Canlit culture vulture gorges on L.A. excess


From The Montreal Gazette (January 4, 2000)

by Kim Hughes

He may be the architect of Generation X, patron saint of computer geeks and father to a host of oddly resonant societal dropouts. But right now, mega-cool Left Coast author Douglas Coupland is coming slightly unglued.

Picture this scene. A frigid (what else is new?) January Tuesday at a Montreal theatre. Coupland -- tentative even in controlled situations -- is stepping before a paying audience to read from his new work, Miss Wyoming.

Fans range from punks to sprout-eaters to the uptight chick in the full-length fur who, when informed of the club's policy that all coats must be checked, shrieks, "Are you going to pay me $10,000 if this coat is stolen?" Heads up, thieves and animal activists.

Though he presides over a flock that's hip to the meaning of Bradyism and boomer envy, it's lucky Coupland prints his photo on the dust jackets of his novels. Otherwise, the slouching, nondescript fidget up there onstage might be mistaken for some publishing-house dweeb and not one of Canada's most widely read and quoted novelists.

OK, so Truman Capote and Dorothy Parker notwithstanding, authors are bookish by definition. And Coupland is funny as hell, not to mention polite in the Canadian way. But still. How to reconcile this jittery dad-like dude with the iconoclastic former magazine journalist who pursued sculpture vocationally before deciding, in a teary, life-affirming moment on a Toronto street corner, to follow his heart and -- yikes -- wade into the murky waters of fiction. And not just stories, but vivid, non-linear, contemporary snapshots owing more to Pollack than Hemingway.

"I saw an interview with John Travolta once," Coupland recalls earlier in the day, when it's pointed out that he's become the kind of brand name one of his wiseacre creations might passingly refer to over cheeseburgers and a mangy copy of Wired.

"The interviewer said, 'Twenty years ago, you were a big hit in Saturday Night Fever, and 20 years later you're a big hit in Pulp Fiction. How does it feel to be a pop icon again?'

"And Travolta said, 'The big difference is, Saturday Night Fever was pop culture, and Pulp Fiction was about pop culture.' The reverse thing happened with me. Somewhere along the line, I went to the other side of the mirror."

Basic instincts

Perhaps strangely, then, all his characters (save maybe the namesake of Girlfriend In A Coma) are unapologetically normal. They may be suffering from terminal ennui, but they're average. They're us. They lob non sequiturs at friends. They drive around, have so-so sex and strictly-for-the-money jobs. And like us, they're consciously searching for the reason they're alive, because something inside tells them they should.

That savagely human need for answers gave Coupland's Generation X weight despite its precocious preoccupation with identifying a subgroup and giving it its own language. It redeemed the bipolar protagonist in the maligned but arresting Life After God. Today, it lends crucial believability to the otherwise fantastical Miss Wyoming.

All of this makes Coupland, ironically, something of an old-fashioned moral watchdog, an arbiter of 20th-century righteousness for misfits staring out past the invisible fencing of their McJobs. And we were expecting some flamboyant gadfly?

Well, actually, yes. Yet the contrast is why Coupland -- 38, rich and translated into 22 languages -- continues to captivate us seven books on despite being critically dissected and assigned as much mainstream ink as grunge, a phenomenon that shadowed his ascendancy. It's the one catchphrase the king of contemporary catchphrases regrets he didn't coin.

"After years of hearing, 'Gee, Doug, there's so much pop culture in your work -- aren't you afraid it's going to prevent the books from enduring?' I've finally realized that I'm coming from the academic culture of the visual world.

"Since World War II, high and low culture have been melted together," he continues over coffee and fruit salad. "People think pop culture and literature are separate spheres that should never join together. Well, why?

"The authors I like -- Evelyn Waugh, John O'Hara, Noel Coward -- all write about specific eras. Sometimes I don't get the reference, but the spirit is there. And you feel like you're getting the scoop on how things were at that time."

Judging by the Montreal reading and other public exchanges with Coupland, his fan base remains youth-driven even though Gen X-ers are now driving Saabs.

Since Coupland writes from the precise point he's at, his characters are naturally aging along with him, as is the case in Miss Wyoming. (See review below.) This may prove a bigger long-term problem than hopelessly of-the-moment language. On the upside, CanLit courses look brighter already.

"I don't think you can plan to do a certain kind of book," Coupland argues. "Books just happen. One of the weird misconceptions about me and other writers is that a high concept descends and that's the book and you go out and write it. If that were the case, everybody would be writing best-sellers.

"The truth of the matter is, you live your life and these books just emerge, and the more that happens in your life, the more desperately the books want to be written.

"Miss Wyoming and the one I'm working on now didn't so much emerge from me as explode, like the alien from the thorax."

Since Coupland is widely regarded as a keen observer, let's turn the tables and observe the observer.

He is very humble. He curates art shows. He genuinely likes his fans. And his fans, evidently, like each other. "One guy met his future wife at one of my readings. Another guy carved out a hole in a copy of Microserfs and put his engagement ring in it."

He spends loads of time in Los Angeles. Video/film auteur Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) is a close personal friend. None of his books feels unfinished to him. He used to record fiction-bound thoughts in hundreds of spiral notebooks, but he doesn't any more.

He proudly, consistently salts his work with Canadian references. Of all his books, Life After God, "a book I got so much shit for," is his most real. He'd put that one in a time capsule.

And, yes, he admits the repetition of the same word over successive pages in Microserfs was indeed "a shameless homage to Warhol." So why hasn't Coupland's catalogue been seized by Hollywood? Maybe it's because when Hollywood comes calling, Coupland doesn't call back.

Spike's gag

"Spike Jonze, who's a real prankster, was getting married last summer, so I was in Napa Valley. At one point I picked up my messages and had one from a guy claiming to be from John Malkovich's office inquiring about buying the rights to Shampoo Planet. I'm, like, 'That Spike, getting married in an hour and still pulling hijinks -- ha ha.' So I completely ignored it.

"I got another message, again allegedly from John Malkovich's office, and I thought, 'Spike, continuing the joke from his honeymoon in Tahiti.' Finally, my agent says to me, 'What the fuck are you doing? Call the guy back!'

"Turns out the calls were real. Malkovich came across the book completely independently of his relationship with Spike. It was one of those weird moments when reality and artifice collapse.

"But I try never to get my hopes up or turn into Ed Grimley. 'Ooh, geez, they're going to make my book into a movieee!' Best to keep a level head."