|Review of Life After God|
From Paragraph (Fall 1994)
by Clint Burnham
Generation X is not just a novel by Douglas Coupland; nor is it a generation; nor is it a way of thinking about the economic and social changes that have purportedly marginalized the children of the North American bourgeoisie. Generation X is all of those things, which is to say that it is simultaneously the ideology, the text(s), and the demographic social formation. So I think it's important to read Coupland's work, in this case his new short-story collection Life After God, in such a shifting context.
The title of the book is a pun: while Coupland's premise is that his (our) generation is the first one raised without formal religion, the book reveals that it also a generation after God in the sense of chasing religion. And it is an indication of the insularity of Coupland's Weltanschauung that he should make this unique claim at the beginning of "In the Desert":
What of the countless pagan, polytheistic, or officially atheist societies and traditions around the world and throughout history? The story itself is sort of like an episode Miami Vice co-written by Michael Stipe and David Byrne: all mood, no moody.
But Coupland must read within limits: his rich-kid aphorisms; his Gen-X whining that is simultaneously a parody of boomer whining and, increasingly, of itself; his fictional lameness. All of these "defects" are as much the strength of his work as is its essential apolitical stance. Gen-X whining, for example, is the whining of a generation that only has the second-best deal in all of human history: the children of the ruling classes of the richest nations on the planet. Marginalized? Even Coupland's verbal dexterity can be seen as a mark of class privilege.
Indeed, the term "Generation X" is a designer drug of literature (akin to the "computer-designed sweaters" he's always talking about). And Coupland's verbal felicities, not unlike those of Christopher Dewdney or Robert Priest (or Jean Baudrillard or Walter Benjamin), surround the soft porn of his sociological insights like the cover of Life After God, which we are told to remove before reading the book. Coupland wants us to know we are reading a book: "no CD-ROM, no headphones." This curious antiquarianism has always been present in Coupland's work: the dated and crude fear of nuclear holocaust in Generation X, the '80s fixation with self-image in Shampoo Planet, or the hearkening after God in the new book. In this respect, Coupland is rather like his theoretical forbear, Marshall McLuhan, who began his most important book with a discussion of King Lear and maps, an undergraduate student trying to update a Shakespeare essay for the 1960s. Reading Coupland Version 3.1, then, you can no more shake off the mantra of Gen X than you can shake your way out of a drug haze. What is interesting about Coupland is that he thinks you can.
I take the position that, good or bad, what is most interesting and important about Coupland's work is how it functions as an ideological text. Of course Coupland will never write a book as important as his first novel: little or nothing could have the same effect. What this means is that he's becoming less of a spokesman for the generation than just another mid-list author, doomed to write the same witty book, again, and again, and again.
Consider the promotional material that I received from Distican, his Canadian distributor: copies of reviews, a story Coupland wrote for Wired magazine about working at Microsoft, sample Q & A's for lazy interviewers or television producers (that's where Coupland explains why you're supposed to take the cover off), and the book on tape for really lazy interviwers. Oh yeah, and the book itself. Coupland's books seem to be getting smaller and smaller; you can read Life After God in about 45 minutes, especially if you don't spend too much time looking at the scratchy drawings.
Coupland's appeal is that his work demonstrates the class-struggle element of the Generation-X community. These stories are the closest I've ever seen to a representation of people I actually know: in this case, the curious rural/urban guerrillas who plant trees part of the year and spend the rest as a bicycle courier, smoking drugs and wearing thick sweaters.
However, Coupland contends that the various signifiers of such a class position are unfixed, mere signs in the way that brand names or favourite bands are. That is, he cannot see that there is an essential underpinning to the sign system. Coupland attempts to demonstrate that the sign is no longer fixed to any social real.