Entertaining Mr. X


From Independent (February 27, 2000)

by Fred Bernstein

When Douglas Coupland shot to fame it was for his pithy chronicles of Generation X. Now the pith goes into his website, and his latest book is a novel that could confirm the death of the genre

On a bitterly cold day, on the North Side of Chicago, Douglas Coupland, premier chronicler of Generation X since his 1991 book popularised that term, is looking for a Kinko's. His plan is to purchase bubble-wrap and cardboard cartons; after a day spent buying ceramic vases, he needs to ship the lot home to Vancouver. But once inside the store, Coupland can't resist the siren call of the rent- by-the-minute computers. Soon he is immersed in Coupland.com, a website so complex that the laptop in his hotel room doesn't do it justice. "This is the first time I've seen it at full speed in weeks," he says of his site. Among its features are diaries of the 38 days he's been touring to promote his seventh book, Miss Wyoming , and collages produced daily from the detritus (ticket stubs, newspaper ads) he accumulates on tour, which he arranges with scissors and glue and then rushes home to Vancouver for uploading. There's also plenty of text, including many of his best stories and essays. "I was tired of websites that don't have anything on them," he said, explaining the decision to make his works available for free. Indeed, the question now is why Coupland - who speaks in aphorisms, finds e-mailing more natural than talking on the phone, and admits he knows nothing about such literary niceties as tense and point-of-view - would bother writing a hardback book? A book takes years to get from his mind to his readers'. Plus, in the publishing business, "If you ask for too many things, they think you're a control freak," Coupland says - explaining why he decided to live with the peculiar italic typeface of the US edition of Miss Wyoming .

Of course, it's hard to make a living from a website, and Coupland hasn't invested his Generation X proceeds ("investing," he says - revealing just how unlike most of his generation he is - "makes me feel parasitic"). Plus, he has literary ambitions.

Miss Wyoming is his first book written entirely in the third person and past tense; previous books were charmingly - if disconcertingly - inconsistent. It also lacks carnality, in connection with which Coupland insists: "I'm not a prude. But sex scenes I associate with books left behind at summer cottages." Then he reports that his idols, mostly British writers like Evelyn Waugh, Jean Rhys and Iris Murdoch, didn't do sex scenes either.

It's hard to learn much about Coupland's past - like his exposition-light books, he tends to present his biog staccato: born on a Canadian air-force base in Germany; raised in West Vancouver, a kind of "moose- strapped-to-the-hood-of-the-Fairlane" town. His great- grandparents were born in Inverness, Scotland - "where everyone has the misfortune to look like me" - and Coupland, a town in Cumbria. The third of four boys, he attended art school (which, he says, is one step up from a cosmetological academy), then studied business in Japan - "the one blip in an otherwise arts-oriented life." From there, he travelled for years, mostly in the States. Like his friend Tyler Brulee, the Wallpaper editor for whom he sometimes writes travelogues, he seems determined to submerge his Canadianism by becoming an expert on life in the US. Coupland says he's memorised the names and locations of hundreds of US counties, "the way other people memorise baseball statistics." Yet, mild-mannered and soft- spoken, he's less a cosmopolitan than his young fans might imagine. He likes his food bland and room temperature (never, he tells waiters, on a hot plate) and knows that if you don't have ginger ale - his favourite drink - all you need is three parts Seven Up, one part Coke. "It's an old bartender's trick."

In Vancouver, Coupland lives in a 1960 post-and-beam house; though mostly glass, it's nestled in the woods. ("I dislike views," he says.) He admits to having a couple of employees now, but won't say anything else about his home life. "Living arrangements shouldn't be discussed. The reason my personal life works is that I don't talk about it." Still, there is inadvertent revelation: hours after claiming that "the interior of a person's house is the closest you're going to come to the interior of that person's brain", he notes that, when he's home in Vancouver, he rearranges his furniture weekly.

