living on borrowed time after the catastrophe, with nothing to lose because one is cheated of life anyway” (444). The future only exists as commodity, onto which people project a putative sense of ownership. In the novel, Andrew knows he has found a kindred spirit when Claire starts talking about “what it's like when everyone starts carving up the future into nasty little bits. … [P]eople start talking seriously about hoarding cases of Beef-a-Roni in the garage and get all misty-eyed about the Last Days …” (37). The Last Days are now, and strange compensations are required to reconcile this knowledge with the blunt fact of natural process. Ergo “Strangelove Reproduction: Having children to make up for the fact that one no longer believes in the future” (135). The end of history and the accompanying lack of belief in the future is the liquidation of the project of modernity, which engraves in European consciousness an “irreparable suspicion … that history does not necessarily have a universal finality” (Lyotard, Postmodern Condition 51), a transcendental historical idea as its terminus.
Throughout the novel, the characters engage in a kind of therapeutic, oral story-telling regime. Most of the stories concern alienated individuals who feel a profound need for integration into either a social or spiritual order; in other words, they all feel a need for their existence to be legitimated by reference to a narrative that would make sense of it. While discussing the relationship between legitimation and narrative, Lyotard proposes an interesting paradox, that narrative is about forgetting the past rather than remembering it: “a collectivity that takes narrative as its key form of competence has no need to remember its past. It finds the raw material for its social bond not only in the meaning of the narratives it recounts, but also in the act of reciting them. The narrative's reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation” (Postmodern Condition 22). Jameson characterizes this forgetting as “a way of consuming the past” (xii), and this formulation helps us to understand the chapter of Generation X entitled “Eat Your Parents.” Dag advises Andrew to forget the past, to “eat” his parents: “Accept them as a part of getting you to here, and get on with life” (85). Andrew is advised to consume the narrative of his individuation, which has as its origin the territorialization of the family, to make a conscious effort to forget his microhistory in order that he might enable himself to act in the present more effectively.
The focal point of Gen X consciousness, its producer and product, its medium and message, is television. By default, television becomes for Gen X a replacement for the discredited master narratives of western civilization. While religious and political ideologies that attempt totalizing interpretations of human existence fall by the wayside, the fragmentary, anecdotal method of television is in ascendancy. Television becomes the medium in which members of Gen X see their situation reflected most clearly, complete with regular breaks for consumerist fantasy or attendance to the needs of the body. As master narrative, television becomes the reference tool for all moral questions. Thus the phenomenon of “Tele-Parablizing: Morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots” (120). Knowledge of the names of characters from certain seventies situation comedies is the password for inclusion in Gen X culture. As children, members of Gen X might watch after school, and then watch the fall of Saigon on the news with their parents over dinner. Each seemed equally real or unreal, each had the same truth content.
This inability to draw distinctions, the lack of a sense of the hierarchical, is one of the effects of electronic culture on the psychic development of Gen X. It is the Kierkegaardian “levelling process” taken to new, unheard of extremes. People live in places such as Palm Springs, where there is no weather—“just like TV” (10). Absurdist tourists go “Historical Slumming,” “visiting locations such as diners, smokestack industrial sites, rural villages—locations where time appears to have been frozen many years back—so as to experience relief when one returns to ‘the present’” (II). History is now only a sanitized theme park9 that members of Gen X enjoy vicariously, comfortable in the knowledge that they can just step back outside into the familiar flatlands of their existence at any time.
