Douglas Coupland: Life After God


From The Vancouver Sun (March 5, 1994)

Douglas Coupland didn't invent Generation X. Nor did he invent the phrase.

He just popularized it.

Some say he isn't really part of Generation X, since he's now over 30, which may be quibbling over numbers. He was born in 1961 and can't remember the day Kennedy was killed. He knows The Brady Bunch only through reruns. He doesn't seem to have the attention span to write anything more than a collection of vignettes or anecdotes. He's a post-modernist.

Born on a Canadian NATO base in West Germany. Grew up in a suburb of West Vancouver.

Studied art at Emily Carr. First success was Floating World show at the VAG. Started writing for Vancouver Magazine. Also did Budget Gourmet reviews for The Vancouver Sun.

Resurrected an old Van Mag article on Gen-X as a cartoon strip for Vista magazine. Contracted to write a non-fiction "handbook" for Generation X. Took money, moved to Palm Springs and wrote it as a novel instead. Had a controversial bestseller with Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. May not have invented Generation X, but responsible for vocabulary like "McJobs" that lined the margins of the book.

Wrote follow-up, Shampoo Planet. Plunged into depression after agreeing with bad reviews of second novel.

Does clever commentary for The New Republic and New York Times op-ed pages.

Wrote third novel, Life After God - released to mixed reviews. Author's struggles with spirituality become subject of interviews. Stars in a series of short spots for MTV, tied to a book promotion. Quote in Elle magazine: "I'm creating and giving vent to different personas, or sort of sub-Dougs that live inside me."

In his first two books, Coupland developed the reputation as a spokesman for the soullessness of post-baby boomer life. The narrators of Life After God try to leave some of that irony and cynicism behind. Members of the first American generation to be raised without religion, they nevertheless search for their own narrative line in life.

In this X-tract from Life After God, we join one of those characters in mid-pursuit ...

1 Thinking of the Sun

The first time I ever visited a McDonald's restaurant was on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Nov. 6, 1971. It was Bruce Lemke's 10th birthday party and the McDonald's was at the corner of Pemberton Avenue and Marine Drive in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The reason I can pinpoint this date is that it was also the date and time of the Cannikin nuclear test on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians - a Spartan missile warhead of between 4 and 5 megatons was detonated at the bottom of a 1.5-mile vertical shaft drilled into this Alaskan island. The press had made an enormous to-do over this blast, as it was to be roughly four times more powerful than any previous underground detonation.

According to the fears of the day, the blast was to occur on seismic faults connected to Vancouver, catalyzing chain reactions which in turn would trigger the great grandaddy of all earthquakes. The Park Royal shopping centre would break in two and breathe fire; the Cleveland Dam up the Capilano River would shatter, drowning whoever survived in the mall below. The cantilevered L-shaped modern houses with their Kitchens of Tomorrow perched on the slopes overlooking the city would crumble like so much litter - all to be washed away by a tsunami six hours later.

I remember sitting on my purple, vinyl stool being unable to eat, gazing out the window, waiting for the flash, waiting for the cars to float up into the sky, for the Hamburglar statue to melt, for the tiled floor to break apart and expose lava.

Of course, nothing happened. A half hour later we were driving away in Mrs. Lemke's station wagon to see The Railway Children at the Park Royal Twin Theatres. But connections had been made in my mind, however - connections which are hard for me to sever even now, twenty years later: one, that McDonald's equals evil; two, that technology does not always equal progress.

Another nuclear episode, a cherished family story. It is the night of Oct. 20, 1962 and my mother is attending a dance in the officers' mess of the Canadian Air Force base at Baden-Sllingen, West Germany, my birthplace. I am 294 days old. My father is in Switzerland on air force business that evening. An aide-de-camp enters the dance and begins whispering into the ears of the jet fighter pilots. Within minutes, the pilots melt away from the dance, off to the runway where they are then strapped into their jets and placed on 24-hour shifts, and the women are left confused and standing by themselves in Dior New Look inspired dresses. They shuffle perplexedly back to the private married quarters - the PMQs - where they pay the babysitters and search through their cupboards for supplies of powdered milk. The Zenith shortwave radio is turned on and is not turned off for the next three days.

