Coupland: an Elder Statesman


From Chicago Sun-Times (March 27, 1994)

by Ruth Coughlin

On the second floor of Borders Bookstore they sit in rows, their attention rapt, eyes riveted on the speaker. A slightly rumpled young man reading from his third book, his voice comes close to monotone, a bottle of Evian water near to hand.

Look at this audience and you're looking at the cream of the twentysomething crowd, their smug faces shiny with admiration for the guy who gave voice to their generation.

It's a post-modernist group, these members of Generation X, the term that Canadian writer Douglas Coupland coined in his first novel of the same name, a book whose subtitle "Tales for an Accelerated Culture" pretty much encapsulated an absurdist collection of people he defined as "global teens," 1990s youth born of 1960s parents.

They are the TV-beatnik generation, kids with the attention span of fleas, young people who thrive on sound bites and sight bites and whose worldly experiences are limited to what they watch on television.

The year was 1991, and with the publication of Generation X, which some critics compared to The Catcher in the Rye, Coupland became a cult figure. Shampoo Planet followed a year later, and then there was silence.

Until now. Life After God (Pocket Books, $ 17), with a first printing of 50,000 copies, is just arriving in bookstores, and Coupland has embarked on an 11- city reading tour to promote his latest work.

While the people who have come to hear him read look very much as you would expect_post-baby-boomers with an attitude_and while Coupland looks very much as you would imagine him to be_carefully disheveled but in command_this is an older, wiser and more serious Douglas Coupland.

The writer who also coined the phrase "McJob" has now gone on to contemplate such serious issues as life, death, love and loss.

This day, once he's finished reading, this crowd stands in a snaking line, eager to shake his hand, even more eager for him to autograph their books.

"I don't know," says a 14-year-old with a diamond stud in her right nostril. "Like, I just like the vocabulary. It's, like, just interesting to read." She has read Generation X twice, but has not yet read Life After God, a book that might surprise some of Coupland's faithful followers.

Comprising eight short and somewhat elliptical stories, the book's landscape is barren, its language taut as Coupland takes on the issue of how people can cope in a society that has strayed away from the spiritual foundation that shapes values.

His themes are loneliness and anxiety and loss, and the stories are illustrated by his own whimsical line drawings_he describes these as "enforced meditations, like what hobos draw on boxcars."

In one Life After God story, "Gettysburg," a father tries to explain to his daughter why her mother is divorcing him. In "Things That Fly," the lonely narrator asks God to "just make me a bird . . . a white graceful bird free of shame and taint and fear of loneliness, and give me other white birds among which to fly."

So what does Life After God really mean?

"It describes the world I grew up in," says Coupland, huddled over a cup of coffee in a not-so-toasty shop after the reading, shivering from the cold, wearing a stranger's shearling coat for warmth ("This kind of feels like retro '70s"). "It was a secular, post-religion, post-ideological society on the edge of the world (Vancouver) where religion or God was never mentioned, one way or another."

This from what some people might call the glib creator of "Generation X"?

"Once you get past 30," says Coupland, who is now 32, "you start to look for a metaphysical foundation in your life. You know, things start to happen. People vanish, they start to die, and there's nothing to prepare you for any of it."

To Coupland's stories there is a poignancy that often verges on heartbreak. "Some day you cross this thin line and you really realize that we need to protect ourselves from ourselves," says Scout, the narrator in Life After God.

It's a theme Coupland sparks to as he discusses how he is looking for the transcendent in life. "I have to make sense of this House of Lego," he says, "but what happens if you have no bricks to build with?"

"How did I get to 30 without thinking about things like where do we come from?" he asks rhetorically. He says that the mantra for 1994 is "What has happened to time?" He talks about how irony (he has been labeled "ironic" by more than one critic) is "just a tool, an armor to protect you from what is posited to be real, as opposed to what is reality.

"You know, when you're going through times of trouble," he continues, "you don't turn to a wise-ass," referring, one imagines, to the way he perhaps used to be. "You probably turn to a drug addict, someone who's seen the other side of life."

Being a wise-ass is not nourishing, he says. Pop culture is not nourishing, either, says the man who claims to watch television only in hotel rooms. He suggests that everyone under 30 knows who he is ("For people steeped in pop culture, I'm a fact of life"), but that in "Life After God" he has moved away from the easy labels.

"Like, I feel a little like Grandpa Walton," Coupland says, laughing at the idea of his becoming an elder statesman. He adds that his frequent use of the word "like" is a "real plague among people of a certain age.