The ironic pilgrimage is all about the flattening of cultural distinctions. In the novel a character visits “the grave of Jim Morrison at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.” It is “super easy to find. People had spray painted ‘This way to Jimmy's’ all over the tombstones of all these dead French poets” (88). The nihilistic delight that the speaker takes here in the ascendancy of the values of popular culture (free of historical context) over those of traditional, high culture (loaded down with history) is the triumph of form over content, of the consumerist self over the self as defined by the historical entity of the state.10
Coupland addresses the futility of the search for meaning in the posthistorical era with the concept of “Terminal Wanderlust: A condition common to people of transient middle-class upbringings. Unable to feel rooted in any one environment, they move continually in the hopes of finding an idealized sense of community in the next location” (171). But these hopes will never be fulfilled for members of Gen X because there is no transcendence of place, only stops on the remote control, the channel-changer of location. The mall is the television version of place—it represents the victory of commerce over utopian ideology. Everywhere is now a mall. According to Kroker and his coauthors, “Shopping malls are liquid TVs for the end of the twentieth century. A whole microcircuitry of desire, ideology, and expenditure for processed bodies drifting through the cyberspace of ultracapitalism.” Malls are “the real postmodern site of happy consciousness. Not happy consciousness in the old Hegelian sense of a reconciled dialectic of reason, but happy consciousness, now, in the sense of the virtual self—a whole seductive movement, therefore, between a willed abandonment of life and a restless search for satisfaction in the seduction of holograms” (449). According to this line of thought, the mall is the natural habitat of posthistorical human beings, virtual beings looking for evidence (traces) of their virtual selves reflected in the objects of their desires.
Throughout this essay I have been arguing that the novelGeneration X is a challenging fictional text that, through the conflation of happy circumstance (timing, market penetration, et cetera), has become a pop-culture phenomenon. I certainly do not mean to give the impression that I believe Coupland meant to outline a codification of Gen X life-style choices. Although many readers have interpreted the book as prescriptions for healthy living in the posthistorical era, this is obviously a failure to read critically, a failure that lies with the reader rather than with the writer. Neither do I mean to suggest that Coupland consciously set out to construct the kind of critique of posthistorical society that my reading of the novel entails. But intentionality is irrelevant here. As a good bricoleur, Coupland has assembled from the fragmentary experience offered Gen X human beings a fictional construct that is all of these things and more. One must not forget that this is a work created in the spirit of play—irony is the dominant mode. Surely the hotel on the Baja peninsula to which the characters are heading at the novel's end is another ironic comment on lost utopianism; that “guests who told good stories” (116) will be allowed to stay for free deflates the kind of hippie wisdom that was the currency of other, earlier utopian communities. And then there is that final scene—Andrew coming over the crest of a hill to find a huge, black mushroom cloud rising out of the supernatural lushness of California's Imperial Valley. Careful readers will recognize this scene as an ironic reworking of a scene from John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. There, the Joads, coming over a crest very much like the one that Andrew crosses, if not the exact same one, stop their truck to stand “silent and awestruck, embarrassed before the great valley” (236). The richness that the valley suggests is the promise of America, the embodiment of the Enlightenment dream of a history in which all will be free and all will prosper. But Coupland's Imperial Valley, although still rich, has now been transformed by the business of agriculture into a food factory; its abundance chemically stimulated by various technologies, it no longer holds out any promise for the collectivity. The realities of living in a postindustrial, posthistorical, late capitalist world have eroded belief in the state as entity, as organizing principle.
In conclusion, we can see just how well Coupland's novel fulfils the requirements for a practical, forward-looking literature that Fawcett proposes. Although Generation X does take into account the private experience of its characters, this is seen to be subsumed by the larger, public issues that the novel evokes through its use of assemblage techniques and a wide range of cultural allusion. Generation X challenges its readers to avoid the dangers of reduction, of trying to bring the many things that the novel does into agreement with a preexisting worldview. It is necessary to try to practise what Lyotard calls a “resistance to simplism and simplifying slogans, to calls for clearness and straightforwardness, and to desires for a return to solid values” (Postmodern Explained 84). A return to simpler times is clearly impossible; instead, people must learn to live in the complexity of a world that they have inherited, regardless of whether they participated in its creation. Complex artworks such as Generation X can help them to do this. The complexification entailed in avant-garde artistic praxis “bears on the sensibilities … not on expertise or knowledge” (84). The thoughtful confrontation of reader with avant-garde text helps to shape a sensibility that can appreciate complexification, rather than seeking escape in modernist fantasies of individual fulfilment and closure.
“Postmodernism … is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant” (Lyotard, Postmodern Condition 79).
This is not to suggest that Coupland actually used Fawcett's essay, or even that he was aware of it. However, in a reader's report on an earlier version of my essay, Fawcett pointed out that he thought Coupland was influenced by the opening statement in Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, where Fawcett talks about making subtexts visible in order to communicate ideas to a general public, a goal that “contemporary artistic theory and practice … discourages” in favour of private communication between members “of a new kind of privileged class” (4).
