Doing laundry at the End of History


From Esquire (March 1994)

by Will Blythe

Francis Fukuyama, that wacky, fun-loving utopianist, asserted in 1989 that the end of history was at hand. Its disappearance apparently meant that one day we would all live in liberal democracies and consume to our heart's content. That would be cool, right? For a coal miner in Katowice, Poland, history's departure might indeed be cause to break out the vodka. But for the world-weary North American youth of Douglas Coupland's fiction, who've been stuck at the end of history for quite some time already, living there is about as exhilarating as bunking down at your parent's house after you've finished school. It's not a bad place for hanging out and doing laundry, but who really wants to keep living there?

The soullessness of postboomer life at history's end (a region that looks remarkably like the West Coast) is, in fact, the mournful preoccupation of Coupland's writing. The Canadian-born author has achieved a reputation as a wry spokesman for Generation X, a term he did much to popularize by using it as the title of his first work of fiction. He seems to spend a good bit of free time concocting cute glossaries of neologisms such as "McJob" and emotional ketchup burst" that are subsequently published in the The New York Times and The New Republic. Boy, those publications must be hipper than we thought! Coupland's coinages may have a great resonance for his cohorts, but they strike me as McDull, the irritating noodlings of a terminally clever teenage sociologist. His three works of fiction, however, including the rich and painstruck new collection Life After God..., are a revelation, especially if you ignore the annotations and the surprisingly sappy endings that lead you to momentarily suspect Coupland of being his generation's Richard Brautigan.

His fiction might initially strike you as Brautiganesque in one other crucial respect - the seemingly inadvertent plotlessness of his tales, the way they shake and ramble like an old acid casualty. The portraits of three slackers in Generation X, for all of their psychological acuity, often read like case studies in tedium. Though the stories possess a melancholy verisimilitude, they lack the addictive velocity that narrative fiction provides. But then you realize that such bordering-on-plotlessness is most likely Coupland's brave gamble with the reader's allegiance, a risk he takes in order to convey a peculiarly upper-middle-class habit of feeling safely - and boringly - outside of history and story alike. "My life had become a series of scary incidents that simply weren't stringing together to make for an interesting book," complains a bartender in Generation X. He and his peers lurk stubbornly on the periphery, waitressing and watching TV and planting trees and collecting unemployment while trying to imagine some larger narrative in which they'd like to take part. They end up floating around like astronauts ouside of their own lives and culture, unable to commit to reentry. In their twenties and early thirties, they're already on the verge of despair, too smart to work or fall in love. What exactly would be the point, dude? The offspring of divorce, the inheritors of a diminished economy, and the very synapses of mass culture, they know the endings to every tale all too soon.

The characters' precocious knowledge results in their brandishing a kind of reflexive irony, dense with reference to strangely championed monuments of junk culture like The Brady Bunch. Of course, trash is golden only if you're in on the joke. Among the many rewarding aspects of taking the Bradys seriously is that such an enlightened stance offers a sneaky way of separating yourself from the uninitiated, for whom stupidity is merely stupid. It demonstrates that you're a scholar of culture, not a mere consumer. You pop-culture junkie that you are, can see the show behind the show behind the show. Admittedly, each modern American generation - and class - speaks a secret language, partly to shore up its identity, but there's something especially poignant about the way the spokespersons for Generation X so assidously celebrate the cultural inanities of their childhood long past the age of consent. Hey, party on, Garth.

In the end, this generation speaks with the sardonicism of people who have spent a lot of time talking back to commercials: No matter how vicious, the back talk is hardly insurrectionary. After all, everybody's just sitting there, watching TV. Mass culture seems as much an unalterable given as the Old Testament God. That Tyler Johnson, the yuppie wanna-be of Coupland's novel Shampoo Planet (he wants to turn landfills into historical theme parks), is media savvy and overloaded with information doesn't mean he wants to be unplugged. In fact, when he goes to visit his biological father at a hippie commune, he nearly cries in terror at the lack of brand-name products. Get that brown rice out of here!

The point of Life After God, Coupland's most accomplished fiction to date, is that eventually there comes a time when irony is insufficient. Marcia Brady, charming though as she may be, is just not a suitable escort through one's dark night of the soul, not even for the deadpan sons and daughters of Letterman. In Life After God, the narrators - in their thirties and suffering from divorce, breakdown, and deep lethargy - find themselves in awkward pursuit of spiritual life . As the first American generation raised without religion, they're not much tempted by traditional religion like Buddhism to a Generation Xer, and it is easy, if you've read a little Coupland, to imagine the deadpan but scornful retort: "Buddhism? Right. How Richard Gere."

But they still search. "I need God," admits the narrator of "1,000 Years - Life After God,", who junks his antidepressants and ends up alone in a rain-soaked forest in British Columbia, praying in a pup tent. Coupland's seekers go off by themselves to No Places - odd little nowheres of American desert and forest, sites that have been uncontaminated by past quests or media fallout. They prefer to start from scratch, building an entire religion our of personal hunches and intuition. Unfortuantely, creating your own personal religion is a little harder than constructing a salad at pizza Hut. Whether such a jerry-built approach can succeed is a question the book doesn't resolve. The protagonist of the remarkable "In the Desert," for instance, practices driving as a form of "enforced meditation." On his way through the West to deliver an illegal shipment of steriods, he frightens himself thinking "that there might not actually be anything to believe in." The story is suffused with a mystery and regret unique in Coupland's work.

At one point in this revelatory road trip, the narrator is given pause by the trouble of articulating just what he does believe, a task "made more difficult," he says, "because I had been raised without religion by parents who had broken with their pasts and moved to the West Coast - who had raised their children clean of any ideology in a cantilevered modern house overloooking the Pacific Ocean - at the end of history, or so they had wanted to believe." A faint hint of irony gives this passage a salty sting common to much of Coupland's fiction, but really reads more like a hard-won confession of incipient despair. No one escapes the traumas of history, especially not a generation that was given everything but spiritual resources.