When Twentysomethings Reach Thirty


From Gannett News Service (March 21, 1994)

by Ruth Coughlin

On the second floor of the Ann Arbor, Mich., Borders 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, 361 pp., $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." (Coupland spent four years in art school, where he began writing nonfiction pieces about art in order to pay his studio bills. An editor of a Toronto magazine noticed a funny postcard Coupland had written and suggested that he think about putting together a book. Coupland did, and "Generation X" was born.)

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 on State Street 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."

He speaks softly, with a certain amount of intimacy. Often, he tends to ramble, for which he apologizes, explaining that the night before he spent 12 hours stranded in Boston's Logan Airport and that he's feeling a little spacey and disoriented. "There's just so much to say," he remarks right after offering a mini-discourse on how when he borrows a piece of someone else's clothing he feels as though he's stealing that person's aura.

His own aura at first glance appears a little studied. The bright red suspenders not holding up his trousers but suspended downward at his sides, the black Microsoft T-shirt under a shirt whose tails hang out, a buttoned sweater-vest on top of it all. Beneath the ultra-hip, way-past-cool veneer, though, there is no way that Coupland can disguise his acute intelligence.

"I'm not quite sure what our lives are," he says earnestly. "But I do know that our lives have to have stories. If they don't, we feel lost and confused. We really do need that `once upon a time' element. I mean, look at Oksana (Baiul), this beautiful ice skater. My heart goes out to her: Imagine that, no parents."

There are to Coupland's stories 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 Leggo," 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 image of his becoming an elder statesman. Immediately he adds that his frequent use of the word "like" is a "real plague among people of a certain age."

Look at the inside back flap of "Life After God"'s jacket and you will find a note suggesting that you remove the jacket before reading the book.

Um, isn't this a tad ironic? And what does the note really mean, anyway?

"So the book won't be judged by its cover," says Coupland, "and so that readers will be aware that they are holding this oddly retro little zero-tech paper-and-word object called a book - no CD-ROM, no headphones."

In fact, the book's cover art shows a baby in a swimming pool. "It looks like the baby is praying," says Coupland. "Babies are incapable of prayer. It creates an interesting tension."

Coupland says that ultimately he is hopeful, even though ours is a society that is "relentlessly middle-class."

"I believe it is possible to locate the holy and the transcendent," he says, adding that the interior world is all that matters.

"Who knows what will happen to me?" he asks, once again rhetorically. "Maybe I'll be wearing a mustard-colored blazer and be working for Century 21 someday. You never know."