“[N]ew human beings,” the Japanese name for Gen X (56).
Lyotard begins The Postmodern Condition by stating that “the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. This transition has been under way since at least the end of the 1950s, which for Europe marks the completion of reconstruction” (3). Lyotard locates this rupture or moment of transition slightly before the first members of Gen X are born; whereas Coupland, whose methodologies are more intuitive and artistic than scientific and analytical, locates it during the childhood of the generation.
In The Postmodern Explained, Lyotard states that capitalism “calls for the complete hegemony of the economic genre of discourse” (58).
Coupland's fascination with nuclear apocalypse is again addressed in the second part of the story “The Wrong Sun” in his third book, Life after God.
Life after God takes this pervasive sense of meaninglessness as its starting point. The narrator in “Thinking of the Sun,” the first part of “The Wrong Sun,” says: “When you are young, you always expect that the world is going to end. And then you get older and the world still chugs along and you are forced to re-evaluate your stance on the apocalypse as well as your own relationship to time and death. You realize that the world will indeed continue, with or without you, and the pictures you see in your head. So you try to understand the pictures instead” (108).
Lyotard calls the postmodern “a period of slackening” (Postmodern Condition 71).
The main character of Coupland's second novel, Shampoo Planet, seriously proposes sanitized historical theme parks as a business scheme (199-201).
In an essay on constitutional narratives, Jerald Zaslove identifies the plight of Carl Schmitt as “wanting to equate the legal state with ‘the cultural edifices built by the European spirit’ whose ‘significance is no less than that of those great works of art and literature usually identified as the sole representatives of the European spirit’” (70).
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
———. Life after God. New York: Pocket-Simon, 1994.
———. Shampoo Planet. New York: Pocket-Simon, 1992.
Fawcett, Brian. Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1986.
———. “Something Is Wrong with Alice Munro.” Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times and Other Impolite Interventions. Vancouver: New Star, 1991: 68-74.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (1989): 3-18.
Jameson, Fredric. Foreword. Lyotard, Postmodern Condition vii-xxi.
Kroker, Arthur, Marilouise Kroker, and David Cook. “Panic USA: Hypermodernism as America's Postmodernism.” Social Problems 37 (1990): 443-59.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature 10. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1984.
———. The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982-1985. Trans. Don Barry et al. Ed. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.
Zaslove, Jerald. “Constituting Modernity: The Epic Horizons of Constitutional Narratives.” Public (1994): 63-77.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1370
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 “face-time.”1 Our dinner conversation multitasks in a postmodern, microserfy, Couplandesque way. We touch on a number of subjects2: why he hates interviews; whether other writers are part of a local scene unknown to him; the age and coolness quotient of the cars3 that stream below us; whether it's time for him to get back to work; the consumer patterns of the average bookstore customer; the unforgettable associations that exclude certain foods (biscotti, cheesecake) from his palate. He does not rush in to fill dead air. He does not ask questions to which he already knows the answers. He does little to put an interviewer at ease. He orders soup and potstickers, then remembers that he is late for a half-hour photo shoot (arranged for this article)4, and strides quickly out of the restaurant.
The genre of his latest book, Polaroids from the Dead, is ambiguous—a hip swipe at the crumbling barrier between fiction and non-fiction. “It's half fiction, half non-fiction,” he ventures later, rejecting terms like creative and narrative non-fiction. “I'm not going to create another label. I'm just curious to see where it ends up.”
Where the book will not end up, it is certain, is in Coupland's hand at author readings and book promos. Halfway through his last tour, he decided to quit the circuit. So what does Coupland do to connect with his readers, with other writers, with the world he itemizes so lovingly?
He works a day a week at a Vancouver bookstore.
