Douglas Coupland Coupland, Douglas (Vol. 85) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Douglas Coupland 1961–

Canadian novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Coupland's career through 1994.

Coupland is best known for his novel Generation X (1991), which, focusing on people born between the early 1960s and early 1970s, coined a popular term for that group. An international best-seller, Generation X prompted critics to call Coupland the spokesperson for his generation. Coupland, however, has resisted this label, stating "I speak for myself, not for a generation. I never have. I seem to travel through life with that one disclaimer." In addition to Generation X, Coupland has written the novel Shampoo Planet (1992) and the short story collection Life after God (1994).

Biographical Information

Coupland was born on a Canadian NATO base in Baden-Sollingen, Germany, and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. After attending Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, Coupland travelled to Hawaii, Italy, and Japan, where he completed a two-year course in Japanese business science. Back in Canada, Coupland took what he calls a "bottom-of-the-food-chain" job at a magazine. Of this job, he states: "Our office cubicles were like veal-fattening pens. There was just no dignity." Coupland moved to Palm Springs, California, to write his first book, Generation X, but later returned to Vancouver.

Major Works

Coupland's works focus on the experiences of young people in contemporary North American society. The novel Generation X is the story of Andy, Clair, and Dag, three "twenty-somethings" who live in Palm Springs. Overeducated for their current jobs, the three are disillusioned by the greediness, exploitation, and frenzied pace they experience in the corporate world. In an attempt to keep themselves entertained, Andy, Clair, and Dag tell each other stories ranging from the fantastic to the tragic. In addition to describing his characters' lives, Coupland also incorporates into Generation X numerous sayings and definitions which are printed along the margin of each page. For example, he coins such phrases as "Eroticize Intelligence" and "Re-Invent the Middle Class," and defines "Lessness" as "a philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself to diminishing expectations." While Generation X centers on "twenty-somethings," Shampoo Planet focuses on the teenagers of the 1990s, or, according to Coupland, "The Global Teens." The protagonist of the story, Tyler Johnson, is torn between his desire to become part of affluent, corporate life and what he sees as his personal responsibili-ty to save the environment and make the world a better place in which to live. In his short story collection, Life after God, Coupland shifts his attention back to the "twenty-somethings" to address religious and spiritual concerns. In the epigraph to this work, Coupland writes, "You are the first generation to be raised without religion," and the stories in the collection often portray characters filled with hopelessness, despair, and lack of faith. The story "1,000 Years (Life after God)," for example, centers on a man who decides to stop taking the medication prescribed for his depression. While not necessarily religious, the man ultimately realizes: "I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving … to help me to love, as I seem beyond being able to love." Coupland also addresses such issues as divorce, nuclear annihilation, and the pain of romantic love in this volume.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Coupland's work has been mixed. Some critics have faulted what they consider his weak plots and characterizations, while others have lauded his portrayals of North American youth and his original dialogue and imagery. Despite the success of Generation X, some commentators have suggested that Shampoo Planet and Life after God are more thematically advanced works. For example, Victor Dwyer has said that Shampoo Planet "shows a maturing writer artfully evoking the hopes and dreams of a generation that has good reason to have little of either," and Will Blythe has called Life after God "Coupland's most accomplished fiction to date."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (novel) 1991
Shampoo Planet (novel) 1992
Life after God (short stories) 1994

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, No. 6, February 1, 1991, p. 77.

[In the following review of Coupland's Generation X, the critic provides a brief overview of the work.]

Newcomer Coupland sheds light on an often overlooked segment of the population: "Generation X," the post-baby boomers who must endure "legislated nostalgia (to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually own)" and who indulge in "knee-jerk irony (the tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course …)." These are just two of the many terse, bitterly on-target observations and cartoons that season the margins of the text [in Generation X]. The plot frames a loose Decameron-style collection of "bedtime stories" told by three friends, Dag, Andy and Claire, who have fled society for the relative tranquility of Palm Springs. They fantasize about nuclear Armageddon and the mythical but drab Texlahoma, located on an asteroid, where it is forever 1974. The true stories they relate are no less strange: Dag tells a particularly haunting tale about a Japanese businessman whose most prized possession, tragically, is a photo of Marilyn Monroe flashing. These stories, alternatively touching and hilarious, reveal the pain beneath the kitschy veneer of 1940s mementos and taxidermied chickens.

