Irony in the soul


From Sunday Times (August 7, 1994)

by Tom Shone

'Home to me," confides the narrator of one of Douglas Coupland's new short stories, "is a shared electronic dream of cartoon memories, half-hour sitcoms and national tragedies." So, his head full of headlines, and his heart coursing with faux-naivety, he lists some of his favourite things: "As suburban children we floated at night in swimming pools the temperature of blood"; "instead of bathing, we sprayed Calvin Klein's Eternity into our armpits"; "another snap-shot: in the backyard watching bats dive-bomb a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee". Bats locate objects by a form of sonar, and, therefore, aren't likely to be too impressed by glow-in-the-dark-Frisbees, but never mind: as useful ways of spending your time go, complaining that a detail in a Coupland story is ersatz is up there with complaining that McDonald's don't seem to use that many local ingredients.

Coupland's first book, Generation X, was, indeed, the fictional equivalent of fast food: a buffet of favourite 300-word anecdotes about twentysomething ennui and goofball theories about popular culture, with the odd McNugget of information thrown in for good measure. As the first work of "slacker" literature, it was, well, pretty slack. Coupland's feel for fictional form was so laid back it could barely get up, let alone go. Coupland hitched his second book, Shampoo Planet, to a plot that felt as if it had breezed over for the day from an Australian daytime soap boy meets girl, loses girl, has bad hair day, gets girl, finds the right conditioner but it didn't wash as a novel. Third time around, and Coupland's twentysomething loafers have got hung up on God, Nature and Eternity the eschatological version, not the scent, although I could be wrong, for everything here is viewed as product, from natural disasters (a "chocolate-pudding mud slide") to emotional states ("you got all overexcited, like you'd eaten five bowls of Count Chocula"); what's the difference between an emotional high and an ecological low? Who cares when they're the same super choc-chip flavour?

It isn't one that lasts, however, and this is a book that melts instantly in your mind. Coupland isn't really interested in talking about his generation, merely in giving good sound bite. His title certainly sounds big, important and complicated, yet the plots in this collection are barely one evolutionary notch up from narrative pond-life. Dumped boyfriend admires birds. Dumped girlfriend admires fishes. Father hankers for daughter. Brother yearns for lost sister.None of these stories is longer than three pages, and most pages are interrupted by cute little line drawings by the author. The dustjacket notes a new maturity in Coupland's tone, but look at this attempt at summoning up memories of that lost sister: "Above the lawn and inside the forest, little glints and rustles which we all know are her, yet which we dare not mention." Are "glints and rustles" really the best he can do? It sounds like a new line in hair tints. Coupland is at his best when he gets to a joke like that ahead of the reader, when he's pushing his designer desires to the limit and lording it with the thin, reedy whinny of an urban brat on a field trip: Beavis and Butt-Head go wild in the country. What do you think this is? "A man's head with wings". I haven't come across a better description of an owl. Or what about this: "a raccoon-based road-kill"? Well, it started life as a raccoon, but met with a car and now it's just another artificial additive.

He's at his worst when he buries the humour and strives to whip his ingredients into a souffle of soul-searching. It doesn't rise. We are told of a dead male prostitute that "nobody knew who his family was or where they were" a formulation so flatly fake it had me howling with laughter. Likewise, when a husband whose wife has left him writes to his daughter that he often finds himself "absent-mindedly trying on your Fisher Price McDonalds employee headset", you know that Coupland is far more interested in digging that headset than digging around inside that head. When he does empty the contents of his characters' heads on to the page, you start wishing they'd get back to spraying Eternity into their armpits. Birds, so one tells us, "prove to us there is a finer, simpler state of being which we may strive to attain". Who would have guessed it? Jonathan Livingston Seagull is alive and well and lining Coupland's head with feathers.

You can see what he thinks he's doing here: escaping the looptape of irony by means of a bracing inhalation of naivety, advancing beyond the camp catatonia of the bratpack, and waking up to the bare necessities of life. One character says: "I'm trying to escape from ironic hell" but she stands no chance: Coupland has irony in the soul rip away one layer, and there stands another, and then still another.

All this may well be hellish, but looking to the lickle boidies for instruction on attaining finer, simpler states of being is too zealous an over-reaction, and it's certainly no escape; however cleverly disguised as naivety it may be, it isn't; it's just irony ironed even flatter. I don't buy it