“This is a way of humanizing,” he explains during a 90-minute break in his noon-to-nine shift. “I'm notorious for hating touring and I live in this city. This is a way of doing something that's intimately related to books yet not doing that idiotic dog and pony show. This is real. This is just so much more real than a tour.” For nine hours each Thursday, Coupland serves the trendy shoppers of Duthie's 4th Avenue branch. The job offer came during a lunch with Duthie Books owner Celia Duthie: Coupland told her he'd always wanted to work in a bookstore. She made it so.5
“I don't think it's what a lot of [writers] do, but for four-and-a-half, five years now, every time I've been to a bookstore I haven't been able to look at the books and I just wanted that to end. I just wanted to be able to feel natural in bookstores the way I used to feel.”6 Coupland fields several “sightings” per shift, but responds favourably to autograph requests. “You bump into a lot of people and it's nice. It's not quite like an episode of Ellen, but it's all right.”
Feeling natural co-exists perilously with the reality of a certain measure of fame (Vancouver Magazine recently named Coupland one of the city's most intelligent people; the French ministry of culture invited him to meet with “other” American writers of high status—like Saul Bellow and John Updike—in a misunderstanding that The Globe and Mail dubbed “L'Affaire Coupland”). Coupland enthusiastically calls Vancouver home, yet Polaroids explores new territory for a local writer who has, until now, set his stories consistently in the U.S. The middle section of the new three-part work offers readers a rare window into Coupland's personal life and geography.7 These new descriptions of home arise, he says, from a more settled lifestyle: “I'm just tired of traveling, that's all. I burnt myself out in '95 traveling. I don't want to do it any more. The next one [a novel in the planning stages] will be [set here] too.”
Communication is a central theme in Polaroids, but Coupland finds little incentive to network with book types, beyond his weekly shift at Duthie's. “Writing is an implicitly isolating job. I think about, gee, what would it be like to have a community, but all you can really do is talk about the infrastructure of the business: how does your publisher do things8, or do you have an agent? Or how many frequent flyer points do you have9 and it all gets numerically pornographic and horrid. And what, you're going to talk about writing? I think that's something you should just do by yourself.”
This desire to keep to himself puts one in mind of the character Tyler, an articulate, incisive, hanger-back from Coupland's second novel, Shampoo Planet, who distrusts platitudes, spontaneity, and, most of all, strangers. “Keep your face like a screen-saver software program,” he instructs. “Don't let people know the ideas you love, the games you've played, the places you've visited in your mind. Keep your treasure to yourself.”
I ask Coupland if he has ever interviewed another author. “No,” he replies, “because I wouldn't want them to feel the way I feel. Instead of interviewing another person, I'd just suggest ‘go out and read the book’ because people who write are not necessarily good talkers. I see the interview as just an antique information form. I'd like to think we'd come up with new ways of dealing with the ways two people communicate with each other.”10
There's a long pause, then Coupland asks me “What about writing? Shall we talk about writing? Enough about the infrastructure.” Willing to help subvert the interview, I reply “What would you like to say about writing?” to which he turns away and looks out the window. “You're the interviewer.” We order dessert from yet another server (do they recognize him? have we spanned several work shifts?), but he announces abruptly that his break is over.
“Anything that really counts I've put in my books,” he sends as parting counsel. That, an autograph and his dessert, when it arrives, are the only treasures Douglas Coupland leaves me.
A neologism meaning person-to-person interaction. Other Coupland creations: “McJob” from Generation X, and, from Polaroids, “postfame,” meaning fame after death.
But not his ideal jeopardy categories: Life of Warhol; 1970s Pop Culture; Bamboo Cultivation; Antarctica; The Irish Potato Famine
Coupland drives a Jetta because his brother Bruce does too. He simply called the dealer that sold Bruce his car and asked for the same one (he hates shopping). His most hated car colour is flat red.
Coupland dislikes author photos. He also dislikes the idea of his books being made into films, which none of them currently is, although Microserfs is being turned into a pilot for the Fox network.
Doug Coupland's previous retail experience involves selling pennants for the BC Lions and pumping gas, which he says has given him the ability to take apart a V-6 engine blindfolded. “Have you ever looked at the engine of a car now? It looks like a photocopier. I mean, where do I insert the toner cartridge?”
Coupland dismisses recent “hot” writers Deepak Chopra, Robert James Waller, and James Redfield as ciphers who write “in another language.”
“The salmon went back upstream,” Coupland says of himself (he now lives with his parents, which “is no longer stigmatized”).