Coupland, a former art school student, says he's more focused on visual than verbal pursuits - writing, he says, is a way of making money, and "money is just another art supply". He now employs several of his art school cronies in what is sure to be a burgeoning business. At its core are furnishings designed by Coupland, all of them as high-concept as his novels. There's the Lichtenstein table - coloured dots on a white laminate surface - and the Henry table (a homage to Moore). His most expensive piece is an Eames chaise longue - bought for $6,000 from the Swiss manufacturer Vitra, and then repainted in the colours of his favourite car, the Shelby GT 350. Before the paint job, Coupland says, "it was too white, and it just sat there. Now it's got a cool racing stripe." He is also busily "repurposing" mid-century American ceramics. On the day I met him, he walked from store to store, picking up half a dozen pieces. "I have a morphological agenda," he said. "I'll buy a doggie chew toy if it has the right shape." He doesn't look at the prices, nor does he tell the shopkeepers that he plans to cut, drill and sandblast their precious wares, combining them into sculptures reminiscent of Brancusis (although he resists the analogy, since Brancusi shapes, he says, have become "Candle Shack" cliches).

That's not his only art project while on tour. When I met him, he was working furiously with a pair of scissors and glue making his daily collage. The results are reminiscent of the artist James Rosenquist, whom Coupland says he discovered in an encyclopaedia when he was seven. (He claims that, at that moment, "I knew I was going to be in the pop world." ) The piece in the encyclopedia, titled F-111 and now in New York's Museum of Modern Art, juxtaposes images of a child and a jet fighter, sending a powerful anti-war message. Today Coupland owns one of the 75 or so prints of F-111, and seems to have adopted Rosenquist's philosophy: "I don't do anecdotes," the artist said. "I accumulate experiences."

Using the language of visual arts to describe his writing, Coupland says he's moved from quilting (which, he says, creates a field, but not a pictorial space) to collaging - which "creates a pictorial space, however fractured". (Ironically, he writes on scraps of paper, creating as much of a visual as a verbal collage, because "as a Canadian and a Presbyterian, I find using blank white paper presumptuous.") The other artists Coupland says have influenced him are Andy Warhol and Jenny Holzer. It's almost too easy to note that both made their reputations for appropriation - Warhol of everyday objects, Holzer of everyday ideas.

Thicker of waist and thinner of hair than in his photos, Coupland is approaching 40 (with his typical computer-geek precision, he describes his age as "38.1"), which is, as he would be the first to note, the sell- by date for youth culture popularisers. Can he continue to be the voice of hipdom? Coupland says he isn't trying to be ("I never speak for anyone but me"). And yet there are the endless pop-cultural riffs. The question is, why would anyone write with pop culture, if he is also writing about pop culture? Other artists use the familiar to explore the unfamiliar; Coupland never gets that far. One of the most useful words in Coupland's home-grown lexicon (it first appeared in an essay about Marilyn Monroe) is "denarration" - the idea that modern-day Americans are suffering from the absence of arc, or story, to their lives. It's a significant concept - naming the anomie of modern life is no small feat - but not exactly the best way to plot a novel.

It was four years ago, when he was reading the National Enquirer - a downmarket American tabloid best known for accounts of Martians landing in Jacuzzis - that Coupland came upon the story that inspired Miss Wyoming . It was, he says as if reciting the headline, "Leathery movie producer Robert Evans marries Eighties soap star Catherine Oxenberg." To anyone else, the article might have been worth a moment's contemplation, but to Coupland, it resonated with important themes of renewal: "Here were two been-around-the-block-a-few-times people," says Coupland (whose adjectives are as long as other people's sentences). "Suddenly, for a few minutes, they found hope. They were alive." That the real-life marriage lasted only 12 days was their loss but his gain, for in Coupland's universe salvation has to be short-lived. Aimlessness, to Coupland's characters, is an end in itself. Which may be why Coupland's own shot at renewal - at becoming a novelist more than an aphorist - seems curiously half-hearted.

Coupland is quick to point out that this isn't a roman a clef. Its characters - John Johnson for Evans and Susan Colgate for Oxenberg - don't marry, although they do end up in the Enquirer after each stages a disappearance: Colgate, a former beauty queen (thus Miss Wyoming ) walks away from a plane crash before the rescue workers arrive; as long as everyone thinks she's dead, why not enjoy the freedom? She would rather live in a dumpster than be hemmed in by her public persona. So, too, Johnson effaces his identity (he re- emerges, Prince-like, as "." after the city clerk requires at least one keystroke on the name-change form), and starts walking east from Eden, with no destination in mind. Along the way, he encounters "nobodies" - who, he notices, are almost always men. "Women," he thought, "had so many more ways to connect themselves to the world - children, families, friends." But before Coupland can explore this theme, he retires his characters in a fussy cinematic conclusion.

