|A flash in the pan who ran and ran: Douglas Coupland has emerged from the Generation X hype as a serious novelist.|
The Daily Telegraph (March 8, 2000)
by Jeremy Ettinghausen
CRUISING towards 40, Douglas Coupland is much, much happier now than ever before. His twenties, which corresponded almost exactly with the 1980s, were terrible. The 1990s (specifically the last five years of them) showed a marked improvement, and, so far at least, he seems to be loving the 21st century. "I'm so glad to be here! Just so glad to be here," he exclaims, as animated as he ever gets. "Haven't you noticed how nobody's nostalgic any more? Everyone's so stoked on being here right now!"
Of course, it
is the "right-nowness" of his work that has made Coupland such a celebrated
chronicler of his times. His first novel, Generation X, for ever branded
a demographic and led to his elevation as a spokesman for smart, cynical,
disenfranchised "slackers". Annotated with thought-bites and savvy-to-the-zeitgeist
definitions ("Celebrity Schadenfreude: lurid thrills derived from talking
about celebrity deaths"), Generation X, like all his books, is filled with
real-world brand names and up-to-the-minute cultural references.
His new novel , Miss Wyoming, while structurally more complex than anything he has written before, still has the clever social signposts that so acutely fix his books in a real world at a real point in history. There is, for example, a list of things that would astound somebody living 100 years ago: "No 69: We went to the moon and to Mars a few times, and there's really nothing there except rocks, so we quit dreaming about them . . . No 74: You almost never see horses."
Coupland's characters have always been searchers, looking for somewhere or someone to belong to, dreamers of the golden dream. In Miss Wyoming it's a former child beauty queen and an on-the-skids movie producer, looking for the missing pieces of their lives and realising that their only hope of happiness is to reinvent themselves together, rather than trying to go it alone. It is the human ability to adapt and to change, Coupland seems to suggest, that can be our comfort and salvation.
At 38, he has already reinvented himself and his literary career, rejecting the opportunity to ride the "Spokesman for a Generation" wave of Generation X, and repositioning himself as techno-ambassador to the literati with his fourth book, Microserfs, set in Bill Gates's Microsoft campus on the cusp of the
dot.com revolution. Then, two years ago, with Girlfriend in a Coma Coupland at last emerged from the "cult" shelves and into the mainstream. It helped that Coupland's characters have grown older as their author has aged, so that he is now perhaps less of the pop-cultural anthropologist than he first appeared to be, and more the "proper" novelist.
Perhaps the sympathetic attitude towards the twentysomething characters of his earlier books comes from his own experiences. "My twenties were fantastically lonely," he says. "Sometimes in a nice sense, but then also absolutely soul-destroying, like a statue corroding, with all the seams starting to be exposed and bits falling off."
THE 1980s began for Coupland in Vancouver, where he studied sculpture. Various study trips, including a two-year business science course in Sapporo, Japan, kept him on the move and unsettled until, 10 trips later, he found himself back in North America and this time decided to stay. "Like a lot of people, I thought that if I just moved someplace else, my whole life would be different and better," he says. "I lived in so many places in my twenties. . . I mean, what was I thinking?."
For Coupland, the Reagan-and-Thatcher decade was very much a case of wrong places, very wrong time: "There was a five- or six-year period similar to Margaret Drabble's Ice Age where it seemed all culture had frozen, all expectations had frozen. . . and everything else from there on was just going to be generic time." A fearsome thought for someone who loves the texture of modern life as much as Coupland clearly does.
He whole-heartedly supports Kurt Vonnegut's notion that loneliness is a major modern issue and he is, surprisingly for someone so associated with the worries of the young, particularly concerned with the loneliness of old people: "When you see a widow or a widower on a bus, eating a bun, it's just so sad."
His moment of epiphany came one evening in 1989, outside the Golden Griddle Pancake House in Toronto, when he decided to transform himself from a struggling artist who paid the bills with magazine writing into a full-time, professional fiction writer. Generation X was delivered to his publisher on April Fool's Day the following year, and Coupland found himself a home (Vancouver - close to his parents and his high-school friends) and a community that was at once safe from the excesses of the US and vibrant by Canadian standards.
"It's the most idiosyncratic city in America," he says. He rarely mentions Canada, saying that the very word makes readers turn the page. "I don't even know what the word means. I suppose it's an Indian thing."
It was finding himself a home that cured his depression, Coupland says, and the notion of home is something that preoccupies him and his work. He constantly, but always with sweet humour, talks about his parents ("My mom's a webmaster. A 64-year-old webmaster!" he proudly announces) and reveals that his new project is set in the year that his mother was born, and is intended to be "a sort of thank-you note to my parents".
He still involves himself with the visual arts, collecting
furniture and reshaping odds
and ends to form into new
sculptures. His website,
droolmagazine.com, is filled with collages of bus tickets, luggage tags, packaging from fast foods and washing powders, electronically filed from wherever he is in the world.
Sometimes there might be a fragment of his diary, or a found scrap of paper with an enigmatically poignant message on it which he has picked up on the street and given a home to. "Do you like me?" reads one scrap, found at the Vancouver Museum in the wake of a visiting high-school class, and now posted on the internet for posterity. In Coupland's world, everything and everybody needs a place to call home.