Douglas Coupland: Has Catchphrase, Will Travel


From Chicago Sun-Times (July 2, 1995)

by Richard Roeper

Like Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis before him, Douglas Coupland is a pale and tweedy hipster-dweeb author who writes popular fiction that results in catchphrases, controversy and commercialism.

These men are the book equivalents of the model-actress. They are: Author-Personalities.

About a decade ago, McInerney defined a certain segment of the young adult population with his zany, cocainey Bright Lights, Big City. A few years later, his literary little brother Ellis followed that with Less Than Zero, a perfectly empty black hole of a book that captured the essence of bratty, slutty, coked-up Southern California kids of privilege in the late 1980s.

Their splashy rookie efforts earned them mostly positive reviews, People magazine-level fame, bags of cash and watered-down cinematic adaptations of their books.

"Bright Lights, Big City," the movie, starred Michael J. Fox. "Less Than Zero," the movie, starred Andrew McCarthy. Your local video franchise can get by carrying just one copy of each of these films, in the "Co-Starring Jami Gertz and/or Phoebe Cates" section.

Now it's the middle of 1995, and McInerney is writing about relationships and Ellis is writing about vampires and they haven't lost their talent but they seem a little desperate to unstick themselves from the 1980s. Like Duran Duran and Boy George, they've been refashioning their images and issuing new releases, but we won't let them escape from their time-niches. We're cruel that way.

In the meantime, Coupland became the guy for the 1990s. (Lest you think I'm being sexist, Donna Tartt is better than all the men we're talking about but she's not a booky trendoid, she just writes beautifully, so we're not including her in this discussion.)

Coupland is the one who appropriated the phrase "Generation X" from the music world and turned it into a novel that begat a hundred New York Times articles_articles that invariably included the phrases "grunge," "slacker," "alternative music" and "twentysomethings." Coupland is the one who appeared on MTV and has given us the term "McJob." Coupland is the one they call for a quote when a young rock star or actor dies.

His second effort was Shampoo Planet, an underappreciated look at the younger siblings of the Gen Xers (the title refers to the unbelievable amount of hair-care products geared toward late teenagers and college students, male and female), and he followed that with Life After God, a soporific book of metaphysical nonsense that Coupland should have left locked in a drawer somewhere in his native Vancouver, British Columbia.

Coupland's high schoolish "goodbye letter" to Kurt Cobain in the New York Times didn't help his reputation. The stupid promotional spots he did for MTV made matters worse. What was he going to do next, a Gap ad?

All of a sudden, Coupland was 33 and in danger of being labeled a one-hit wonder_no longer in touch with the post-collegiate coffeehouse crowd, no longer a voice for anything but a specific time: 1990-94. The Grunge Years.

The difference with Coupland, the reason he did not lose his relevance, is that he is traveling a different path_he's a pilot on the highway. You know, that highway. The superinfor . . . I can't say it. He doesn't want me to say it and so I won't.

Soaked in cyber-knowledge, Coupland has released his fourth and best novel, Microserfs, the story of youngish (that means late 20s) computer nerds who work 18-hour days at Microsoft, worship Bill Gates and have an easier time relating to each other via e-mail than in face-to-face conversations. Whether you're a charter member of the Internet or you're still working on an IBM Selectric, you can track with Microserfs because Coupland hasn't forgotten about the essential ingredient of a fine novel: characters whose fates concern you.

You care about these brilliant but socially stunted geeks. They're smart, yes, but they're also vulnerable, fragile and lost, just like everybody else.

Following the plot lines of Microserfs is a little like traveling the Internet; it's sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes perplexing, occasionally hopeless. In the end, though, the climb is worth it. The surprisingly human conclusion is more of a tearjearker than the ending to The Bridges of Madison County_and a hell of a lot less manipulative.

Recently Coupland was in Chicago on a promotional tour for Microserfs, and was greeted by about 200 fans at Barbara's Bookstore, 3130 N. Broadway.

It was not your typical author's appearance. Before Coupland was introduced, the store vibrated with the sounds of "Geek Rock"_bad music from the early 1980s, junk from Gary Numan and Devo and the Human League. When you walked in you were given goodies, including Microserfs 1995 World Tour Official Pre-Moistened Towelettes (really) and oversized, computer-generated photos of techno-gods such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Wearing a white shirt and skinny black tie, looking like the kid who wasn't allowed to join the "Reservoir Dogs" because he was just too darn nerdy and scary even for them, Coupland stood near a neon sign blaring "KID'S BOOKS" (all those books for just one kid?) and spoke in the same ironic and detached manner that McInerney, Ellis and a host of other young authors employ.

He paused a lot: "I can't. Believe. I'm digressing. Like this. I must be in. A digressing mood."

Great, wake us when it's over.

Somebody asked Coupland, "Do you normally dress that way?"

"I was having an identity complex," Coupland replied, his face scrunching up to reflect the heavy thoughts traveling through his brain.

"Oh God, it's complex. In a way, this is normal for me. I'm experimenting with anonymity right now. In Los Angeles, I bought these Wells-Fargo type outfits, and when I wear them I'm completely invisible . . . it's like the interview with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie, they seem to have lost the notion of individuality, they're speciated."

What. Ever.

After rambling for about 15 minutes, Coupland introduced a 24-minute film he's been showing on this book tour in lieu of the standard author reading.

He would have been better off with a copy of his book, a microphone and a glass of water. Produced and directed by his friend Jennifer Cowan in home movie style, the film would probably place about 10th in a USC student competition. It's a deliberately disjointed mess. (For once, MTV displayed some common sense in turning it down.)

Swiveling about in a chair, Coupland is "interviewed" by a young woman who asks him questions such as, "Who is the you of you?" and "Let's discuss having a life."

His answers, funny and insightful as they may be, are not really answers at all; they're verbatim excerpts from his book. It's stylized cheating, this business of saying, "Hmmm," and then launching into a memorized monologue.

When you read the words as spoken by the narrator of Microserfs or uttered in conversation within the context of the story, Coupland's points are cogent and clever. When you hear the words spoken by the nerdy author on film while actors mime in the background and multiple images flash on a screen, he sounds like a perennial graduate student who has an IV hookup to cable television.

Halfway through the interminable film, I scribbled "PRE-TEN-SHUS" in my notebook. The woman next to me borrowed my pen and wrote: "Deep Thoughts With Doug Coupland."

The movie ended. There was scattered applause. The shy, friendly Coupland said he'd stick around and sign copies of his books. His fans flocked to the little table where he sat, their shiny copies of the silver-jacketed Microserfs bouncing light in all directions, like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie.

They had the best of Douglas Coupland in their hands