Quick Insights For The Unfocused


From The Buffalo News (February 27, 1994)

by Margaret Sullivan

Finally: the perfect thing to read while you're staring at MTV, quaffing Snapple, munching Smartfood - and you get the sudden urge to consume some literature.

These eight stories by Douglas Coupland - the author who coined the phrase "Generation X" - are high-quality fiction. And they're new and improved: No concentration required; read 'em while you channel-surf. Think of it as reading matter for the attention-impaired. That makes them perfect for Generation X-ers - the post-baby-boom twentysomethings who grew up in a world of media overload.

They're not good at focusing for very long. They like short sentences. And short paragraphs. Some of the pages of this little reader-friendly collection have only eight or nine lines of type. And many pages are broken up further by Coupland's spare line drawings.

And yet the stories themselves - full of neat turns of phrase and on-target perceptions - have a great deal of merit. They display - movingly, at times - their author's original vision about his disaffected generation.

In "Little Creatures," for instance, the narrator is traveling cross-country in a car with his small child: We stopped for dinner in the town of Merritt at the Chicken Shack. You brought in some of your books to read while my red eyes scanned the Globe and Mail like a stick being scraped back and forth over the pavement.

Afterward, we resumed our drive. The sky had a lavender glaze and the mists on the top of the mountain peaks were like a world that was still only at the idea stage.These stories offer no real plots. They're mostly images, ideas, thoughts, perceptions - strung together in a postmodern pastiche. That may sound like a complaint, but it isn't. The stories are an art form unto themselves.

They are no more like John Updike short stories than a Soundgarden tune is like a Tony Bennett ballad.

Coupland, 31, is an estimable talent. His stories are like the soundtrack of a disenfranchised, yuppie-hating generation. Coupland has resisted that inevitable voice-of-a-generation role, foisted on him by the way his "Generation X" label stuck. His 1991 novel "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" became a cult classic. It was a portrait of Andy, Claire and Dag, three twentysomethings who have fled to Palm Springs where they work at McJobs ("low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future"), drink too much and tell stories. In a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Coupland talked about why the stories they tell are so important:

"For members of the X Generation, it is extremely difficult to talk of love or loneliness or fear without worrying about sounding corny or without worrying about being made fun of because we are all such masters of the art of knee-jerk irony. . . . Only by telling stories are the characters able to see how they feel."

And now, in "Life After God," more stories arrive: stories of fearing the nuclear holocaust, living in a hotel, traveling cross-country. In each, the setting and plot are secondary. What stands out is Coupland's knowing treatment of the inner lives of his young characters, who are simultaneously tortured and listless, calm and fearful.

At this, he is extremely skillful. That his skill can be appreciated while MTV flickers in the background seems odd at first. But, finally, very right.

Early times

From Douglas Coupland's story "My Hotel Year":

"Now I believe you've had most of your important memories by the time you're 30. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don't register in the same way, or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn't compare to the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylors' patio furniture into their pool in the 11th grade. You know what I mean.