On-Line With the Ex Mr. Gen X


From Los Angeles Times (May 31, 1995)

by Dennis Romero

Authors: With a new work on computer geeks, Douglas Coupland hopes to erase the memory of the book he never wanted to define a generation.

It must suck being called "the Generation X guy." Especially since the term is passe--the focus of a youth backlash against everything corporate. Especially since you're a novelist, not a demographer. Especially since you've moved on.

So if you're the Generation X guy, and you want a future, you have little choice but to distance yourself from everything X.

There are some young ones out there who would rather see Douglas Coupland ("Mr. X," as one newspaper called him) stand up and take his book title back from all the media mavens and corporate marketers who co-opted it in the name of circulation and compact cars--to give X the moral force a generation deserves.

And yet the generation, if there ever really was one, is falling apart before our very eyes. The X guy won't talk about X anymore. Lead or Leave, the generation's most potent political force in Washington, recently disbanded. And Coupland is delivering X's eulogy. "I'm here to say that X is over," he writes in the latest issue of Details.

"Kurt Cobain's in heaven, 'Slacker's' at Blockbuster, and the media refers to anybody aged 13 to 39 as Xers," he writes. "Which is only further proof that marketers and journalists never understood that X is a term that defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world."

But like the endings to his books, there is hope at the end of this X tale. Its name is "Microserfs" (ReganBooks, 1995), Coupland's fourth book since 1991's "Generation X." The 33-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, brings us a story of computer dorks (the term nerds appears three times in the first two pages) who devote their lives to corporate America only to find the meaning of life is closer to home.

It's a portrait of a group (we'll leave the word generation out of this) of Microsoft coders in Redmond, Wash., who are cut off from a life, family and morality. The only God comes in the form of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates--"a force with thick, thick glasses," Coupland writes. For 26-year-old Daniel Underwood and his circle of friends, communication happens via e-mail, shopping is done at a bulk-rate warehouse, and life rarely happens on the road between the antiseptic Microsoft "campus" and the "geek house" at which our characters reside. "I think we'd order our lives via 1-800 numbers if we could," Daniel says.

The wave of the future?

In the end, Coupland eases our fears that corporations and technology will take over our lives: "Machines can only be products of our being, and as such, windows to our souls," he writes. "By monitoring the machines we build, and the sorts of things we put into them, we have this amazingly direct litmus as to how we are evolving."

He even tones down the "life-sucks-if-you're-young" vibe of books past. For Coupland, life goes on. And, as he writes in "Microserfs," "generations become irrelevant."

In the spirit of his new book, Coupland spoke with The Times via e-mail.

Question: We're still new to this e-mail stuff. They've got all us reporters poking around cyberspace, posting messages on alt.bloweverythingup saying, "Uh, any terrorists out there? If so, call me at 1-800-LA-TIMES."

Coupland: Really? FUN FACT: America Online and all the other services have algorithms that seek out "swear words" as well as possibly other "sensitive" words, so if you don't want the Dream Police invading your brain, you have to use circumventive tactics: Sa-rin gas; Ryd*er rental van; Una.b@mber; nitr8 fertilizr.

Q: What do you think of e-mail interviews (v. "facetime")? Kinda' gives you the advantage, no?

A: No no NO. It's an antique media notion that the interviewee has some secret agenda they're trying to hide and that the interviewer must prod and prod and find the real truth, leaving the interviewee removing the rubber mask over their head like the villains at the end of Scooby Doo cartoons. . . . As you'll see, e-mail interviews take about five times more TIME to do than real-time interviews, and they involve about 20 times more thought and reflection. . . .

Q: Did you use the Internet to do research for "Microserfs"?

A: Only minimal Net research. The Net's still pretty dreary, despite the hype. If you have a specific question about a UNIX bug, or need to know the plot line of "Melrose Place" last Monday, it's a useful thing. Otherwise, not my cup o' tea. Friends usually spam me good bits, anyway.. . .

Q: You were kind of hard on corporate America in your latest.

A: I don't think I was hard on corporate America (actually, the corporate Western world). But the fact is that post-industrialization and information technologies are wildly mutating what it is we consider "having a life." And corporations--and the work constraints they impose--can seem slightly de-human and brutal when discussed. Most software technology corporations, to their credit, have done some good things to make work a better place.

Q: Did Microsoft cooperate?

A: They set me up with six pre-selected employees who were helpful inasmuch as six pre-selected employees can be.

Q: Did they allow you to check the place out?

A: With an escort. In the end, I simply posted a memo on the Net saying, "Anybody at Microsoft interested in helping out with some research?" and I was SWAMPED with replies. . . . I lived down there for six weeks with Microsoft nerds . . . feeding with them . . . sleeping among them . . . going to Costco with them . . . plus four months in Palo Alto.

Q: Microsoft's reaction? A: The consensus among employees is that it's (frequently used modifier: 'chillingly') accurate. I think Microsoft comes out of it just fine, but they're so used to being slammed in the press just because they're No. 1, that they think any press must be bad press. Not true. They're smart. . . . Microsoft bashing could well be just another inflection of the current Gump-style sentimentalization of stupidity. I am anti-stupidity and am pro-Microsoft if for no other reason than to battle the forces of dumbness. Besides, I've never met Bill Gates, but I kind of like the IDEA of him. How often do we have a new archetype?

Q: In the book, you say the Internet is overrated.

A: Yes. Because those killer chat rooms and astounding nodes of information you're always hearing about simply aren't as groovy as the hype would have you believe. There are a few exceptions. . . . But basically, there's only a bit of quality spread thinly. All the best jokes get spammed like crazy, anyway (like the Pentium jokes earlier this year).

Q: You say some heavy things about technology and society. Is this latest communications revolution boon or bane?

A: It's inevitable, so it's off the moral spectrum. You can stand on the beach and watch Hurricane Andrew approach and yell at it to turn around, but good luck to you. The metaphor of a storm makes it sound like a negative thing, but storms are a necessary, thrilling and vital part of any ecosystem.

Q: You said in Details that your characters are not meant to represent. But they do hit a chord.

A: In "Generation X," the narrator goes home for Christmas, and not once in any way do I describe the house (since I figured that a reader would simply insert their own place, anyway) but dozens of people have come up to me and said, "That house--it was perfect--it was my house to a T." I think people mistake undergeneralizing for overgeneralizing.

Q: Why do you think your last book, "Life After God," didn't do as well commercially and critically as your other books?

A: People magazine put it on their Ten Worst list, but when you think about it, it's a backward compliment because it's exactly the same thing as being on People magazine's Ten Best list. Also remember, the only fiction I've ever written is what's on the bookseller's shelf. There's no high-school short stories. My education has been entirely public.

Q: Do you feel burned by critics who don't mention you in the same breath as Bret Easton Ellis or Donna Tartt?

A: But I don't think this is the case. QUESTION: Whatever happened to Donna Tartt? Side thought: I avoid New York totally and don't have an agent doing cocktail parties for me and that kind of thing. It seems like an undesirable psychic ecology to get messed-up in.

Q: Are you out to prove something with this latest book?

A: I'm never out to prove anything. I just follow my fascinations. Writing that sets out to prove something isn't really writing to me . . . it's just kind of . . . lobbying.

Q: What's next for you?

A: Next book. It's embryonic in my head, but it's conceived. I don't want to discuss it for fear of screwing up the zygote.