The next day, the PX is closed. Mothers take shifts watching the children in the sandboxes and monitoring the radio reports. They are probably calmer about the situation than civilian wives might be. Already, base wives have been through other crises and alerts, though none as large as this. Europe in 1962 is an arena of fear. To the side of the Autobahn in the scrawny firs of the Schwarzwald lurk untold thousands of camouflaged tanks. Jets buzz the base every day. The Iron Curtain is never more than a tank of gas away.

The crisis builds. For the first time the women are escorted into the "bunkers" - unused furniture storage lockers with windows on the ground floors of the PMQs. There is no furniture inside, nor food nor supplies - no diapers, tranquilizers, bandages, or clean water. Oddly there is, though, six tins of caviar sitting in a corner. When the women complain, they are told by base authorities that they are expendable. "You should have known that before you came overseas with your husbands."

The women sit in the semi-dark and monitor the radio while the babies cry. The women look up at the skies, wondering what comes next. Finally from the Zenith there are the relieving words: "The Soviet ships appear to be turning around." Life resumes; time resumes.

Miscellaneous images: in high school - Sentinel Senior Secondary, West Vancouver, British Columbia - up on the mountain overlooking the city of Vancouver, in physics class, hearing a jet pass overhead, turning around surreptitiously and waiting for the pulse of light to crush the city.

At the age of eight: hearing the sirens wail at the corner of Stevens Drive and Bonnymuir Drive in a civil defense drill and noticing that nobody seemed to care.

The 1970s and disaster movies: seeing The Poseidon Adventure for the first time - the first movie I venture downtown to see on my own at the Orpheum Theatre, to watch a world tip upside down. Earthquake; The Omega Man; The Andromeda Strain; Soylent Green; Towering Inferno; Silent Running, films nobody makes anymore because they are all projecting so vividly inside our heads - to be among the last people inhabiting worlds that have vanished, ignited, collapsed and been depopulated.

In art school, a decade ago I learned that the best way to memorize a landscape is to close your eyes for several seconds and then blink in reverse. That is, open your eyes just briefly, allowing those images before you to burn themselves onto your retina in an instant, rather than with an extended gaze. I mention this because this is essentially the same principle that is in operation when one's world is illuminated by the nuclear flash.

This flashing image is a recurring motif in both my everyday thoughts and in my dream life. My most recurring flashing image is of me sitting on the top floor of a 1970s cement apartment building along the ocean waterfront of West Vancouver, looking out over the ocean. One of the people in the room with me says, "Look," and I look and see the sun is growing too large too quickly, like a Jiffy pop popcorn foil dome, glowing orange, like an electric-stove element.

And then I am awake. Another recurring image: I am on the high school soccer field in PE class. There is a rumble and as a team we stop kicking the ball and walk over to the chainlink fence and look through it to the south, far beyond the horizon to where we know Seattle is supposed to be, 110 miles away. Instead of Seattle, we see a pillar of grey dust and rubble pounding on heaven, the earth launched up into the universe, so far up that it will never return - the earth has become the sky.

A third recurring image, very simple: at my parents' house, in their living room, looking out through the front window framed by pyrocanthus berries, out at the maple tree on the front lawn; The Flash flashes; I am awake.

When you are young, you always expect that the world is going to end. And then you get older and the world still chugs along and you are forced to re- evaluate your stance on the apocalypse as well as your own relationship to time and death. You realize that the world will indeed continue, with or without you, and the pictures you see in your head. So you try to understand the pictures instead.

In modern, middle-class culture, the absence of death in most people's early years creates a psychic vacuum of sorts. For many, thoughts of a nuclear confrontation are one's first true brush with nonexistence, and because they are the first, they can be the most powerful and indelible. Later in life, more sophisticated equations for death never quite capture that first intensity - the modern sex/death formula; mysterious lumps; the mental illness of friends; the actual death of loved ones - all of life's painful gifts. At least, this is what I tell myself to explain these pictures in my head that will not go away. And these images are more common than I had realized before, and they are not only particular to me. I have asked many of the people I know, and have interviewed many strangers, and I have heard their stories, tales of their blinkings in reverse. And while the pictures vary greatly from one person to the next - some people witness the flash with their family, some with lovers, some with strangers, some with pets, many alone - there is one common thread, and the thread is this: The flash may occur over the tract suburbs of the Fraser River delta, over Richmond and over White Rock; the flash may occur over the Vancouver harbor, over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, over the Pacific Ocean; the flash may occur over the American border, over Seattle, over Bremerton, over Tacoma, Anacortes, and Bellingham. But the Flash - flashing bright, making us remember in an instant what was, making us nostalgic before our time - is always flashing to the South - always to the South, up in the sky, up where we know the sun was supposed to have been.