The first edition of Generation X went to press unspellchecked. It's used in some journalism school as a case study in spellchecking. Coupland also uses grammar checking software on drafts.
Coupland recently arrived back in Vancouver from New York, where he was making final design changes on Polaroids. He is closely involved with the look of his books. (He attended Emily Carr College of Art & Design and specialized in sculpture.)
Coupland prefers e-mail, but radio—in the afternoon or later—is okay, even though he doesn't listen to it much. “I find there really is this whole radio culture out there—people who can't live without their CBC.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 219
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 will mainly interest Deadheads, but it picks up speed as Coupland roams the former East Berlin in 1994; files a bittersweet, sunset-drenched dispatch from the Bahamas; meditates on James Rosenquist's enormous pop painting F-111; visits the nuclear tourist sites of Los Alamos; and spies on yuppies and political consultants in seamy Washington, D.C. In Palo Alto and in his native Vancouver, Coupland celebrates middle-class stability, which he views as a fragile construct that shields us from our animal nature. The “secular nirvana” of Brentwood, Los Angeles, to him seems an inevitable site for the O. J. Simpson/Nicole Brown saga and for Marilyn Monroe's death. Coupland teaches survival of the hippest as the world plunges toward a “new thought-based economy.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482
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 visiting retrospective of the New York City pop-meister's fashion sketches, photos, portraits and influences, and the 36-year-old author flits about like a rat in search of cheese, catching a glimpse of something interesting—a dress patterned in Brillo Pad boxes, for instance—and darting off to take a peek. Then it's down the hall a bit and to the left, where the AGO's renowned collection of Henry Moore sculptures resides, and Coupland can barely stand to take it all in. “Wow, it's just too much, it's overwhelming,” he says. On the way to the gallery cafeteria to consume a plate of pasta, Coupland pauses in mid-stride to explain his love of the two artists. “Warhol is so descriptive,” he says, “and Moore is so—not.”
It is difficult to resist pointing out similar forces—descriptiveness and not, the Warholesque and the Moore-ish—in the author's own work. Coupland is, in many ways, an Andy Warhol for the 1990s, a spotter of trends and cataloguer of pop-culture artifacts. In his first novel, he not only coined the term “Generation X” for a mainstream audience, but also traced a sensibility of ironic detachment that has come to define an age-group, its fascination with trivia and its deprecating appreciation of kitsch. He is the writer who inspired young office workers around the world to look at their cubicles and think: “Veal-fattening pen.” But against that is something critics and fans seldom take notice of in Coupland's writing: a deep, abstract search for meaning in a very material world, embodied by the disgruntled twentysomethings who retreat to Palm Springs in Generation X (1991), or the young professionals who go back to nature in his 1994 short-story collection, Life After God.
And nowhere, arguably, is that interplay of irony and visionary yearning more evident than in Girlfriend in a Coma, a best-seller in Canada. On the surface, the book seems vintage Coupland, taking a cue from pop-culture icons like Karen Ann Quinlan, the New Jersey teenager who spent 10 years in a coma before dying in 1985, and The Smiths, the quintessential band of '80s disaffection from whose song the book takes its title. The plot revolves around a North Vancouver high-schooler named Karen Ann McNeil (get it?) who falls into an 18-year coma and miraculously wakes up in the 1990s to find that her still-close-knit high-school friends have more or less wasted their lives—and that, coincidentally, the world is coming to an end.
It is part love story, part ghost story, part apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy—and big part sermon. The second half of the book, when the ghost Jared urges the friends to spiritual renewal after everyone else on the planet has mysteriously fallen asleep, is rife with dramatic torpor and overt preachiness. Coupland's style, meanwhile, is sometimes precious. And yet, Girlfriend in a Coma is Coupland's most audacious novel to date, and it marks something of a watershed in his career. Despite the occasional flash of dead-on social observation, it amounts to an argument against satire and sarcasm. Confused but often moving, it steps firmly into the realm of spiritual philosophy.
