Douglas Coupland praises Vancouver's dynamism


From Macleans (November 20, 2000)

by Chris Wood

We live, not so much in a city but in a dream of a city. --

Douglas Coupland Vancouver drives Torontonians crazy. Oh sure, it's beautiful (when it's not raining). But it's so, well, irresponsible. All that focus on lifestyle when people should really be thinking about net worth. The president and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, William Thorsell, struck the note of starched disapproval nicely last month, in a review for The Globe and Mail, which he used to edit. He sniffed that Douglas Coupland's new book, City of Glass (Douglas & McIntyre, $24.95), "gives us a revealing portrait of Vancouver by a writer who grew up there, and therefore barely grew up at all." Ouch. Coupland, needless to say, sees it differently. Give Toronto its temples to the old, he shrugs; Vancouver will celebrate the limitless possibilities of the new. "Citizens go away on holiday," Coupland writes, "and return to a totally different place."

Coupland himself has left Vancouver repeatedly only to come back again. The author of eight novels has lived at different times in Japan, Italy and the United States, contributing to the language such phrases as "Generation X" (the title of his first book) and "microserfs" (his fourth). He now lives on the same West Vancouver mountainside where he grew up. "I spent my 20s scouring the globe thinking there had to be a better city out there," Coupland writes on the cover of his latest work, "until it dawned on me that Vancouver is the best one going." He shares civic pride with his publisher. Douglas & McIntyre president Scott McIntyre had been looking for a way to capture his city between covers for some time before striking a deal with the now-38-year-old Coupland, and personally edited the volume. The result is part picture book and part offbeat travel guide (advice for visiting Vancouver's drug-riddled Downtown Eastside: "Wear sturdy footwear . . . open your mind and your eyes"), with a couple of previously published passages by Coupland thrown in for ballast.

As such (and Thorsell is right about this), City of Glass does not amount to much. Coupland's take on his town is so non-linear he resorts to the arbitrary sequence of the alphabet to put his thoughts in order. Most of the book's text appears in short, breezy riffs on topics beginning with the ABCs of the city's name (it's Vancouver to locals -- never "Van") and ending at YVR (the international designation for the city's airport). Coupland explains that the format arose from the answers he became practised at giving to out-of-town visitors who repeatedly asked him about the same things. As in: "What's the deal with pot?" A few of the more than 80 images that accompany the text are archival; the rest were shot for the book. Think of the result as a bit like a drive around the city with the author annotating the sights as you go.

Coupland makes no apology if the city that emerges is characterized more by contrast and paradox than Thorsell's urban virtues of "critical mass and serious intent." Vancouver does lack history, Coupland admitted in an interview with Maclean's. "I don't think you find much nostalgia here," he muses. The metropolitan area embraces both the country's most expensive real estate and its poorest postal code. With one of the world's most dramatic settings, Vancouver earns a living in the movies passing itself off as any place from Singapore to Bavaria. "There is no core" to Vancouver, Coupland concedes, "it's all margin." But that is also the city's greatest blessing, he argues. "Every city in the United States is exactly like every other city in the United States, with maybe New York and San Francisco the only exceptions. Vancouver seems to be defying globalization."

If there is fecklessness in Vancouver's heady pursuit of each new infatuation (the city's economic history, after all, has been a series of rushes after lumber, gold, salmon, penny stocks, real estate and now dot.coms), the same charge might be levelled at Coupland. A doctor's son who says he spent most of his high-school years "catatonic from under-stimulation," Coupland studied to be a sculptor before discovering he could earn more with his words. It was an accidental discovery: a local newspaper editor, on the basis of a postcard Coupland had written, commissioned an article. Coupland keeps his hand in the visual arts, designing furniture for an Edmonton company and involving himself closely in the artwork for City of Glass. In conversation, his thoughts follow few straight lines, often leaping into life out of a physical image: a dove-grey tin roof under a cloudy sky, lights strung along the looping cables of a bridge.

For an author more identified with detachment ("chic cynicism . . . and stylish despair," Thorsell clucks), Coupland displays a startling romantic streak in the book's two longer passages. "Sometimes," he writes in My Hotel Year (excerpted from Life After God), "I think the people to feel saddest for are people who . . . lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder -- people who closed the doors that lead us into the secret world -- or who had the doors closed for them by time and neglect and decisions made in times of weakness." (Take that, eastern men-in-suits.) The only other extended piece of writing in the book is an elegiac portrait of the Lions Gate Bridge, "a thing of delicate beauty -- an intricate part of my life and memories."

There is no Big Idea in this City of Glass, nor much deep thinking. The intractable issue of aboriginal land rights -- in which the very soil under Vancouver is a battleground -- gets a paragraph. Coupland devotes twice as many pages to each of cannabis and Vancouver's Chinese, as he does to the city's place in the nation. (Anyway, he writes, "Vancouver is not part of Canada. Not really.") But there are moments of sparkling insight, and a perceptive reframing of many familiar snapshots of the city, more than enough to make Coupland's tour worthwhile. "Vancouver," he notes in an aside on Stanley Park, "is perhaps the only city in the world where criminals might strap moose antlers to the hood of a stolen car and park it inside a 1,500-year-old hollow tree" -- this actually happened to Coupland's vehicle in 1995. Now, what was that nonsense about not growing up?