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.”