Maybe there are signs of conversion in Coupland's appearance, which often seems as carefully crafted as his metaphors. (One example: “I couldn't help noticing how clean and blue the sky was,” says the ghost Jared, one of Girlfriend‘s narrators, “like a freshly squeegeed window.”) Back in the ’80s, with Generation X and Shampoo Planet (1992), Coupland was the tousle-haired, sweater-clad youth, all slouch and attitude. Then, with Microserfs, his 1995 novel about programming apparatchiks at Microsoft Corp., Coupland cut his hair, shaved his rosy cheeks to the consistency of rice paper, and donned a jacket and tie—a fancy man for the brave new world of digital corporatization, a darling of the Wired magazine set.
Now, with Girlfriend in a Coma, the sweater is back, this time over a plaid shirt, the hair is slightly long and messy, and the clean lines of his jaw are covered by a beard. Coupland could pass for a Simon Fraser University enviro-studies undergrad or an L. L. Bean catalogue model. And Coupland seems pretty comfortable in this incarnation. In fact, for a putative guru of the Information Age, he is remarkably unplugged-in. He doesn't surf the Web. He doesn't watch television, except for The Simpsons and videos called World's Scariest Police Chases—which he says are “really good.” Living alone in his hillside house near Horseshoe Bay, he prefers low-tech pursuits, reading three newspapers a day and sculpting, an art form for which he acquired a passion at Vancouver's Emily Carr College of Art and Design.
Sitting in a posh Toronto hotel lounge sipping coffee, Coupland struggles to find words to describe the genesis of Girlfriend in a Coma. “It's so weird to talk about this out loud,” he says. But eventually, between frequent changes of subject, he remembers that it began with a quote from novelist Thomas Pynchon. “He said the way young people deal with the overwhelming-ness of existence—I'm paraphrasing—is through time travel or sleep,” Coupland says. “So what I wanted to do was present sleep and time travel, and the coma as the embodiment of both.” Then there was his fascination with Karen Ann Quinlan. “I just remember in the '70s, every few weeks there would be this one picture of her in all the papers and magazines,” Coupland says. “It was just this one rhetorical image, and part of me wondered, ‘OK, what would it be like to look at the present through that lens?’”
But the novel also arose from the author's bouts of depression in 1996, which he describes as a sort of waking version of a coma. Coupland rarely left his home—his first experience of agoraphobia—and he “had this unbelievable depression for the whole year,” he says. “Like, my highlight for 1996 was making cinnamon toast.” He does not want to go on about it—“Talking about depression is boring”—but the corollaries with Karen, and with the apocalyptic vision that takes up the second half of the book, are clear. “I found that everything was just, like, my brain was just shutting down,” he recalls. “And the world was sort of just over.”
Clearly, he has emerged from that season in purgatory with a keener interest in the metaphysical. At first, the premise of Girlfriend in a Coma seems tailor-made for the kind of cultural critique the author is famous for: the reader—and her friends in the novel—expect Karen to wake up and rant about the emptiness of the millennial world. “Cloning. Life on Mars. Velcro. Charles and Diana. M.A.C. cosmetics,” as Richard says. But Karen ignores the trivia. What she notices is the big picture. “I see,” she says, “a hardness in modern people.” It is a telling scene—the triumph of earnestness. And it shows an author who is moving beyond the ironic voice and into the uncomfortable, but perhaps more fertile, territory of spirituality. “Irony has its limits,” says Coupland. “You can go to really interesting places with it, but you can't go to the best place with it.”
With Girlfriend in a Coma, he hasn't quite reached that best place—but he seems to be on his way. And if nothing else, the book should help Coupland put well behind him the “spokesman-for-a-generation” status that has dogged him, for good or ill, for nearly a decade. He admits to being a bit bored with the whole thing. “It's just so obvious that there's some new generation happening that it's not worth arguing any more,” he says. “Now, Generation X is like 13 or 14, or you get 25-year-olds—I love to watch people getting it wronger and wronger.” (He stops himself. “Is ‘wronger’ a word? Or is it one of those words that just sounds weird?”) On the other hand, he seems to have come to terms with being seen as, well, Gen-X Guy. “It makes for instant recognition,” Coupland says. Then, with a Warholesque deadpan: “It's like my soup cans.”
Additional coverage of Coupland's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 142; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 57; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; and DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre.
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