Vanman Coupland's first foray into non-fiction, a quirky picture book on his hometown, offers a view of Vancouver 'from the inside looking out.'


From The Globe & Mail (October 14, 2000)

by Leah McLaren

LEAH McLAREN sits down for a revolving dinner and conversation with the author.

By a tourist's standards, the weather in Vancouver has been perfect: three solid days of blazing October sunshine and 16-degree temperatures -- an unusual gift in Canada's capital of perennial drizzle. But by Douglas Coupland's standards, the weather sucks.

"I love rain. It could rain every day as far as I'm concerned," says the 38-year-old author. "People here really like it, it's more on the misty side, a friendly presence. That's why it's uncool to carry an umbrella in Vancouver. It's like an admission that you aren't wearing something water-repellent or fleece. I didn't see my first galosh until I went to Toronto. It was like seeing an ear trumpet for the first time."

On his recommendation, Coupland and I are eating cold scallops in the rotating restaurant at the top of the Empire Lanmark hotel in downtown Vancouver. Best known for his lexicon-inspiring novel, Generation X, (his other works include Girlfriend in a Coma, Microserfs and, most recently, Miss Wyoming), Coupland ventured into non-fiction for the first time this month with the publication of City of Glass, a picture book appropriately sub-titled, Douglas Coupland's Vancouver. Subjective in tone and sexy to look at, City of Glass is a delightfully outlandish travel book -- just the sort of whacked-out guide you wish was available for every great city in the world. (Who wouldn't love to read about Don DeLillo's New York or Martin Amis's London?) In it, Coupland veers past the obvious landmarks in favour of entries on such notable sights as Japanese slackers, beads and granola, post-and-beam architecture and marijuana growing operations. The cover blurb offers a justification for the book, written in Coupland's signature conversational style:

"I get lots of visitors every year and they always seem to ask the same questions about Vancouver . . . 'Why is the number 8 everywhere?' 'What's the deal with pot?' 'And what, exactly, is the deal with B.C. ferries?' And so on. People want to know what Vancouver feels like to somebody who lives here -- from the inside looking out. So this book arises from both love and laziness: love, because I spent my twenties scouring the globe thinking there had to be a better city out there, until it dawned on me that Vancouver is the best one going; and laziness, because I thought I was going to go mental explaining dim sum, the sulphur pits and Kitsilano for the umteen-hundredth time."

Interesting that a guy like Coupland, a writer who is often mistaken for an American and has set much of his fiction outside Canada, would turn out to be such a ferocious hometown boy. He's not exactly president of the city's welcoming committee. For years the author refused to give interviews in the city of Vancouver and to date, he has never given a reading here. (He is, however, slated to make his first on-stage appearance at the Vancouver Writer's Festival this month.) But while Coupland might seem an unlikely ambassador for his hometown, in action, he's a delight. As our dinner table twirls above the city, he offers a running commentary, all the while directing my attention to a buffet of landmarks and oddities that make up his particular vision of the city. One moment we're meditating on the sugar-spun beauty of Lions Gate Bridge, the next we're shaking our heads over a single string of premature Christmas lights hanging from a West End condo terrace. "Too early," Coupland admonishes. "It's depressing."

Not surprisingly, Coupland's Vancouver turns out to be a weird and wonderful post-modern paradise. Pointing to the mountainous day-glow sulphur piles on the North shore of Burrard Inlet he asks, with all the bright expectancy of a housewife showing off her new perm, "So, what do you think?" Blurting the first thing that pops into my head, I remark that they look a lot like the radioactive waste heaps that surround the nuclear disposal plant on The Simpsons. Coupland takes this answer as a compliment. He laughs. "Vancouverites love the sulphur piles. And then people from back east always come here and look at them and say, 'What are those awful things? I thought you guys like nature.' "

Gazing out over his western metropolis, an unhistoried mecca contained by salt water and mountains, the guy is clearly in his element. "I'm obsessed with revolving restaurants," he says sipping a third cup of straight black coffee. It's an obsession that arose out of a practical need to show off his city. "About this time last year I had visitor fatigue. I started to feel like one of those people who stands on the sidewalk with a microphone in their hand," he jokes, and then hesitates like an anxious tour guide. "Are you having a good time? Because I really, really want you to like it here."

Asked what he would pick if he could show a visitor only one thing in Vancouver, Coupland chooses two ambitious outings: First, he'd take his guest for a helicopter ride around the city perimeter to get a sense of geography, and then they'd go kayaking around Granville Island in order to "see the city from sea otter level."

Coupland says he feels at home here, because, like Vancouver, he is "always thinking of the future, never about the past." Coupland takes pride in this West Coast cultural amnesia. This is, he likes to remind visitors, one of the youngest cities in the world. And while Vancouver's lack of Victorian brick and gingerbread may well cause many eastern Canadians to "undergo a psychic disaster akin to a deep-sea creature being raised to the surface," Coupland celebrates the spanking newness of the place. "If you're a Vancouverite, you find the city's lack of historical luggage liberating," he writes. "It dazzles with a sense of limitless possibility. The mountains to the north and east of the city, which make easterners feel closed in, act as buffers to keep away the taint of the past."

Coupland cringes at eastern misconceptions about Vancouver and the West Coast in general. In the book, this mild defensiveness works to make his voice seem all the more authentically, well, Vancouverish.

"I especially hate the whole 'Lotus Land' thing," Coupland grumbles into his chocolate torte. In his book, he devotes a section to "Beads and Granola," writing of Vancouver's hippie heyday: "It was all very groovy and Deadheady, and it couldn't disappear fast enough as far as I was concerned."

No one would mistake Coupland for a blind West Coast booster. The biggest difference he sees between himself and the average Vancouverite is, he says, "probably the fact that I actually kind of like Toronto."

On the subject of what irks him about Vancouver, Coupland is passionate. "It's an overwillingness to acquiesce to crowd thinking, which results in mediocrity, as in half the city's architecture." He motions to the half constructed One Wall Centre, a building that will have dark-tinted glass on its bottom half and light glass on the top. The two-tone design was a compromise to settle a dispute among Vancouver city bureaucrats over glass colour.

Coupland gazes at the half-erected tower ensconced in a web of scaffolding and shakes his head. "In the end, what should be something cool ends up being a punch line."

Moving on to the topic of real estate, the author brightens. As in most crowded urban centres where space is at a premium, real estate is an obsessive topic among Vancouverites. Coupland himself bought a house in Vancouver six years ago, which he describes as "a Ron Thom match box in [the satellite city of] West Van that has no view and trees all around it."

After dinner, Coupland gives me a ride back to my hotel in his silver Audi coupe. The car is charismatic in a weird way, a lot like its driver. While the outside looks a bit like a steel-dipped womb, the inside is a space ship. The dash is covered in dials and gadgets, like from a 1950s comic book, and there is the enveloping smell of roasted peanuts. (Coupland just bought a crate to feed his backyard blue birds.) It is, I decide, the perfect Vancouver car. Standing in front of my hotel, I watch Coupland drive away south on Burrard Street and imagine him bombing home over the Lions Gate Bridge, his body curled inside a whizzing metal saucer. Halfway across, in my mind's eye, he blasts off toward some space-age mecca in the sky -- the glass city of the future, his very own Vancouver.