Generation ZZZZzzzzz


From The Guardian (April 22, 1998)

by Phil Daoust

As the author of Generation X, Douglas Coupland became one of the voices of the nineties. But now, as he tells Phil Daoust between yawns, he's oh-so-tired of these consumerist times that his new book has a heroine who drops out in a big way - by falling into a coma

Tsk. These modern authors. Midday on a Monday morning, an hour into his working week, Douglas Coupland is dreaming about drugs. `I've never tried cocaine,' he says thoughtfully. `I wonder if it would do any good.' What he really wants comes in a syringe. Foetal lamb cells would be great, he says. Barring that, he'll take a shot of vitamin B12.

Coupland is tired, you see. Dog-tired. Dog-that's-spent-all-day-chasing-rabbits-tired. If his eyes looked any more like piss-holes in the snow, Helen Chadwick's ghost would sue for breach of copyright. If life was a cartoon, he'd be propping up his lids with Acme matchsticks.

`If I close my eyes, it's because I'm thinking,' he says soon after we meet. Yeah, right.

There's a marvellous irony to it all. Coupland's latest book, Girlfriend In A Coma, begins with a teenage girl slipping into 17 years of unconsciousness. Before the end of the novel, a fatal sleepiness is wiping out her fellow humans. And here's Coupland, a man who has to get his head down for eight-and-three-quarter hours every night, so exhausted he keeps breaking into hysterical laughter.

He finds the whole thing excruciatingly embarrassing. Vancouver's most famous son may not enjoy interviews but he's learnt a few manners in his 36 years. So he fills in the many awkward silences with: `You've got to tell me to shut up if I'm rambling. You have no idea how awkward I feel sitting here working at 30 per cent of speed.' And: `This is embarrassing. I'm really much more intelligent than this.' Even, apropos of nothing: `This has just gone through my mind: if reverse was a forward gear, what would it be - first or second, or one-and-a-half?' It's still a pain in the neck, though. There are a mess of questions to be answered. Why does Coupland seem so sick of the modern world? Has he had some kind of nervous breakdown? And what's with the religion? It's seven years since he burst into bestsellerdom with Generation X, a story of rootless young adults mouldering in McJobs. Four other books - in particular 1995's Microserfs - established him as the chronicler of North America's label-conscious twenty- and thirtysomethings. If ever a writer could be said to be in tune with the times, it was Douglas Coupland .

Until now. `I was in the Victoria & Albert Museum yesterday,' he says. `I think that's why I couldn't sleep. They've got a display of design objects of the 20th century and I got to thinking: `Why can't this century end right now? Why can't we call it quits?' You know, push a button and agree to go on to the next century? I'm really tired of this one.' Yes. It's hard to believe but Coupland's had enough of the nineties.

On the most superficial level, this sixth and latest book is a love story: boy meets girl, girl falls asleep, boy waits for girl to wake up. But there's a spiritual, explicitly moralistic aspect that's new to Coupland. Girlfriend In A Coma is a `parable', as the author describes it, about the need to engage with life: a paean to the innocent vigour found in the seventies and a denunciation of the value-free calcification of the nineties. As it follows Karen's boyfriend Richard and his circle from 1979, when the coma begins, to the end of the century, we see a string of opportunities passed up, meanings unpursued, dreams abandoned.

`Weren't we blessed with options in life?' says the narrator. `And didn't we ignore them completely - like unwanted Christmas gifts hidden in the store room? What did life boil down to in the end? . . . Smokey And The Bandit videos. Instead of finding inspiration and intellectual momentum, there was . . . {the sedative} Ativan. And overwork. And Johnny Walker. And silence.' You could put some of this down to emotional leakage from Coupland's own life. If the book reads like it came out of a crisis, that's because it did. `It happens every other year,' he says. `I don't think it ever ends. Every time I think it's over, the shit starts flying again.

`It's not just me,' he claims. `I think it's everybody. If it's not money, it's your family. If it's not your family, it's what you're doing for a living. If it's not that, it's something else.' But Coupland was depressed for most of 1996. `The book came out of a really dark period,' he admits. There's a long pause and he knocks nervously on the table.

God, spirituality, whatever, must have been some sort of comfort. To say there's a supernatural aspect to this book is like saying the ocean's a little salty. The story is told by Jared, part angel, part incubus, who leads the characters through time like the Ghost of Christmas To Come. His touch cures withered limbs, damaged brains, brings glimpses of Heaven. Meanwhile, Karen, the coma victim, sees into the future; in her long sleep, her body is preserved like the incorruptible cadaver of some Catholic saint.

Coupland's early books were secular - or pagan, to use a word he prefers. Then he started describing religion as something you could build yourself - `like Lego'. Now he says: `I believe there's something to believe in.' But how does Mr Zeitgeist explain his rejection of the decade that made him? Let's get one thing out of the way first, he says. He was never the mad, surface-obsessed consumerist he was made out to be. All those slogans, marques, manufacturers' jargon that gave a sheen to his work simply reflected the world he lives in. No one can escape the late 20th century's commercials and logos.

`One of the great misconceptions about what I do is that I consciously go out in pursuit of pop culture. That's all I really know. I'm always surprised when books don't refer to life as it's lived every day.' We're sitting in a hotel by Hyde Park Corner, watching the traffic trundle by, and he gestures towards the road. `Look - there's a bus out there with a huge Gap ad on it. And there's a Honda motorcycle. That's been part of life as long as I can remember. It's a pop barrage, and it seems sort of irresponsible not to deal with it.' Yet why has he written a novel where bright, likeable teenagers grow into empty, lonely adults, as if that's the only way to go as we wind up the nineties? `If you had to choose one adjective to define this decade,' he says, `it would be `ironic'. But irony only gets you so far. You'll never get to Heaven listening to Garry Glitter albums. You'll go someplace nice, but you'll never go beyond. I think this decade has shown us the threshhold of irony: how far you can go before it starts working against you.' Compare that with the joy of the late seventies, as remembered by Jared. He's part-angel, remember, so his vision should be pretty unclouded. `We were all so lucky living when and where we did. There was no Vietnam. Childhood dragged on for ever. Gasoline, cars and potato chips were cheap and plenty. If we wanted to hop on a jet to fly anywhere on Earth, we could. We could believe in anything we wanted. Shit - we could wear a San Diego Chicken costume down Marine Drive while carrying a bloody rubber head of Richard Nixon if we wanted - that would have been just fine. And we all went to school. And we weren't in jail. Wow.' `What does it take to change?' Coupland asks, sounding as anguished as anyone can through a mouthful of sleep. `How deeply entrenched is this sense of irony and detachment? What does it take to change that? Because I really hate it.'

Girlfriend In A Coma, by Douglas Coupland , is published this week by Flamingo at pounds 12.99.