Coupland interested in everything except being youth spokesman


From The Commercial Appeal (June 4, 1995)

by Kate Folmar

You almost want to dislike author Douglas Coupland. He got into writing too easily: A magazine editor spied a postcard Coupland had written and hired him within three days.

At age 33, Coupland already has written four books - good books at that. And he is arguably the best-known author of the under-35 set, having written Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991.

He followed the book that named a generation with Shampoo Planet and Life After God. His most recent work is Microserfs, a guileless tale of computer nerds, creativity and love. (See review, Page G3).

He handles the notoriety with a gawky grace and a small helping of evasion. While Coupland rarely refuses to answer questions, he often changes the subject.

What he will discuss without a qualm is Microserfs. "I use the kids' analogy (to describe my books)," Coupland said in an E-mail interview from his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. "You love all your kids equally."

But Microserfs is the most recent - and the most well-behaved - of the four offspring.

The book arose from one of Coupland's unabating passions: technology. "Once I realized that my universe was going geek," Coupland said, "it seemed necessary to locate the cores of geekness."

To understand the etymology of geek culture, Coupland tracked down the source in the famed Silicon Valley and in Washington state - home of computer giant Microsoft.

He researched, spending six weeks with Microsoft nerds and four months with Palo Alto techies. The nerds became his friends. The words came naturally.

"I just listen. I listen to everything," Coupland explained. "I'm sort of nondescript looking, so people don't pay me much attention. Also, the sad thing is, people aren't used to having other people listen to them, so when they encounter someone like me who is a 'total listener,' they have no idea that I'm actually hearing them. So I hear a lot."

Hence, the author, although trained as a painter, is able to write like a techie or a body builder or a woman. More than mimicking dialog, Coupland channels it.

The female characters in Microserfs serve as an example. Bluntly put, they talk like real girls - one minute metaphysical, the next rehashing the sick sexual things they did to their Barbie dolls.

Gender differences fascinate Coupland. In fact, almost everything fascinates Douglas Coupland: words, hair, foliage and the collective subconscious created by television, advertising and pop culture. And, of course, technology.

A typical Coupland E-mail message runs the gamut from the democratization of type faces to the differences between American and Canadian politics: "Canada has a far more diverse political ecology.

Canadians view all U.S. politics as fairly identical nuances of the medium right. . . . It's like Tide versus Oxydol."

Discussing theories is easy for the author. Discussing himself is not. Questions about personal appearance, love and the furor over - and misinterpretation of - Generation X almost kill an E-mail conversation with him.

He declines to describe his physical appearance, although photographs reveal him to be tall, dark-haired and wholesome-looking.

His love life is also taboo. While the characters in Microserfs are less jaded about love than the players in his other books, Coupland ignores an E- mail question about whether he has fallen in love recently.

Mentions of power, the use of the phrase Generation X and his consequent role as de facto spokesman for disgruntled youth everywhere are greeted with a point-blank refusal to respond, but not the expected hostility.

"I never think about it. I just don't," he wrote. Generation X is his problem child. Not only is it difficult, but the author seems a little bored with the topic.

He would rather discuss his admiration for textual artist Jenny Holzer and the merits of E-mail romances, which he defends vigorously.

"In the old days, you met a person's body first, then their mind and then (rarely) their soul," he said. Then came E-mail. "In 1995, you meet somebody's mind first, then (maybe . . . if . . . ) their soul, and then - pending location and willingness to have an awkward encounter in an airport Marriott cocktail lounge - their body," he continued.

The common denominator for Coupland is technology and its strange overlap with humanity. In a strange way, it all comes together. In his last E-mail interview response, he reveals something without being asked:

"I have a small metal plaque of (Holzer's): IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY. This pretty much describes my attitude about technology and the future.