Laurel Boone (review date September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, in Books in Canada, Vol. XX, No. 6, September, 1991, pp. 50-1.

[In the following review, Boone unfavorably comments on Coupland's portrayal of the twenty-something generation in Generation X.]

In Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, indulged and self-indulgent teenagers have hit their 20s and mellowed out in California. Still doing dope and booze, they work at "McJobs" to keep themselves in food, shelter, and mind-altering substances. In the stories they tell to entertain and enlighten one another, they reveal themselves and fantasize about a future for which, in their real lives, they are too self-absorbed to prepare in any way except by moving on to Mexico. The cartoons, definitions, slogans, and other ephemera running beside the text in a separate column make shallow comments on the slightly less shallow story.

The "Canadian content" in this essentially American book is interesting. Several of the decaying adolescents have drifted south to the mind-numbing heat of Palm Springs from Canadian cities, as have some of the more risible tourists. None of these Canadians translate the French phrases they use as part of their conversation, and the other characters understand them perfectly.

Michael Wright (review date 4 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, in The Times, London, June 4, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following review, Wright focuses on Coupland's portrayal of the twenty-something generation and use of language in Generation X.]

Funny, colourful, and accessible, this is a blazing debut by the Canadian Douglas Coupland. But there is more to it than that. Part novel, part manifesto too, [Generation X] homes in on a trio of alienated 20-somethings who—over-educated and under-employed—reveal all the grim symptoms of belonging to the new "lost" generation of post-Baby Boomers, identified here as Generation X. Disillusioned with the world...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Michael Redhill (review date 5 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Generation X' Marked the Spot, but Its Successor Loses the Way," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, September 5, 1992, p. C8.

[Redhill is a Canadian poet and playwright. In the following review, he negatively compares Shampoo Planet to Generation X, stating that "Shampoo Planet is going to make Coupland look like a fluke, which I feel sure he's not."]

Douglas Coupland's first book, Generation X, was a good read. Shampoo Planet his second, is good business. It makes its appearance approximately 18 months after his debut book…. Strike while the iron is hot, I guess. Unfortunately, Shampoo Planet is going to make Coupland...

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Brian Fawcett (review date October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Malaise of the Mall-Raised," in Books in Canada, Vol. 21, No. 7, October, 1992, pp. 44-6.

[In the following review, Fawcett favorably discusses Coupland's Shampoo Planet, focusing on its literary characteristics and its insight into the Global Teen culture of the 1990s.]

The publication of Douglas Coupland's Generation X early last year announced to North American readers that we could all stop making those lip-bitten Virgilian speeches about the disappearance of literature because, yes, indeed, there is going to be another generation of writers. Generation X also promised that literature in the near future might look different from the...

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Mark Brett (review date Fall 1992–Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, in The Minnesota Review, No. 39, Fall 1992–Winter 1993, pp. 183-85.

[In the following review, Brett comments on the content, structure, and style of Generation X, focusing in particular on Coupland's credibility as a spokesperson for the twenty-something generation.]

Look around you, and we're there. That bartender who knows much more about ancient Crimea than the average purveyor of alcoholic beverages. That woman at the lingerie shop with the biting wit and a haunted look in her eyes. The amiable, somewhat slovenly English Masters' Candidate. All have one thing in common. We are...

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Terry Horton (review date February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Life after God, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 60, No. 2, February, 1994, p. 24.

[In the following review, Horton discusses the theme of despair in Coupland's Life after God.]

"You are the first generation raised without religion," reads the epigraph that opens "In The Desert," one of the eight short stories collected in Life After God. One part victory cry, one part curse, it's an enigmatic statement that haunts every page of Douglas Coupland's elegiac new work.

