Taking his angst a step further


From The Fresno Bee (June 5, 1994)

by Nicole Brodeur

Douglas Coupland was driving past Candlestick Park in San Francisco last month when he heard the news that Kurt Cobain had shot himself.

The author pulled over and tried to figure out how he felt. What it meant that Cobain, Coupland's fellow anointee to the 20-something Throne, had silenced himself with a shotgun.

The result is an open letter to Cobain published in the British magazine The Face.

'I felt that I had never asked you to make me care about you,' Coupland writes. 'But it happened - against the hype, against the odds - and now you are in my imagination forever.

'And I figure you're in heaven, too. But how, exactly, does it help you now, to know that you . . . were once adored?'

When questioned two weeks ago, Coupland refused to say any more on Cobain. 'I won't. I can't. It's not in me (to comment).'

And in a recent interview to promote his recently released book, 'Life After God' (Pocket Books, $ 17), Coupland ducked the inference that he speaks for anyone but himself.

While his telephone number ends in the year of his birth (1961), while he may have written a book called 'Generation X,' Coupland insists he is not the voice of his peers.

'I've never accepted it. Never felt that way,' he said. 'I'm not presuming to speak for you, my family or my relations. I'm not speaking for the masses, like some Marxism pamphlet left in Hyde Park circa 1911.'

Coupland, 32, has moved past the book that made him famous and on to other things. And so have some fans.

On to college, to jobs, to home ownership, to lives free of bitterness and blackness. They're over it.

'This whole Generation X thing has been blown out of proportion,' said Mark Prior, 26, of Huntington Beach. 'Even the label itself is stupid. It's hard to associate yourself with something that I consider a phase that we all went through.'

Whatever it is, these stereotypes - gleaned from Coupland's 1991 book - prevail: 'Xers' are kids in their late teens and early 20s. Educated but unable to find work in their chosen field, they settle into McJobs, such as clerical work. They spend their free time in coffee houses and furnish their small apartments with Swedish furniture bought in large chain stores. They are disgruntled. Cynical. And pessimistic about the future.

'Well, I don't have the best outlook but a pretty good one,' said Stacey Schwab, 21, of Newport Beach.

There are days, she said, when she is feeling pretty bad: She recently abandoned plans to go to medical school because the tuition was so staggering.

But a dreary, depressed slacker, she is not. 'Far from it,' Schwab said. 'I work hard to support myself. And I resent the fact that I am judged by my age. There are a lot of people who don't care and who are angry, but I'm not one of them. 'Eventually, I'll be something.'

Indeed, even Tenisha Whitlock, who at 17 has lost several friends and acquaintances to violence, is hopeful. 'I know people who have died, but it makes me work harder, do better,' Whitlock said. 'You have to get through. There is something out there for me, and I guarantee I'm going to find it. I guarantee it.'

Like those who have made him famous, Coupland is taking a more optimistic, spiritual look at the world in 'Life After God.'

'One thing is for sure,' he said. 'I'm a little bit older and a little bit wiser at 32. You think that being Mr. Smartass will get you through another 50 years, but it won't.'


It is a few weeks before Cobain's suicide. Coupland sits before a table in a Los Angeles hotel room, wearing a wrinkled soccer jersey from Brazil. His hair is a short swirl of curl, his expression almost dazed.

'At 30, something changes,' he says. 'The anxiety goes away. And something else replaces it: Losses, deaths, fallings-out, nervous breakdowns.'

While he may not like it, Coupland once again is speaking for the masses. 'Life After God' is a chunky little collection of short stories that examines the spiritual void left by a middle-class life of too much TV and drive-throughs and not enough reflection.

'I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line,' Coupland writes in the book's last story, '1,000 Years of Life (Life After God).'

'I think the price we paid for a golden life was our inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched,' he writes. 'And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.'

A different voice

The wistfulness in his protagonist's voice is a different one for Coupland, whose characters in 'Generation X' and 'Shampoo Planet' have been sly and bitter, pithy and jaded, angry and so, so young.

In 'Life After God,' Coupland searches for answers. 'There are no set answers prepared and given to you,' he says. 'Instead, you put your faith in guns. Butter. The man on the moon.'

Truly, this is a book Cobain should have read.

Coupland was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia ('The last suburb before the North Pole'), in a non-demonstrative family that rarely touched and had 'no ideology of any sort.'

'I found myself asking basic questions, like: 'Why are we here? When did all this begin?"

Each entry in 'Life After God' is accompanied by one of Coupland's own line drawings, as in the little books he used to make at the neighborhood Kinko's for giving to friends and relatives.

Between bites of day-old cookies and sips of coffee, Coupland described his writing career as a 'breech birth.'

It started four years ago, when he had finished art school and was working as a free-lance writer to fund his sculpting pursuits. A New York publisher commissioned Coupland to produce a lifestyle guide for young people after spotting the cartoon strip he coproduced called 'Generation X.'

As the chronicler of his generation's shared angst and frustration, Coupland is a magnet to advertisers who want to tap into the coveted 20-something market:

Clothing, liquor and tobacco companies have made him offers to appear in ads or speak at their annual meetings.

Coupland calls the attention 'phenomenal baggage.'

'I could have done all that and gotten away with it, but that's just not why you write,' he says. 'I write so I don't go nuts. And I work enough so I don't have to work at Century 21 and wear one of those mustard-colored jackets.'

As an author, though, Coupland must travel.

Thinks in cartoons

On this day, he has dubbed the pink, sunbathed Sunset Marquis 'the Bugs Bunny Hotel' and waits for a bellhop with a telegram on a tray to come down the hall: 'Paging Mr. Bunny, Mr. B. Bunny.' Just like in the cartoons.

Get him started on that subject and Coupland's coffee kicks in.

Daffy Duck. 'He's so angry!'

Pepe Le Peu. 'A parody of Eurotrash.'

He swerves from his love of 'The Simpsons' and 'Ren and Stimpy' into a chat-fest about television, which 'is better than it has ever been.'

"Seinfeld,' 'Frazier,' 'Roseanne' . . . Letterman's been great lately. 'The Larry Sanders Show,' 'The Kids in the Hall' . . . '

He enjoys book tours only for the contact he has with his readers, who range from teen-agers to one 50-something woman who gave him a lock of her gray hair 'to show there was somebody older than me.'

Instead of signing his name in his books, Coupland traces his hand, 'so if people once felt isolated, they don't feel isolated any more.

'Because when you think about it, we read to learn that we are not alone.