The book is also mistake-ridden (Ken Kesey's Nurse Ratched becomes "Nurse Ratchet") and filled with neologisms less felicitous than the ones that made his reputation (a publicist character complains that his life isn't "starfucky" enough). On a website, no one would care; hard-covers raise expectations. However, along the way, Coupland has the opportunity in Miss Wyoming to drop pop-cultural references like a hot-air balloon shedding ballast - and if there aren't enough real pop-cultural references, he creates fictional ones (Susan's Eighties TV show becomes a major point of reference). Coupland is a master of similes; the book reads like an answer key to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And yet, as the New York Times recently pointed out, Coupland's references are "just slightly faded". (Mary Tyler Moore occupies a larger place in his consciousness than Seinfeld.)

Coupland does have non-television sources; he admits he carried around notepads for years, "writing down what everybody said". In 1997, he says, he began to resent having to do that, and stopped, although he figured, "Oh, fuck, there goes my career." Now he relies on the subtitles that he says he sees all the time ("Essentially, I see every word I hear or say in front of me"). Sure, other writers (notably Ishwerwood) have seen themselves as cameras - but usually cameras with adjustable lenses; Coupland aspires to be a point-and- shoot (or, in his branded universe, an Elph).

To be fair, Miss Wyoming is more novelistic than his previous efforts, the result of a deliberate decision to get serious about his writing - to recognise, he says, "that this isn't just a lark". For years, Coupland says, "I went unedited." Judith Regan, of Regan Books in New York, acquired and promoted - but never took a pencil to - his books. When Regan "lost me on a technicality", as Coupland puts it, his agent sent around a proposal for Miss Wyoming , with a twist: publishers were asked not just how much they would pay for the manuscript, but how they would shape it, and, for that matter, Coupland's career. There were lots of responses. ("It's nice to know you're still wanted at the party," Coupland says.) Sonny Mehta, the high-powered editor of Knopf Pantheon, produced a 15-page memo addressing the ways Coupland "shoots [himself] in the foot" - including, Coupland recalls, "overuse of sentimentality". Though Knopf offered less money than some of the other houses, Coupland signed on, noting, "If you're going to evolve, you're going to have to work with someone." Editor Jenny Minton, he says, "challenged every word" in Miss Wyoming . If the book is selling, however, it may be largely because of Coupland's indefatigable touring - despite his claim to hate the "flight-airport-flight-airport" rhythm of US travel. (In England, he says, it's better because "you get on a Willy Wonka train, and you eat a sandwich and there are sheep outside." He arrives here for a six-stop reading tour this week.)

Coupland usually begins writing after midnight. He explains that "I've gone asynchronous," meaning "I've given up trying to do a wide variety of daily functions in real time." In the hotel coffee shop, he selects the $18.95 buffet, then eats a single pastry. He apologises for his outfit (moss-green slacks and moss-green sweater), claiming that, more than a month into his book tour, everything else is at the cleaners. (In truth, the items delivered that evening don't look very different from his clothes- of-last-resort.)

Later, he turns to his collages, cutting up old magazines as blithely as he'll later violate the pottery piled up in the hallway. The work is therapeutic (and the only kind of therapy he's been in, despite several deep depressions, which he calls "one of Nature's most powerful humbling strategies"). Making things with his hands, he says, "is my way of turning off the subtitles I see all the time".

It isn't easy turning subtitles into a sustained literary effort, and it may be that Miss Wyoming only proves that the hardback book is in its death throes. It's not a bad 300 pages - not at all - but it's still less interesting to read about Susan Colgate's mad dash across America than about Douglas Coupland's, posted daily on his website. Indeed, he's more interesting than his characters, which is why the cult of Coupland doesn't need Knopf Pantheon, and may not even want it. Coupland has a chance to be the first great practitioner of a new medium, one in which words and images are combined in a compelling if ephemeral collage. As he says, "I'm never nostalgic. Don't you always just want to live in the future?" n

` Miss Wyoming ' is published by Flamingo, priced pounds 9.99