Coupland Country: The creator of Generation X will soon be - gasp! - 40. A wild tale of an uproariously dysfunctional family proves he hasn't lost his edge yet


From The Toronto Star (September 30, 2001)

by Christine Pountney

Coupland plunks a Vancouver family in Cape Canaveral, where one shining star is set to blast off into spaceChristine Pountney

FOR A MAN who hasn't yet turned 40 (he will in December), Douglas Coupland has certainly achieved a lot. He popularized the now ubiquitous term "Generation X," used to describe the somewhat disaffected, highly ironic post-baby boom generation of North Americans born between 1961 and 1971 (although Coupland vehemently disavows any claims to being a spokesman for his peers). He's written 10 books to date, been translated into 22 languages, and sold the movie rights to four of his novels. What's more, he's Canadian.

Born in 1971, I'm a perfect candidate for Gen. X demographics. I am the kind of reader Coupland's work should resonate with the most - and it does. It really does. There's a familiarity to his language and take on the world that sets bells ringing all over my body.

So why is it that, after having conducted a brief and informal survey, I found that very few of my peers have actually read his books?

"Oh, he's the guy who wrote Generation X," they all say. "Yeah, I've been meaning to read his stuff, but never seem to get around to it."

This statement in itself is a kind of paradoxical tautology. I mean, why should they have got around to reading it? We are, after all, supposed to be a pretty apathetic bunch. It would be like trying to get someone in denial to go to therapy.

But thinking about it a little more, I came up with both a charitable and an uncharitable explanation for why his books have not been more widely read by the people they most represent.

The charitable explanation is that Coupland's work has erroneously been relegated to the cult status of science fiction. People seem to think that it will be full of geeky computer jokes and dated in the way that MTV back in the '80s seems to us now.

That science, technology and consumerist culture feature heavily in Coupland's work is no misconception; his aesthetic is not far off a Bladerunner type of futuristic one. However, his focus is always on the moral implications, on human relationships and feelings. There is an almost spiritual aspect to his work that makes it emotionally compelling, and redemption is always at hand to pull his vision back from the brink of apocalypse.

But more important perhaps, Coupland can write beautifully. In his latest novel, All Families Are Psychotic, he describes how "there had been a lot of aphids that year, and the wind was whistling through the holes they'd eaten in the leaves."

The uncharitable explanation for the neglect of his work shown by the generation of Canadians he most writes about (but apparently "doesn't speak for") runs thus: Apart from the obvious fact that we don't read enough, and have a smaller population than our dominant neighbours to the south and are therefore unable to offer success on the grand scale that America is so famous for, we still seem uncomfortable with the idea of espousing or heralding or exalting our own heroes.

We'd rather, in our characteristically deferential and self-effacing way, send our creative minds to the land where heroes are made. No wonder there's a Canadian brain drain to places like New York and L.A. (Coupland wrote his first book while living in Palm Springs, Calif., and continues to spend some of his time there.)

So instead of giving you a plot summary of All Families Are Psychotic (you can get it off the back of the book), what I wanted to say is that we shouldn't ignore writers like Coupland who have vision and a thing or two to say - even if they are Canadian. Whether he likes the epithet or not, he is a kind of spokesman for our age.

As a novel, All Families Are Psychotic won't disappoint. It is yet another hearty romp through vintage Coupland Country (and I'm happy to say that this time he doesn't lose the plot as he did with his second-to-last novel, Girlfriend In A Coma). Coincidence features heavily, there is the usual cast of zany characters, an outlandish series of events, the signature cynicism and wry humour - and transcendent moments of epiphany.

Of Walt Disney World, Coupland has a character ask himself: "This is supposed to be life-affirming? ... This place is some cosmic dream crusher. All you can get out of a place like this is a creepy tingle that lets you know your kid is never going to be anything more than a customer - that the whole world is being turned into a casino."

Still capable of being polemical after all these years, Coupland nevertheless avoids moralizing diatribe. Regardless of the sinister implications of science in the future, Coupland Country is ultimately a funny, quirky, compassionate and forgiving place to inhabit. At one point in the story Janet Drummond, the great matriarch of the eponymous psychotic family, tells her daughter, who is due to be launched as the first woman in space: "Lately I've started to think that blame is just a lazy person's way of making sense of chaos ... It's nobody's fault. It's chaos. Just chaos. Random numbers popping up in a cosmic Lotto draw."

Somehow, coming from Coupland, that's reassurance enough.