|The Puck of Pop: No One Knows How To Nail the Now The Way That Douglas Coupland Does in His Novels|
The Boston Globe (January 13, 2000)
by Mark Feeney
NEW YORK - No one has to tell Douglas Coupland how inescapably his name is linked with "Generation X," a term he unleashed on an unsuspecting world as the title of his debut novel. But even Coupland was startled when Alex Trebek, that unacknowledged legislator of cultural immortality, took the linkage to a whole new plane two months ago.
in the evening," Coupland explains, "my phone just rang off the hook: `Oh,
you're a "Jeopardy!" question!' That was really cool."
Coolness is a subject Coupland (pronounced COPE-land) knows something about. Few novelists writing today have so vividly communicated the grain of the contemporary. Not since Tom Wolfe has a writer of fact, fiction, or both, illuminated - let alone carbonated - as many subcultures.
From slackers not so down but very out in Palm Springs ("Generation X," 1991) to software geeks coding their lives away in Palo Alto ("Microserfs," 1995) to denizens of the beauty-pageant circuit and the fringes of Hollywood ("Miss Wyoming," his new novel), Coupland has shown himself to be an inspired phrasemaker and fanatically detailed observer of the way we live now. In the process, he's staked out a special place on the literary landscape: beyond cult figure yet not quite housebroken enough for the mainstream.
His talents have earned Coupland, who'll be reading at Brookline Booksmith tomorrow evening, a global following. He's been translated into 22 languages, and upwards of 20 Web sites are dedicated to Coupland and his work. "Many people, particularly young people, identify closely with his writings," says Paula High tower, who oversees one such site, www.squeakie.com/coupland.
Part of the mystique surrounding Coupland is that novels are just a part of what he does. Trained as a sculptor, he designs furniture and has done a series of brief "art spots" for MTV (the spots, as well as the furniture and much else besides, can be viewed on Coupland's own Web site, www.coupland.com). He also has a small film production company, works as a futurist for the Global Business Network, and is a contributing editor of Wired.
Coupland embodies a kind of post-glamour, wetware-based, Y2K-and- away hipness that's at once boyish and shrewd. Mention the word hip, however, and Coupland's brows jump. "I'm wearing a gray cashmere V- neck! I'm 38-and-a-week old!" And it's certainly true that his balding pate and rabbity cheeks will never earn him a spot on the cover of GQ. Nor, for that matter, will his diet get him on the cover of Gourmet: Lunch consists of half a large Toblerone bar, a pot of coffee, and fruit salad (consumed in that order).
Yet in person, as on the page, appearance is the least of what makes Coupland what he is. Extremely bright and self-aware, he performs a sort of nonstop existential stand-up, one minute summing up the questionable splendor of an overdone hotel lobby ("At home with the Ceausescus!"), the next offering to crouch for a photographer in the pose of Andy Warhol's famous silk screen of Elvis (the photographer demurs). The overall effect is of a highly caffeinated Puck, equally at home in a Starbucks or the Forest of Arden.
An outsider's insights
As it happens, Coupland lives in the New World equivalent of the Forest of Arden (more or less), Vancouver, British Columbia, and being Canadian has played its part in Coupland's success: while utterly at home with American culture, he's able to bring to it an outsider's insights.
"I think it's the relationship of the future," Coupland says of the United States and Canada. "You have had an entirely permeable membrane between the two [countries] for as long as they've been in existence. Everything American - movies, magazines, television - coming through. It's about as close a metaphor as you can get for utter and total globalization. Yet there still remain the differences. So, for anyone who's freaking out about globalization, I say: Look, the very worst it can get is Canada and the States."
Where American culture overwhelms Canadians, Canadian culture distinctly underwhelms Americans ("I warn you," Coupland says, "the moment you say `Canada' to Americans they fall asleep or turn the page"). Yet Celine Dion and, yes, Alex Trebek notwithstanding, there have been certain other Canadians - Glenn Gould, Neil Young, David Cronenberg, the SCTV people, Marshall McLuhan - whose energetically inexplicable careers suggest there's a lot more to the great white north than hockey players and Mounties. It is very much to this other Canadian tradition that Coupland belongs.
A child of the Cold War, he was born on a NATO base in Germany, the third of four sons. The family moved to Vancouver in 1965, and Coupland's parents still live in the house he grew up in. If the tribute he wrote for his high school class' 10th reunion is any indication (it can be found on his Web site), Coupland enjoyed a painless - if also, as he says, "understimulated" - adolescence.
He went to art school in Vancouver, then spent two years in Japan. A postcard he sent home caught the eye of a local editor, who gave him some writing assignments. He moved to Toronto and turned to fiction. St. Martin's, the publisher of "Generation X," envisioned the book as a comic throwaway title, a handbook. Coupland had other ideas.
