'X' Ends


From The Dayton Daily News (June 23, 1995)

by Jennifer Weiner

Douglas Coupland - or at least the person answering to his America Online log-in - is in California. His inquisitor sits in front of a computer in Philadelphia. No telephones. No quick-hit conversations in anonymous hotel rooms while the publicist/handler sits watchfully by. Just Doug and a reporter, hanging out in cyberspace.

You've probably heard of Douglas Coupland - or, at least, the title of his first book. In 1991, Coupland wrote Generation X, the book that gave readers a convenient handle by which to grasp the 42 million teens and twentysomethings in America. The book came with a glossary ("McJob," "veal-fattening pen") that depicted a sterile, fast-food and Wal-Mart-studded landscape occupied by the burned-out children of divorce and disappointment who came of age in the '80s.

What happened next was inevitable. The newsmagazines and newspapers and television shows glommed on to Coupland's title, and some of the standout traits of his characters. They decided that "all" twentysomethings were X-ers - slack, bored, apathetic, disaffected, toiling for subpar temp-worker wages, unable to connect in conventional romances.

And poor Douglas Coupland, a 28-year-old art-school grad from Vancouver, British Columbia, who'd only set out to tell a story, for heaven's sake, became the Face of the New Generation, endlessly quoted, endlessly photographed, wooed by everyone from the Gap to the Democratic and Republican Parties who came begging him to sell their khakis, or politics, to Generation X.

Coupland declined. He went on to write two other books: Shampoo Planet, a novel about teen-agers who might have been the Generation X characters' younger brothers and sisters; and Life After God, a collection of short stories. Both got mixed reviews, and neither caught on as well as his breakout first.

Change of heart

Now Coupland is 33, and he's back. You'll find him in June's Details, monthly bible of twentysomething fellas, trashing the trend he helped birth. "I'm here to say that X is over," he writes, beneath the heading "Eulogy." "Kurt Cobain's in heaven, Slacker's at Blockbuster, and the media refers to anybody aged 13 to 39 as Xers. This is only further proof that marketers and journalists never understood that X is a term that defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world."

And instead of talking about the X phenomenon, Coupland wants to talk about his new book, Micro serfs, which chronicles the loves and lives, the cars and clothing and snack foods of a cadre of technoid twentysomethings laboring at Microsoft's Seattle campus, and, later, in California's Silicon Valley.

The catch - he'll only talk about his book on-line. Interviewers send him questions over the Internet. The process makes you feel a little like a peasant leaving notes for some invisible and possibly temperamental god who might not even speak your language. Will he read this? you wonder. Does he care?

And then there's the question of identity. How can you know that this is, in fact, Douglas Coupland?

"Well . . .," the person one assumes is Coupland writes, "you (eerie music . . .) don't! In fact, you have no way of knowing whether this whole e-mail thing has been jobbed out to some sort of offshore intellectual macquilladora."

"'My real name is Aroom, and I am a post-grad student in phylo genetics at the University of New Delhi. Mr. Coupland pays me the equivalent of $1.18 per hour to simulate his personality on-line."'

Whether this is Coupland, or Aroom, or someone else entirely, she/he has a big vocabulary, a wicked sense of humor, and a becoming touch of modesty (refer to him as the "hip, hot and handsome" author, and the response? "Blush, blush").

Coupland said he didn't choose to write about computer culture - it chose him.

"Around three years ago, everybody in my universe started to 'go geek.' All of my old art school friends began working for Sega, Spelling, Fox TV, Sony, Tri-Star, SGI. . . . Vancouver is a huge production center of post-industrial commodities: computer software, video products, games, films and TV shows. So it was the geek universe that seeped into mine, and I liked the people in it. They're smart, funny, and they're always into new ideas."

To research the geek universe, Coupland moved in with his subjects. He spent six weeks living "in around/with nerds in Seattle, and 24 weeks in/around/with nerds in Palo Alto/the Valley. Everybody in that world has given me full marks for pinpoint lifestyle accuracy."

If Microserfs is as accurate as Coupland's fans say, the twentysomethings with good jobs aren't much happier than the semi-employed slackers from "Generation X."

"I am a tester - a bug checker in Building Seven," writes Daniel Underwood, the book's main character, in his electronic diary. "I worked my way up the ladder from Product Support Services (PSS) where I spent six months in phone purgatory in 1991 helping little old ladies format their Christmas mailing lists on Microsoft Works."

Daniel lives in a rented "group home" with five other Microsoft employees. He spends his spare time obsessing over the younger brother who drowned in a boating accident when he was 12, and composing "dream board" Jeopardy! categories for his housemates.

More to the man

Coupland's own life is less bleak. For example, he does have a hobby - collecting art and art books. His favorite piece is a plaque from multimedia artist Jenny Holzer that reads "IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND WERE FULL OF JOY." "I see it as a statement about humanity and its relation to technology," he writes.

And, perhaps best of all, he got a big ol' '80s-style launch party for the book in New York City at the Museum of Radio and Television.

"Hiii!" says Douglas Coupland in the flesh, sounding as happy as a 6-year-old with a cherry Slurpee, as each new arrival strolls through the door. "You're here! You made it! Yay!"

The man himself, in the flesh, is a surprise. In his PR photos, he wears a plaid shirt unbuttoned to expose a triangle of hairy chest; he looks like a literary lumberjack, a neo-Gump come crashing out of Canada's forests with the truth to set us free.

In person, he's pale to the point of luminosity and pencil-skinny, with a loud, long laugh and a tiny pursed mouth. In a gray suit and skinny black tie, he looks like your eighth-grade science teacher, like a piece of shrink-wrapped Polly-O string cheese with a face.

"Sunlight makes me sick," he confesses cheerfully. And, unlike the unhappy types who wandered the blasted landscapes of "Generation X," Douglas Coupland believes that the world is getting better.

"If you don't ... fixate on the media," he writes on-line, "it becomes evident that work is becoming cleaner and safer, that there's (per capita) less war now, food is better, safer and more varied, culture is (despite the crumbly old curmudgeons) richer, more diverse and that people are more knowledgeable in general, less willing to be led off of cliffs, and that applied intelligence (Gump devolution aside) is making the world a better place. I mean, just look at the cars in the old Lucy episodes ... they belch out fumes like a hibachi."

And no matter what the cars spew or whether the food is safe, one thing is undeniable - now is a very good time to be Douglas Coupland. He may have found the Next Big Thing for the '90s, and he's talking - and laughing - like a man who knows he has jumped from the sinking ship of X onto the white-hot geek-chic caravan at just the right moment in time