Douglas Coupland Tries, Largely In Vain, To Ignore 'Generation X'


From Chicago Tribune (March 14, 1994)

by Jeffrey Favre

The publicist painted the out-of-bounds line distinctly: "Douglas Coupland won't talk about 'Generation X.' "

That was shocking news, almost like hearing that Michael Jordan won't talk about basketball, Julia Roberts won't talk about "Pretty Woman" or Joseph Heller won't talk about "Catch-22."

Coupland is the 32-year-old writer from Vancouver whose first novel, "Generation X," in 1991 gave buzz-phrase definition to a relatively undefined group of rapidly aging young adults-those in their 20s too young to be classed as Baby Boomers but old enough to remember when the Fonz was cool.

Having inadvertently coined the name of a generation, Coupland loathes being called the spokesman for his times. He just writes about his middle-class existence, he will tell you, adding matter-of-factly that no one else in the world will write about everyday life because it has become taboo.

"We're not allowed to discuss it," Coupland said from a Boston hotel room during a tour for his third book, "Life After God" (Pocket Books hardcover).

His speaking voice is deadpan, like much of his literary humor. He pauses after every few words, almost as if he knows that any bit of insight has the potential to get North America's young adults instinctively nodding in agreement.

"It's the Faustian middle-class bargain, to assume that history is not something that happens to the middle class. For the comfort you pay the price of silence. But I am not silent," he said.

Instead Coupland's books continue to search for the humanity of common individuals and what part religion plays in defining that humanity.

The new book's title, "Life After God," refers to his notion that his is the first generation "raised without religion." Coupland hopes this book will initiate the construction of "a Lego house of religion that we don't have all of the pieces to make," by posing the eternal questions of life and death and where we come from.

Born and raised without any organized religion, Coupland has created the nine short stories of "Life After God" to transform meaning through the chaos that he and many people in his age group feel as the result of a lifespan that has accelerated through inventions like the fax, satellites and computers, with a super highway of information constantly flowing through them.

Coupland writes stories about characters dealing with that "chaos." Some cling to the past in a futile effort to deny that the future is something different. In the story "My Hotel Year," the protagonist laments about losing the zest for life that he had in his youth:

"I believe that you've had most of your important memories by the time you're thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don't register in the same way or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn't top the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylor's patio furniture into their pool in the eleventh grade. You know what I mean."

If you know what he means, then "Life After God" will surely provide pages of philosophical nuggets that will relate to your existence. Without much melodrama, Coupland sends out a message to his age group: You are not alone in your fears and angst.

"You either get it or you don't, but in general they (older people) don't," Coupland said. "There's no point trying to explain it."

'History sucks'

Coupland discusses fleeting memories and many past experiences in "God," but in reality he rejects the view of overemphasizing the past. It's partly a convenient excuse not to discuss his previous novels.

"History sucks. Today is always better than yesterday no matter what 'Hard Copy' would have you whipped into a frenzy of believing."

Then why did he spend nine months in the last two years working on a novel about the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th Century? That's what he did before writing "Life After God."

"In the end I found I was really looking for a way of reducing symbolic imagery and metaphor down to their most basic level," Coupland said. "Once I realized this, the conscious thing about potatoes equal oil, blah, blah, blah, became boring, and when what I was really after became apparent, I went into an immediate depression."

Eventually he worked his way into a series of short stories that he began writing for friends. After completing six of them he decided he had the makings of a book and "Life After God," comprising nine interrelated stories, was born.

In an unusual marketing twist, "Life After God" is being aimed directly at a youthful niche audience through cable. Working in collaboration with MTV, which paid the bill, Coupland created six 30-second spots, featuring the author reading from his book: video-style graphics joined with the spoken word.

While saying that this was a "pleasant artistic experience," Coupland admits that at his advancing age the MTV audience in its early 20s may not identify as much with this latest book as they might with "Generation X" or his second novel, "Shampoo Planet" (1993). He hopes to work with MTV in the future.

"It was certainly better than doing a movie," he said.

A 'wretched' flop

Movie-writing offers have crossed his desk often, especially after films carrying the "Generation X" label-"Singles" and "Reality Bites"-have become popular. But movie deals and MTV spots have not always come so easily.

His first book, the one he tries to avoid discussing, was a flop when it was released.

"My distributor in Canada wouldn't even distribute it, they considered it such a wretched book," he said. "My friends were laughing at me. It was about a year before anything happened. it was just little bit by little bit. There was never some time where overnight Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder showed up at my front door and said, 'Let's party.' "

He has continued to turn down movie offers and instead has opted for other writing challenges to fill his creative needs.

"Wired," a new publication promoting itself as "the Rolling Stone for computers," contracted with Coupland to write a continuing fiction series about life among computer coders at Microsoft. The first installment, a cover story called "Microserfs," ran in the January issue and the sequel is due later this year.

For the project, Coupland spent three weeks doing what he called a "Gorillas in the Mist" operation, hanging out with computerfolk.

"What I saw is that they really think they are designing the code which feeds the machine that will design the machine that will design the machine that will design the machine that will one day give answers," Coupland said. "Even if you pretend you're not being religious, you're actually being more religious than you even realize."

Coupland continued to talk, spouting catchy sound-bite slogans such as " 'Why is time going so quickly?' is a mantra for the '90s" and "It is not a wise thing to sentimentalize predictability," but he still denied that he was the voice of a generation.

"Whatever this generation is, the one that will not be named underneath, you can't get it to agree on anything, which is cool. It's all individuals. It's more real," he said. "There, I just talked about generations-and I never do that.