Douglas Coupland probes Generation X once again


From Edmonton Journal (March 19, 1994)

by Gordon Morash

EDMONTON - So what's a poor Canadian boy to do?

Just two weeks after launching his latest book, Life After God, at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., what should appear about Vancouver writer Douglas Coupland in the opinion-making journals of the United States. "The best parts of this book by far are the whimsical line drawings Coupland has done to accompany his cloying text," writes Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

Bruce Handy, in this month's Vanity Fair, isn't much kinder, likening the book to that chestnut of the '70s, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

"But as the various narrators blur, one woebegone software salesman after another, reading the stories in Life After God becomes not unlike spending an evening in a bar with an old school friend you quickly realize you've outgrown." Ouch!

Not only that, but Coupland, despite the myriad British Columbia and Vancouver references in the new book, sees himself subsumed by American culture, adopted - at least by Vanity Fair - as a "Pacific Northwestern" voice. Is this the reward for dealing with American publishing houses St. Martin's Press and Pocket Books? Or for launching in the U.S., albeit using the technicality of Embassy Row's Canadian soil?

There was good reason to launch the book south of the border, says Coupland, in Edmonton this week to promote and read from Life After God. Washington was the first to embrace wholeheartedly his initial work, Generation X, a book that could not find a Canadian publisher, and indeed, was not even distributed in this country for a year following publication.

As well, the title story of the book, 1,000 Years (Life After God) is set partly on Pennsylvan-ia Avenue and in the Canadian Embassy during the Clinton swearing-in ceremony. The post-ceremony parade opens up to patented Coupland camera-eye comment: "Junkies the color of vanilla milkshakes wore their finest baseball hats; florally up-holstered Mary Kay queens ate bagels sold from street vendors."

Still, if there is indeed a backlash, he won't acknowledge it. "Some people see into it whatever they want to see," he says. "I've never seen a book (by other writers) where no two people feel the same way about it." Admittedly, the book has fared better in Canada. Critics here see this third entry in the Coupland oeuvre as a leaps-and-bounds growth for a novelist who had yet to be seen managing the most basic of plot structures.

All this while retaining just a smidgen of the laconic cuteness that made Generation X a best-seller throughout North America. Despite being what Coupland calls "a flop" when it was first published in 1991, that book has sold more than 350,000 copies.

"The movie, Reality Bites, sent my back-list through the roof," he adds, because it included references to Generation X and his second book Shampoo Planet.

Hailed by many commentators as a breath of fresh air for his "owner's manual" approach to the post-boomer generation and literature in Generation X, Coup-land has taken shots from some who accused him of writing what was a mere pastiche of insights wrapped in book covers. Ironically, Coupland no longer wants to be the spokesman for the generation he chronicled in 1991, primarily because he says he merely wrote about it, rather than presenting a thesis on it. It places him in an exasperating situation, he adds. "How can I disavow something when I never vowed it in the first place?"

He also refuses to play the standard publicity game that strives to present him as a '90s icon. He avoids the cocktail party/book launch circuit as much as possible, and beyond directing a series of six 30-second television bits from Life After God for MTV, has only a casual working relationship with television. And that includes talk show appearances with the likes of Conan O'Brien. "Writing is what I do," he explains. "I've had to be really hyper- selective about what I do and won't do. All the offers that come my way, it's just absurd. I could have turned Life After God into a lot of dough. But, I didn't do the Gap ad. Detroit phoned up and offered $ 20,000 to give a seminar on how to sell cars to kids. I never did any of that stuff, and hope I never will."

For a working writer who has been turned unwittingly into a cultural barometer for the technologically reliant '90s, his own use of media is simplistic. "I only do print, and in the States for radio, I'll do National Public Radio. I won't do phone-ins, or disc jockey-type shows. In Canada, I'll do the CBC because it's NPR-esque. I try to keep some dignity in the situation, too. Between appearing on Conan, how far away are you from being a peripheral box on Hollywood Squares?"

He's not even convinced that book tours sell books, despite kicking off a six-city Canadian tour in Edmonton. "I don't know if they do or don't. I think word of mouth sells books."

As for the signs of a backlash, Coupland says he'll continue to conduct his career his way, even if it means avoiding the chi-chi events that are part- and-parcel of New York's publishing world. Why, he insists on living in Vancouver, of all places!

"What the hell. If people in New York with martinis go, 'How droll,' you know, big deal.