2 The Dead Speak

I was by the fridge in the kitchen when it happened.

The phone on the wall next to the fridge rang, and so I went to pick it up when suddenly the ice maker began spontaneously chugging out cubes and I thought that was odd. Then a cupboard door opened by itself, revealing the dishes inside and then the power in the overhead light surged. The game show playing on the countertop TV then suddenly stopped and the screen displayed color bars with a piercing tone and then, for maybe a second, there was a TV news anchorman with a map of Iceland on the screen behind him. I said "hello" into the phone, but it went silent and then the flash hit. A plastic Simpsons cup from Burger King melted sideways on the counter; the black plastic frame of the TV softened its edges and began dissolving. I looked at my hand and saw that the telephone was turning to mud in my palm, and I saw a bit of skin rip off like strips of chicken fajita. And then the pulse occurred. The kitchen window blew inward, all bright and sparkling, like tinsel on a Christmas tree, and the blender crashed into the wall and the Post-it notes on the fridge ignited and then I was dead. I was having my hair done when it happened.

I was around the corner from the salon's front section and I saw the flash in my mirror first. One of the girls up front, Sasha, dropped a coffee cup and held her forearm to her face and screamed and a few of the girls fell to the floor, but I was frozen and could only watch. Like many people, I thought the flash was lightning - but I knew it couldn't have been, because it had been a sunny day. I was thinking this when I saw the potted fig tree by the main windows rustle and burst into flames and the pyramid of Vidal Sassoon shampoo plastic bottles beside the cash register melt and trickle down off the counter. The sprinkler system activated and showered the salon with rain, which turned to steam, and this lasted maybe a second before the blast occurred, caving in the front windows, launching a yellow Corvette and burning pedestrians through the shattered glass, everything smashing into the rear wall by the washing sinks. I don't remember sound, but there must have been some after Sasha screamed. I remember the brown plastic cape melting over Laura's skeleton like cheese on a hamburger; the smell of burning hair - mine, I suppose - and the cinder block walls falling down on me, so in the end it was the collapsing wall that killed me, not the heat or the shock wave.

I was in rush-hour gridlock traffic in the middle of the three express lanes leaving the city when it happened.

I had the radio on and was scanning the FM stations, but suddenly it wouldn't pick up any signals and I thought it was broken, so I kept fiddling with the buttons with my head down by the dashboard level. Just then, many of the cars around me began honking and one car jumped out of the right lane and began driving on the meridian. On the radio a woman's voice then began discussing "strategic" events over Baffin Island and northern Minnesota and just then the flash hit, quickly, flaring silently in a second, but my eyes had to readjust afterward, like when the light turns off after being in a sun bed. When my eyes readjusted, the convertible roof of the Mazda Miata two cars ahead of me was on fire and the cedar trees on the side of the road and the tires of all the cars were smoking and burning and I didn't even have time to duck down before the pulse hit and our cars all jumped forward, like bottles on a table thumped by a drunk, and the coffee from my dash-top holder sprayed onto the windshield and made a scorching sound. My car then hopscotched through the air and onto the rear of a burning Acura Legend and the windshield glass shattered. Noise? A roar, I guess; it happens so fast. My windows were open and I faced the downtown core, and the wind storm was headed toward me - two motorcyclists floating like helium balloons, a telephone booth, fragments of cars and trees; smaller cars - a Mitsubishi I remember, with a dead young woman in the driver's seat, her neck obviously broken and flailing with a set of pearls, her hair gone, her briefcase falling out the window. I remember these small details. I remember it was hard to breathe, like being in a sauna. And I remember a tractor-trailer rig smashing into my car and I remember my roof buckling, and then I was dead