The two ironies
There were two great ironies to the success of "Generation X." One was that its author is a baby boomer. Coupland makes the demographic cut-off, Dec. 31, 1964, by three years and a day. Not that this fact bothers him. "There's this boomer sensibility to use the first-person plural," he says. " `We' did this and `we' do that. The moment you find people using only the first-person singular, I think that's when you've entered X territory. Which is where I would put myself."
The other irony was that the greatest influence on this literary sensation wasn't another writer but an artist. "One of the great regrets of my life is that I never got to see or meet Andy Warhol," Coupland says. "The first hardcover I ever bought was a Warhol biography, by John Coplans. It was $10 back in 1970, '71. It was the most expensive thing I'd ever bought. I was almost faint from having spent that much money."
It was a wise investment. Warhol's writing style and Coupland's - flat, direct, aphoristic, surreally mundane - show marked affinities; and as is immediately apparent from the look of his Web site, Coupland remains very much indebted to Pop Art generally.
"I still remember looking in the World Book Encyclopedia - I was in elementary school - `P' for `Pop Art,' back in '69, '70. It was pretty new back then even. They probably had arguments over at World Book headquarters whether to include it. There was Roy Lichtenstein's `Blam!,' an exploding plane, and I think the [Warhol Campbell's] soup can. It was one of those things: That's it, that's me, done!
"What I'm realizing now is, I've gone for eight years now with people saying how can you put Pop stuff in books? What I finally figured out is after World War II popular culture and visual academic culture melded together and they've been melded together ever since. From what I can tell about the literary world, literature and pop culture have always been separate spheres and they've never joined. If you're an academic, that's how you're trained, that's what you think it is. But I got just the opposite: How can you not put pop culture in something? Our world is just so insanely Pop. Everything's Pop these days."
`Wyoming' without notes
Coupland's fiction has the vibrancy of Pop Art - the goofball slyness as well as the eyeball-blasting color - but it has also boasted the verisimilitude of first-rate journalism. As Hightower points out, he has a genius for perceiving "the tiny details that one might encounter in day-to-day life." Certainly, Coupland is a demon reporter. "Between 1989 and 1997 or so, I did not go anywhere without a notebook that could fit in my pocket. . . . Then around '97, whatever I was doing became internal. So that with `Miss Wyoming' there's not a single note for it. . . . Now it all just comes out of my head, and because it comes out of my head I think it's a bit more emotionally driven than artifactually or environmentally driven."
The story of an improbable romance between a burned-out film producer and a former child star, "Miss Wyoming" is a marked departure for Coupland. The first book he's written in the third person, it takes daring liberties with narrative structure. The prose is more restrained. The tension between authorial attitude and spiritual yearning, something central to Coupland's fiction, approaches a balance it hasn't previously attained.
For nearly any other writer, "Miss Wyoming" would seem like a technical advance. For Coupland, it seems almost like a throwback - which he takes as a compliment. "All the things people learn in English 101," he says, "I had to learn six books later, the hard way. In one way I'm glad, because it kept my voice my own voice."
The larger point is that "Miss Wyoming" marks a deepening of his commitment to the novel. For all that he does so many other things, writing is what most matters to him. "If you one by one stripped away the things from [my] life, writing would be the last thing. I think that without writing there would be no me. . . .
"I don't think book writing is therapy. It's not a cry for help, and books aren't contrived (if you contrive a book, it's cynical and not going to work). . . . One of the misconceptions that hovers around me is that the books are thought of in advance, like high concept or something. If only it was that easy! If life was that easy, every car Detroit made would be a hit, every song would go to No. 1. If only the world was so together that you could plan things out like that - and it's not.
He pauses, then gives his little-boy grin. "Well, maybe Michael Crichton can."
"Susan sat in her window seat, 58-A, and idly watched the landscape below. To her left was an older couple - he an engineer of some sort, and she a mousy 1950s wife. Mr. Engineer was convinced they were currently flying directly over Jamestown, New York, `the birthplace of Lucille Ball,' and craned over Susan, jabbing at what looked like just another American town that bought Tide, ate Campbell's soup and generated at least one weird, senseless killing per decade. Later, Susan would look at a map of the eastern United States and realize how truly wrong Mr. Engineer had been, but at the time she gawked downward in some misplaced mythical hope of seeing a tiny little dot of flaming red hair."
COUPLAND from "Miss Wyoming"
Caption: 1. Douglas Coupland is the author of "Generation X," "Microserfs," and now something very different - "Miss Wyoming," about the denizens of the beauty-pageant circuit. 2. GLOBE PHOTO/JOE TABACCA Douglas Coupland: He's an author, a Web site, a furniture designer, and a "Jeopardy!" question, among other things.