In 'Life After God,' writer Coupland eschews his 'Generation X' irony


From The Baltimore Sun (March 2, 1994)

by Scott Timberg

Douglas Coupland_the 32-year-old Canadian author who both cultivated and disavowed the role of spokesman for his generation_says he's stopped smirking.

Mr. Coupland burst on the scene in 1991 with "Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture," dubbed a "Preppy Handbook" for smarmy twentysomethings.

Kicking off a press tour in Washington, D.C., last week, Mr. Coupland explains that his new book, "Life After God," differs from his previous work in recognizing that smirky irony is not enough.

"Which a lot of people seem to be getting mad at me for," he says. "Irony's just a tool, like metaphor or alliteration or something_it's not an end to itself."

But he says it took a crisis to bring him around. "I was depressed when I wrote the book, I make no bones about it," he says, reclining in his hotel room between an interview on WHFS-FM and a reception at the Canadian embassy.

"I don't want to get my personal life into this. Nobody I know has to be in this. I will say that in times of crisis, no one turns to a smart aleck for consolation." His troubles showed him the importance of reflection and the search for transcendence.

"Life After God"_a series of humorous stories about disoriented characters searching for meaning_is tempered with a sense of mourning and vulnerability new to Mr. Coupland's work and looks at the erosion of religion from contemporary life. When irony doesn't work, he says, we look for transcendence to assuage the loss. And many young people are poorly equipped.

"It was seen as progressive, quote-unquote," to raise your kids without religion, he says.

"You're left with people like me, who have no orthodox resources, and it hit me."

This recognition has thrown him back to fundamental, age-old questions.

"Why do we sleep eight hours a night? Why do we pretend we're not animals? Why does time seem so screwy recently? I don't know if anybody will ever answer these questions, but evidence of thinking about them is really important."

Even those of us without religion have the ability to reflect, to search for the transcendent. "But that 2000-year-old stuff, it just doesn't connect. I certainly wish it could_it would make my life a lot easier." And while he won't talk about his recent loss_and he's tired of talking about "Generation X"_he will discuss a host of other subjects, often unasked.

His recent trip to Las Vegas: "I thought it would be snotty, ironic fun, and it ended up being fun fun." Travel: "I'm not very good at time zones, that's why I can't go to Europe." His hotel, the Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue: "Marriott owns Pizza Hut, so you open your toilet lid and a little sign asks you if you've remembered to order a pizza." The rift between generations: "The Boomers are like, can't you guys stop talking about 'The Brady Bunch'? Well, only if you stop talking about Woodstock."

And one of his favorite subjects, Patricia Hearst: "When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in 1974, it was like Marcia Brady was kidnapped. That's true child-of- the-'70s stuff_it's a real demarcation point_do you care about Patty Hearst or not."

Wryly quotable

Garrulous, talkative, quick-witted and slightly self-impressed, Mr. Coupland laughs loudly at his own jokes in a way that seems more gregarious than narcissistic. He knows he has a reputation as the most quotable young writer alive, a young man whose quips and pet phrases are reprinted in the New York Times and The New Republic. He speaks in a deadpan tone and wry style that makes him seem an older, Canadian-accented David Letterman. And while he sees that there's more to life than irony, there are reasons why his generation is so enamored with it. Irony unites the young, serves as a common language, generational glue, for those separated by vast stretches of geography, he says.

"The '80s certainly made people ironic, and it's only going to get more so. Irony is armor"_there to protect people from disappointment and overblown expectations, he says.

"It's an inevitable part of life hereafter, until cockroaches rule the Earth or whatever."

But when we experience loss, snide humor and ironic detachment don't do the trick. His new book was an exercise in reduction, he says, in which he cut out not only irony but other signature mannerisms. "I tried to get rid of all the glitz and shebang and trademarks."

"Life After God" has received mixed-to-good advance press. Will Blythe writes in the March Esquire that while much of Mr. Coupland's previous output has been "the irritating noodlings of the terminally clever teen-age sociologist," his new book is meatier stuff. "The story is suffused with a mystery and regret unique in Coupland's work," he says, calling the novel "Coupland's most accomplished work to date." Other cultural observers have been less kind. Bruce Handy writes in the March Vanity Fair that "Life After God" is "fiction larded with McKuenesque profundities, a 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' for the mid-'90s." Mr. Handy sees in the novel "the hothouse nostalgia and premature weariness of high-school seniors harking back to the Eden of junior year." Mike Rubin, an editor at the Village Voice who writes frequently about generational issues, says Mr. Coupland's visibility has more to do with good timing and a publicity blitz than literary genius. The media appointed Mr. Coupland an expert because they were hungry for a pithy source on the younger generation, he says. This search for quotable experts, Mr. Rubin says, "becomes that much more ludicrous when that person speaks for anywhere from 48 to 80 million people." Without luck, Mr. Rubin says, "He might just have been another guy rooting for an NFL franchise for Vancouver."

Mr. Coupland says those who knock him are missing the point. He's never claimed to be anybody's partisan but his own. "Despite what anyone tells you, I've never been a spokesman for a generation," he whispers hoarsely, as if the term were a dread disease which he's just been diagnosed as having. He says he writes like any writer_out of personal experience, not by pumping demographic information into a computer. "It would certainly pay the bills faster if I had some kind of Grishamesque formula," he says. "I don't sit down and say, 'What are the '90s all about, and what can I write about them?' " This is working backward, he says. A novel should be personal, "like an AA meeting," a confession without the sentiment. Skeptics point out that Mr. Coupland has turned down neither the attention nor the New Republic assignments, stints most writers his age would kill for.

Inspired by pop art

Mr. Coupland freely admits he's more indebted more to pop artists such as Jenny Holzer, journalists such as Joan Didion and satirists such as Evelyn Waugh than to other novelists. "I went to art school, I didn't go to school school, so I never learned how to write. As far as literary tradition, I don't know...

"From the age of seven, I discovered all the pop artists, and that was it." He opened a World Book encyclopedia to the art entry and fell for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. "And it's been pop ever since."

At a reception at the Canadian Embassy last week_that rare embassy function at which leather and suede are as prominent as tweed_the original film of the Who's "Tommy," obscure Canadian cartoons and MTV video shorts made by Mr. Coupland play on television sets.

"I'd like to welcome all the Generation X'ers here," says Curtis Barlow, the embassy's cultural attache. "You're definitely in the majority here." A kind of cultural elite of the younger generation gradually assembles. Andrew Sullivan, the 30-year-old editor of The New Republic, feminist author Naomi Wolf, 31, and deejays from WHFS and publicists from D.C.'s Dischord Records gather for Mr. Coupland's introduction.

Mr. Coupland stands near the podium, dressed in half-laced army boots and a black suit that serves as Sunday-wear for a Canadian religious sect known for austerity and nonviolence.

But Mr. Coupland says his faith is more '90s. "Just call me a Freeway Bradyist," he says. "We dream of being infinite, we dream of resolution, we dream to give our hearts away.