The Books Interview: Douglas Coupland - Talking about which generation? Way out in Vancouver, Douglas Coupland isn't slacking, but working on the future - and the past.


From Independent (February 12, 2000)

by Julie Wheelwright

Doug Coupland was born on a Canadian forces base in West Germany in 1961. After his father left the airforce, the family moved when Coupland was four to West Vancouver, British Columbia. After graduating from art college in 1984, he moved to Japan where he studied business science, fine art and industrial design. In 1987 he had a successful solo show of sculpture before moving to California to write a novel. Generation X (1991) sold more than 400,000 copies and brought the title into the lexicon. His other novels include Shampoo Planet, (1992) Microserfs (1996) and, most recently, Girlfriend in a Coma. Miss Wyoming appears this month from Flamingo. He has also published a book of short stories, Life After God (1994), and a collection of essays, Polaroids from the Dead. Douglas Coupland lives in Vancouver.

On a slate-grey afternoon in the dog days of the last millennium, the novelist Doug Coupland looks like just another thirtysomething guy in a black parka standing in a restaurant queue in a Vancouver suburb. We met in an eatery near the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay, crammed with passengers bound for Vancouver Island who hunker down over chunky chips and battered cod. "Everyone who visits thinks you're joking about being on the edge of nothing here," he says, looking out on the icy green ocean. "I've always found that very liberating." We're on the edge of nothing, at the end of time. Weird indeed.

Except if you're from here. Then you understand that a skewed sense of the universe comes from contemplating the imposing Coastal mountains and the Pacific's vast canopy. Despite being hailed, after his huge hit with Generation X, as "America's most notable youth- culture novelist", "the poet laureate of the slack generation", Coupland's ties with Vancouver are strong.

When I ask about the city's sense of optimism, he flourishes his recently guest-edited copy of Vancouver Magazine (where he first took his generation's psychic pulse in a 1988 article). The back page of the current issue features a photograph of architect Ron Thom's house. Coupland writes: "In 1994 I bought [this house] and it currently looks very different indeed. However, the spirit remains intact: optimistic, experimental, curious about tomorrow. It's pure Vancouver. We're at our best when we try new things; we only goof when we mimic the past or other places."

Aside from two years in Japan and another stint in Palm Springs, where he wrote GenX, Vancouver remains Coupland's physical and spiritual home. "There's a lot of interesting factors at work here," he says, "like the linguistic and racial mix which is really unique. Like the main businesses are movie production, pot growing and hi- tech game design. Plus all my friends I went to art school with are here."

Even the city's dearth of literary culture seems liberating. "Is there a literary community in Vancouver? No. But do I want one? No. There is in New York but God those people are awful to each other."

Perhaps Coupland's obsession with the future is fostered by living in a young, chameleon-like place which "rewrites itself almost daily". Looking out from the eatery, we imagine how it might look 50 years from now; the cliffs above denuded of trees by the beetle that's ravaging the firs; the cars replaced by wind-up vehicles; the plastic tray with the bill a collector's item. Coupland holds it in thumb and forefinger, morphed into a future archaeologist. "You can imagine this on a plinth in a museum, and someone thinking, `Mastercard, who was he?'"

Coupland's playfulness about the future comes from his conviction that it represents an opportunity for change to be embraced rather than feared. "The future, whatever it is, isn't going to be blazingly new; instead it's going to look kind of sideways."

Coupland's new novel Miss Wyoming (Flamingo, pounds 9.99), however, isn't about millennial anxiety so much as an individual search for meaning in that crucible of soullessness - Hollywood. Inspired by the phenomenon of the stage-mom, he has created the monstrous Marilyn, who channels her desperate desire for fame through her daughter. Marilyn enrols Susan in beauty pageants when she's barely out of nappies and watches her rise through the serried ranks to become a teen queen and TV actress.

In this chilling landscape, the daughters become "human bonzai" who learn early that their value lies in their ability to manipulate the judges and mimic a particular brand of adult female sexuality. "For every Jodie Foster," says Coupland, "there's a hundred Susan Colgates." These are the gals who just don't quite make the grade, and fall ever further into made-for-television films, gigs at mall openings, and cheap commercials.

The manager-mom has a history dating back to 19th-century California. Pushy mothers would take their "doll girls" on tour through the gold fields, he says. "I wanted to have characters who were both used and using. I recently watched a documentary about pageants and I thought, `Oh my God, I got it right'. If anything, I underdid it. It's a really harsh world." Susan Colgate finally rebels by rejecting her Miss Teen America title to become a B-grade actress and rock star's wife before disappearing after her plane crashes en route to Los Angeles.

Officially dead, Susan seeks out the lost love of her life, a pageant judge whom her mother once blackmailed. In a parallel plot, film producer John Johnston blacks out after a heavy drug binge, has a vision of Susan as a pure soul, and decides to shed all his possessions. "You know, what?" he tells his stunned entourage. "I'd like to simply stop being me... I want a clean slate." Both characters long to be saved from their history. Susan jettisons acting as something that "just happened" and, ironically, seems destined to seek a healthier fulfillment through her own child.

Although Marilyn is the villian, women fare better at this process of redemption than men. John Johnston notices that men who skid off the career track are more likely to end up destitute.

"Nearly all of the Nobodies he saw were men," writes Coupland. "Women, he thought, had so many more ways to connect themselves to the world - children, families, friends." The domesticity of the archtypical "soccer mom", who ventures out only in a people-mover, has gained a new virtue.

Coupland says that his last novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, was his last written as a young person, and the last to be constructed from notebooks full of intricate observations. "I came out of art school and in the art world, you're always evolving, always experimenting. But after Coma, I realised there was a lot of things about my writing that were self-taught." His new American editor, he explains, is like the helicopter pilot with the bird's-eye view shouting down at the tree-planter on the mountain. "She's up there yelling down, `too many birch!'"

If Miss Wyoming is any indication, Coupland has definently shucked his "slacker" tag and is wrestling with issues far beyond the slogans and lists of Generation X or Microserfs. In the novel he's currently writing, his main character was born in 1934; it will touch on his fascination with the Cold War.

So the guru of pop culture is turning to history, with the same wry humour and laser-like vision that made the present seem like the future. "I don't think I've ever enjoyed writing so much," he says, sculpting his beef noodles into a glutinous tower. For a writer who's had "the world's most oddly public career", this imposed solitude promises great things.