Readers who know Generation X and Shampoo Planet will recognize Life After God's character-pool—a collection of bright young twenty- and...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Will Blythe (essay date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Doing Laundry at the End of History," in Esquire, Vol. 121, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 170-71.

[In the following essay, Blythe discusses Generation X, Shampoo Planet, and Life after God, stating that the latter is Coupland's "most accomplished fiction to date."]

Francis Fukuyama, that wacky, fun-loving utopianist, asserted in 1989 that the end of history was at hand. Its disappearance apparently meant that one day we would all live in liberal democracies and consume to our heart's content. That would be cool, right? For a coal miner in Katowice, Poland, history's departure might indeed be cause to break out the vodka. But for the world-weary North...

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Bruce Handy (review date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'X' Marks the Schlock: Slacking Towards Bethlehem with Author Douglas Coupland," in Vanity Fair, Vol. 57, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 92, 94.

[In the following negative review, Handy focuses on the theme of spiritual crisis in Coupland's Life after God.]

Is this what our scary Judeo-Christian God has come to, Abraham's fearsome taskmaster nudging 28-year-olds through the postcollege blues, the Gospels' mighty Redeemer transubstantiated into Prozac for Pacific Northwestern slackers?

That is the impression left by Douglas Coupland's new book, Life After God … a collection of eight stories that mean to form a commentary on spiritual crisis...

(The entire section is 1114 words.)

Jeffrey Bloom (review date April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Life after God, in The New Criterion, Vol. XII, No. 8, April, 1994, pp. 79-80.

[In the following negative review of Life after God, Bloom states that Coupland "sees the telling detail and hears the revealing bit of dialogue, but he never goes behind or beyond them."]

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) established Douglas Coupland as the leading bard of the young and the listless. It was a best seller, read by any twentysomething who is, or hopes to be, culturally in-the-loop. Coupland's new collection of short stories and sketches, Life After God, examines the spiritual life of the X-ers, or rather,...

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Brenda Peterson (review date 8 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bomb and Burger King," in The New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Peterson faults the weak characterizations in Life after God.]

Imagine a sour Prufrock on Prozac, measuring out his 30-odd years in teaspoon-sized stories. This is the monotonic voice brooding over Life After God a book of stories by Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X and Shampoo Planet. Though each of these very short tales has its own narrator, the voice never really varies: it drones where it might delve, it skims where it might seduce, it hoards where it might offer sustenance. The range of character and emotion is so...

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James Saynor (review date 7 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Generation Xtinguished," in The Observer, August 7, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following review, Saynor compliments Coupland's insightful presentation of the American youth culture in Generation X and Shampoo Planet, but contends that "in going back to more standard forms of expression, and in trying to get in touch with real things like Nature and God, it's maybe not surprising that Coupland can't find anything much to say" in Life after God.]

Both wonder at life, and anxiety about life, tend to increase as you head into your thirties. The knack is to stop one choking off the other: instead, to have the two pleasantly reverberating. A lot of the...

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Clint Burnham (review date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Life after God, in Paragraph, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 32-3.

[In the following review, Burnham offers a mixed assessment of Life after God, stating that "what is most interesting and important about Coupland's work is how it functions as an ideological text."]

Generation X is not just a novel by Douglas Coupland; nor is it a generation; nor is it a way of thinking about the economic and social changes that have purportedly marginalized the children of the North American bourgeoisie. Generation X is all of these things, which is to say that it is simultaneously the ideology, the text(s), and the demographic social...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Anshaw, Carol. "Days of Whine and Poses." Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 110 (November 1992): 25-7.

Reviews several books that address the state of contemporary youth culture, including Coupland's Generation X.

Grady, Wayne. Review of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland. Books in Canada XXI, No. 3 (April 1992): 13.

Contends that Generation X will not stand the test of time.

Leland, John. "Take This McJob and Shove It." Newsweek CXIX, No. 4 (27 January 1992):...

(The entire section is 358 words.)