Douglas Coupland Redraws the City Limits


From The Globe and Mail (October 28, 2000)

by Heather Mallick

Douglas Coupland has a crush on Vancouver. Unlike most passions, it has not mutated over time into disillusionment. His just-published book, City of Glass,is his tribute to the city in which he was raised and still lives. Coupland's version of Eric Maschwitz's tribute to London ("A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square") and Carl Sandburg's homage to Chicago ("City of the big shoulders") is "Fleece is Vancouver's official fabric." That's so smartass. That's so Coupland.

What astonished me about City of Glass was not that Coupland, whose work I adore, loves his city wholeheartedly, but that it is even possible for anyone to feel that way about where they live. It raises questions about how we feel about our cities -- not much like Coupland does, I suspect.

He doesn't even appear to have a tiny rabbit-track, that path of habit that circumscribes the travels of most city-dwellers. As a university student, you travel from residence to library to pub to coffeehouse to Mac's Milk store to train/bus station to wherever they hold rock concerts and that's it. As a tourist, it's museum to hotel to restaurant. As an adult, you have work, home, shops, restaurants and a thousand intersections you wouldn't be caught dead crossing. At the extreme, you have, as someone once told me about their crazy housebound sister-in-law, "If it didn't happen at 82 McAllimore Cres., it just didn't happen."

The travel writer Jonathan Raban says everyone has a city-within-a-city, a small area with personal boundaries originally marked by time and usage and eventually set with emotional fences. It's our way of imprinting ourselves upon the city, instead of it upon us. This personal city, learned on foot, appears to meet some human need ingrained in us since the days when Pleistocene Man would visit the cave on the right but never the left. Raban never ventures into London's Kilburn; in Toronto I never go further west than Bathurst; in Halifax, the Rotary was my magnet.

Furthermore, when people say they like a city, they use its name as a shorthand for the part they like. People say New York, but they mean Manhattan. They say Paris, but they don't mean its suburbs.

But Coupland goes everywhere in Vancouver, likes it all, and has mapped it literally and imaginatively. This is urban heresy.

Furthermore, he doesn't appear to have the city-dweller's internal map of neurosis, which probably looks like those maps of the human body used by acupuncturists to track pressure points. Tell me where it hurts, they say. So I do.

I am cursed with a memory like a blueprint. I will not look at the building where I was sexually harassed out of a job when I was 26. I remember the loneliness of the university library and shiver. Hard as it is to believe these days, there are emergency rooms I remember with fondness (they were fast, clean, nice and didn't say, "That's an annoyance, honey, not an emergency," those ERs of yore). I look at the deleted presences of bars where I drank in the seventies that have now been turned into condos and wonder, as Al Purdy once wrote, whether all ghosts walk the streets, all the time.

The writer Will Self, who has lived in London all his life, says that when he was 15, he could patrol the centre of the city and still avoid his past self. "I could take alternative routes to avoid the districts of failed love affairs; I had only to swerve to miss the precincts of a snubbing acquaintance." But now that he's middle-aged, his personal map has become so enlarged that he cannot avoid himself. "To traverse central London today, even in a car, even on autopilot, is still to run over a hundred memoirs."

He calls it "claustro-agoraphobia" -- he fears going outside in London because it is so cramped and confining. And this is what I had assumed, wrongly, about Coupland.

Coupland has had severe attacks of depression; he does not strike me as the kind of person who'll say blithely, as he does, that Stanley Park is Vancouver's Bois de Boulogne. He seems more the type who had a ghastly revelation of his aloneness in a black cosmos while walking along the seawall and hasn't been back since.

But I have been projecting my own mental habits onto the author, which is what readers do. When we like them, we assume they're on the same train track as we are. But at best, it's only parallel.

Coupland's track is nostalgic. He liked his youth. He loved nighttime-skiing down Grouse Mountain and often dreams of it. "Such a mythical flight-like sensation," he writes, "to be swooping down the sodium-lit swaths of the runs, young and problemless and pure!"

I loved my teenage years too. But unlike Coupland, I believe it doesn't do to awaken longings that can't be fulfilled (that was the failed British politician Enoch Powell's explanation for not listening to music, should you care).

I'm glad Coupland is hopelessly in love with Vancouver. Me, I rarely leave the house. But where would we be if everyone felt that way?

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