Life After Irony: The guru of Gen X spins a tale of visionary yearning


From Macleans (April 20, 1998)

by Joe Chidley

Douglas Coupland gives the impression of someone in a hurry-and he is. In Toronto for a brief stopover last month, just a couple of weeks before the release of his latest novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, the Vancouver-area writer has popped in to the Art Gallery of Ontario to take in exhibits featuring two of his favorite artists. First, it's The Warhol Look, a visiting retrospective of the New York City pop-meister's fashion sketches, photos, portraits and influences, and the 36-year-old author flits about like a rat in search of cheese, catching a glimpse of something interesting-a dress patterned in Brillo Pad boxes, for instance-and darting off to take a peek. Then it's down the hall a bit and to the left, where the AGO's renowned collection of Henry Moore sculptures resides, and Coupland can barely stand to take it all in. "Wow, it's just too much, it's overwhelming, " he says. On the way to the gallery cafeteria to consume a plate of pasta, Coupland pauses in mid-stride to explain his love of the two artists. "Warhol is so descriptive," he says, "and Moore is so- not."

It is difficult to resist pointing out similar forces-descriptiveness and not, the Warholesque and the Moore-ish-in the author's own work. Coupland is, in many ways, an Andy Warhol for the 1990s, a spotter of trends and cataloguer of pop-culture artifacts. In his first novel, he not only coined the term "Generation X" for a mainstream audience, but also traced a sensibility of ironic detachment that has come to define an age-group, its fascination with trivia and its deprecating appreciation of kitsch. He is the writer who inspired young office workers around the world to look at their cubicles and think: "Veal- fattening pen." But against that is something critics and fans seldom take notice of in Coupland's writing: a deep, abstract search for meaning in a very material world, embodied by the disgruntled twentysomethings who retreat to Palm Springs in Generation X (1991), or the young professionals who go back to nature in his 1994 short-story collection, Life After God.

And nowhere, arguably, is that interplay of irony and visionary yearning more evident than in Girlfriend in a Coma, a best-seller in Canada. On the surface, the book seems vintage Coupland, taking a cue from pop-culture icons like Karen Ann Quinlan, the New Jersey teenager who spent 10 years in a coma before dying in 1985, and The Smiths, the quintessential band of '80s disaffection from whose song the book takes its title. The plot revolves around a North Vancouver high- schooler named Karen Ann McNeil (get it?) who falls into an 18-year coma and miraculously wakes up in the 1990s to find that her still- close-knit high-school friends have more or less wasted their lives- and that, coincidentally, the world is coming to an end.

It is part love story, part ghost story, part apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy- and big part sermon. The second half of the book, when the ghost Jared urges the friends to spiritual renewal after everyone else on the planet has mysteriously fallen asleep, is rife with dramatic torpor and overt preachiness. Coupland's style, meanwhile, is sometimes precious. And yet, Girlfriend in a Coma is Coupland's most audacious novel to date, and it marks something of a watershed in his career. Despite the occasional flash of dead-on social observation, it amounts to an argument against satire and sarcasm. Confused but often moving, it steps firmly into the realm of spiritual philosophy.

Maybe there are signs of conversion in Coupland's appearance, which often seems as carefully crafted as his metaphors. (One example: " I couldn't help noticing how clean and blue the sky was," says the ghost Jared, one of Girlfriend's narrators, "like a freshly squeegeed window.") Back in the '80s, with Generation X and Shampoo Planet (1992), Coupland was the tousle-haired, sweater-clad youth, all slouch and attitude. Then, with Microserfs, his 1995 novel about programming apparatchiks at Microsoft Corp., Coupland cut his hair, shaved his rosy cheeks to the consistency of rice paper, and donned a jacket and tie-a fancy man for the brave new world of digital corporatization, a darling of the Wired magazine set.

Now, with Girlfriend in a Coma, the sweater is back, this time over a plaid shirt, the hair is slightly long and messy, and the clean lines of his jaw are covered by a beard. Coupland could pass for a Simon Fraser University enviro-studies undergrad or an L. L. Bean catalogue model. And Coupland seems pretty comfortable in this incarnation. In fact, for a putative guru of the Information Age, he is remarkably unplugged-in. He doesn't surf the Web. He doesn't watch television, except for The Simpsons and videos called World's Scariest Police Chases-which he says are "really good." Living alone in his hillside house near Horseshoe Bay, he prefers low-tech pursuits, reading three newspapers a day and sculpting, an art form for which he acquired a passion at Vancouver's Emily Carr College of Art and Design.

Sitting in a posh Toronto hotel lounge sipping coffee, Coupland struggles to find words to describe the genesis of Girlfriend in a Coma. "It' s so weird to talk about this out loud," he says. But eventually, between frequent changes of subject, he remembers that it began with a quote from novelist Thomas Pynchon. "He said the way young people deal with the overwhelming-ness of existence-I'm paraphrasing-is through time travel or sleep," Coupland says. "So what I wanted to do was present sleep and time travel, and the coma as the embodiment of both." Then there was his fascination with Karen Ann Quinlan. "I just remember in the '70s, every few weeks there would be this one picture of her in all the papers and magazines," Coupland says. "It was just this one rhetorical image, and part of me wondered, `OK, what would it be like to look at the present through that lens?' "

But the novel also arose from the author's bouts of depression in 1996, which he describes as a sort of waking version of a coma. Coupland rarely left his home-his first experience of agoraphobia-and he "had this unbelievable depression for the whole year," he says. "Like, my highlight for 1996 was making cinnamon toast." He does not want to go on about it-"Talking about depression is boring"-but the corollaries with Karen, and with the apocalyptic vision that takes up the second half of the book, are clear. "I found that everything was just, like, my brain was just shutting down," he recalls. "And the world was sort of just over."

Clearly, he has emerged from that season in purgatory with a keener interest in the metaphysical. At first, the premise of Girlfriend in a Coma seems tailor-made for the kind of cultural critique the author is famous for: the reader-and her friends in the novel-expect Karen to wake up and rant about the emptiness of the millennial world. "Cloning. Life on Mars. Velcro. Charles and Diana. M.A.C. cosmetics, " as Richard says. But Karen ignores the trivia. What she notices is the big picture. "I see," she says, "a hardness in modern people." It is a telling scene-the triumph of earnestness. And it shows an author who is moving beyond the ironic voice and into the uncomfortable, but perhaps more fertile, territory of spirituality. "Irony has its limits," says Coupland. "You can go to really interesting places with it, but you can't go to the best place with it."

With Girlfriend in a Coma, he hasn't quite reached that best place- but he seems to be on his way. And if nothing else, the book should help Coupland put well behind him the "spokesman-for-a-generation" status that has dogged him, for good or ill, for nearly a decade. He admits to being a bit bored with the whole thing. "It's just so obvious that there's some new generation happening that it's not worth arguing any more," he says. "Now, Generation X is like 13 or 14, or you get 25-year-olds-I love to watch people getting it wronger and wronger." (He stops himself. "Is `wronger' a word? Or is it one of those words that just sounds weird?") On the other hand, he seems to have come to terms with being seen as, well, Gen-X Guy. "It makes for instant recognition," Coupland says. Then, with a Warholesque deadpan: "It's like my soup cans."