"Generation X" author Coupland goes Serfin'


From The Tampa Tribune (June 8, 1995)

by Stephen Lynch

I've never met Douglas Coupland, but if I ever do, he says it will go something like this:

"Assuming you're a total Fatal Attraction and want to buy a plane ticket and have a squalid, demoralizing and embarrassing encounter in a sterile, nut- scented cocktail lounge of an Airport Marriott while somebody runs a vacuum cleaner in the background and a big screen blares NBA above a tract of empty cocktail stools, you meet the body."

So in retrospect, I'd rather not meet Douglas Coupland. Instead, I'll deal with a purely e-mail interview, which he says is more illuminating anyway.

"Traditionally, one human being encounters another human being's body first, then their mind and then finally (maybe ... if ...) their soul," he writes. "With e-mail you meet their mind first, then maybe their soul and then ... "

Well, you know that last bit. It's much of the logic behind Coupland's writing - the 20-something angst wanderings of his novels "Generation X," "Shampoo Planet," "Life After God" and his latest, "Microserfs." By Chapter 6 you know the character's mind; by the end of the book you maybe know their souls; but you needn't know the body - except that it might be pierced and tattooed.

Part of a trend

"Microserfs" is the latest in an adapting series of Gen-X-does-(blank) books, described in much the same terms as a "Die Hard" knockoff (i.e. "Die Hard" on a plane, "Die Hard" on a ship, "Die Hard" in a skyscraper). As the movie "Reality Bites" was Gen-X looking for love and the television show "Friends" is Gen-X looking for a job, so "Microserfs" is Gen-X working for Microsoft.

For the first few chapters of the novel, Coupland explores the Orwellian campus of the software giant, describing the lives of programming serfs such as the main character, Daniel, as they strive for a sense of accomplishment. He faces the classic 20-something quandary - despite having a comfortable job at a multimillion-dollar corporation, Daniel just isn't content.

For Coupland, 33, it's an excuse not only to tackle a technophile fascination but effectively to declare an end to the genre. Having dubbed that loose band of 1964- to 1974-born, Trix-fed children Generation X, Coupland now declares it the last generation.

"Generations are molded by the information influences in your early life," he writes. "Now that technology goes through two or three rotations a year, we've effectively ruled out the notion of generations within our culture."

So while the Microserfs can bond over VCRs and "Speed Racer," the pop-culture turnover rate of the 1990s is too fast to garner a collective memory. To compensate, Coupland says he prefers to write in "a time-space amber." His books capture a specific portion of time - in this case weaving the Northridge earthquake and Microsoft Windows 95 into the story line.

What Coupland's critics and fans are so bewildered and impressed by is how well he captures those moments - for example, how Daniel feels when his father gets laid off from his job late in life, or the pleasures of shopping at Costco.

Throughout "Microserfs," Coupland's protagonists are fighting to maintain individuality while identifying with a generation - and a company. They leave Microsoft (almost reluctantly abandoning the god-head Bill Gates) to start their own firm, Oop!, in hopes of producing software in the 1.0 phase.

Changing times

Daniel finds his discontentment stems from always updating other programmers' software instead of creating his own. It's an assembly-line mentality that Coupland says his characters are hoping to escape - to achieve individuality through work.

"We're at an odd transition point in the lineage of Jefferson's individual autonomy where the laws of the "individual' are being rewritten daily," Coupland writes. "The notion of individuality, in various forms of 20th century inflections, has run many of its courses."

If characters could choose the fiction they inhabit, Coupland's band of torture-ridden geeks would long for a Dostoyevskian tragedy.

At least in those books there's usually a dead body - the Col. Mustard in the kitchen with a candlestick - an obvious symbol for their turmoil and strife. In Coupland, the tragedy is always smoke and mirrors, forcing the characters not only to obsess over their discontent, but also puzzle about where that discontent comes from.

If "Microserfs" is Gen-X-looks-for-the-problem, the answer is finding pleasure in a shifting life of six careers and no stability. As the author puts it, "Being able to reinsert yourself into a sense of organic/biological time after a period of immersion in either industrial or postindustrial production mentality."

Which means, ironically, having to turn off the e-mail every once in a while to have awkward meetings in airport lobbies.