Coupland unplugged


From The Montreal Gazette (March 12, 1994)

by Juliet Waters

Please remove cover jacket before reading," it says below the picture of a thoughtful, seriously posed Douglas Coupland. Do this and you'll find yourself holding a small, black, prayer book-sized best-seller. If, as Coupland proclaims in Life After God, "you are the first generation raised without religion," then maybe you're hoping this book will be a source of spiritual comfort. Open the book and you'll find the pages scattered with small fragile line drawings: a cat, a dog, some M&Ms, a McDonald's, a shopping mall, a bullet, some popcorn, a dead body, a sock, a hypodermic needle, some simple landscapes, a cellular phone, etc.

I don't know how you'll feel, but as I glanced through these illustrations, my gut reaction was horror. Oh my God, I thought to myself, the boy who's been hyped as the Kerouac of my generation has been possessed by some pathological inner child. Then I put the book down and got normal again, hoping this was just my urban-Xer tendency toward negativity.

A few days later, I read an interview in Elle, where Coupland explains this book is meant to be his return to simplicity and his attempt to escape the "ironic hell" of the hip, dark world he created in Generation X and Shampoo Planet. Douglas Coupland unplugged. I want to feel good, so I go along with this. But later that day someone tells me that this month's Saturday Night has called Coupland "the Dalai Lama of Generation X." And then I start feeling weird again.

Don't get me wrong. I like Douglas Coupland, and I like this collection of stories. They're a new, original blend of cynicism and cheese, and they don't take very long to read.

There's definitely something endearing about these central characters struggling with apathy, ennui and suburban malaise. Invariably they're white, male middle-class 30-something Vancouverites getting in touch with themselves: a father torn between the joy of experiencing the world again through his child's eyes and the impulse to protect him from disappointment by telling him witty, fatalistic fairy tales; a heartbroken son bonding with his mother through a banal conversation about the nature of birds; a young man consumed by vivid psychic images he constructed in his childhood of a nuclear holocaust that never quite happened. Beneath the cool veneer, they're mostly normal guys fearing the loss of emotional intensity after love has failed too many times. And although this book often reads less like a collection of stories than a collection of embryonic personal essays, the work is beautifully accessorized by Coupland's pop-poetics and clever cerebral imagery: "The mists on the top of the mountain peaks were like a world that was still only at the idea stage." But I'm still deeply perplexed by the title story, 1,000 Years (Life After God). It's the story of Scout, a sort of suburban Siddhartha who separates from his disaffected Gen-X friends and embarks on a spiritual journey. Along the way he finds himself in Washington, D.C., and becomes mesmerized by the crowds celebrating the presidential inauguration. Finally, he wakes up in a forest in northern British Columbia. After eating a few Ritz crackers, he starts to feel a deep communion with nature, peels off his crumpled business suit and heads into the roaring river.

"Oh does it roar! Like a voice that knows only one message, one truth never-ending, like the clapping of hands and the cheers of the citizens upon the coronation of the king, the crowds of the inauguration, cheering for hope and for that one voice that will speak to them."

Well, I don't want to tell you what happens in the final paragraphs because it would ruin the story. But I will say that if Coupland was feeling constricted by his ironic detachment, he certainly seems to have liberated himself from it completely by the end of this book.

Doug, if you're reading this, listen to me. I want you to find a quiet place, sit down and plug yourself back in. Good. Now take a deep breath and let that healthy feeling of Canadian skepticism flow. OK, Doug, you're going to be OK. You were just having one of those bad American dreams. It happens