Coupland spouts culture theories at Con Hall


From the University of Toronto "the Window" (October 1995)

by Mark Chan

When Douglas Coupland first walked on to the stage at Convocation Hall he promised that, "Tonight I will be grim in the Morrissey sense." Dressed in a lumberjack's vest and toque in a manner worthy of a Seattle grunge band wannabe, he was true to his word.

Author of Generation X, Shampoo Planet, and most lately Microserfs, Coupland read from his works in progress and introduced a biographical film called Douglas Coupland: a Close Personal Friend. The film, created by Jennifer Cowan, is done interview style and laced with quick, seconds-long buzzclips of the more tacky trappings of white-middle-class living from the 60's and 70's.

The half-hour documentary laid clear Coupland's evolution from his beginnings as an author of books for an under-employed generation. Whether you like it or not, Douglas Coupland has grown up.

Coupland not only sees himself as a writer, but also as a media/culture pundit - the opinions of anyone else be damned. Sitting in a designer 1970's chair and dressed retro-style, as if he came off the set of the movie JFK, he spent about thirty minutes spouting off his own homespun media/culture theories as responses to Cowan's questions.

His description of this shifting, frustrated, lost generation catapolted him to fame with his 1991 novel, Generation X. Not only did this book bring Coupland his greatest acclaim, it was also his most controversial work. The story revolves around anecdotes related by people who, just like Coupland himself, are the over-educated and underemployed children of relatively successful white middleclassed people. These were the kids who grew up to Sesame Street and who were teens when MTV came out.

For those who could relate to such a lifestyle, the book was shockingly realistic and relevent. Those who could not understand found Generation X to be the whinings of the priveledged few who could not achieve the success of their parents. Since most of the members of the audience at Convocation Hall that evening were clones of Coupland, it seems likely that they were able to relate to him.

While the first two readings of the evening highlighted Coupland's fatalistic side, his third and longest reading, entitled 1975 Visits 1995, was much more in the Coupland vein. In it he describes the impressions of someone who, on a game show in 1975, wins a trip twenty years into the future. The sharp sense of observation about society that he had displayed in Generation X was clearly evident in this piece, as he meticulously lists off one-by-one the details of our culture that would be unusual to the time traveller. This was clearly the piece that the audience was expecting to hear and spared them the sense of befuddlement left by the previous two readings.

1975 Visits 1995 is an example of what Coupland does best and demonstrates his ability as a cultural reporter. But in it he also shows his newfound belief that he is not only a cultural reporter; but a cultural reporter, philosopher, and interpreter all in one. Whether or not these new titles were bestowed onto him, or arose out of a personal need to create a new role for himself, at times it seemed as though he were "in over his head" when he haphazardly philosophized about his observations. For instance, early on in his talk, he defined "texture" as an attribute to life. Today, he thinks that there are two extremes of life texture: with one end of the spectrum held by Bill Gates, Microsoft mogul, representing a progressive texture; and the other held by the Unabomber, who represents the "self-piting and negating texture of life." However the people at both textures of the scale are individuals who try to accomplish, "impossible sophomoric tasks based on a personal whim." At one extreme extorting money by trying to blow up your loved ones, and at the other extreme trying extorting money by trying to put a computer running Windows 95 on every desktop and in every home.

Because of his sharp sense of cultural observation, Douglas Coupland has been hailed by some as a modern day Marshall McLuhan, and an entertainment reporter at CBC radio asserted that twenty years from now, to say that you attended this lecture would be like saying today you attended a McLuhan lecture in the 1960's. I would not go that far in appraising its significance. While to have attended this evening was an enlightening experience, Coupland's newfound theories, made out of discrete observations are not quite the stuff of Marshall McLuhan, yet.

Coupland, born in Vancouver and already in his mid-30's, spoke to a packed Convocation Hall on September 21, as part of the "Where Literature is an Event" series sponsored by the U of T Bookstore.