King of hip


From The Montreal Gazette (September 20, 1992)

by Scott Lawrence

"At best I thought Generation X would be a charity purchase by friends," Douglas Coupland said last week. "I had no idea it would make it east of the Rockies."

If you've paid any attention at all to the literary scene in Canada over the past year or so and you don't know what Generation X is, or you haven't heard of Douglas Coupland, you may have been in a coma.

Coupland is a 30-year-old Vancouver native whose first novel, Generation X, was published last year by St. Martin's Press in the United States. He tried a dozen Canadian publishers first, but they had all turned down his manuscript.

Generation X was hip and funny, and it had an unconventional look about it. With virtually no publicity, it became (to just about everyone's surprise) an enormous hit.

How? Mostly by word of mouth, mostly in the university and college communities where the people and the culture the book talks about live.

Why? It "defined a generation," one critic said. And in a case of life imitating art, that generation, of North American post-baby- boomers, began hearing themselves referred to as Generation X.

In the past year, Generation X - the book - has been translated into 12 languages, has sold over 125,000 copies, and seems to be on some sort of permanent exhibit near the top of the Canadian best- seller list.

Last week, Generation X and Coupland's new novel, Shampoo Planet, appeared simultaneously on The Gazette's best-seller chart. They also occupied the No. 1 and 2 positions on the Toronto Globe and Mail's list, and Shampoo Planet, in its first week on the market, was at the top of the Maclean's magazine rankings.

Coupland visited Montreal last week to promote Shampoo Planet. He gave a brief reading and then signed copies of both his novels at Paragraphe bookstore, but if you got there five minutes late you may not have gotten in at all. Well over 200 people jammed the bookstore's aisles, and The Gazette photographer who had come to get Coupland's photograph for this piece had to wait out on the sidewalk until the tangle of bodies began to unknot. Richard King, Paragraphe owner, looked radiant.

Now, none of this may sound like all that big a deal until you realize that, for most Canadian fiction writers, sales of 3,000 or 4,000 copies of a book are cause for maniacal celebration. As is a reading or book launching attended by more than just family and four or five close friends, for that matter.

The success Coupland has seen is equivalent to waking up one morning on Fantasy Island.

Yet he seems genuinely not to know just what a phenomenon he is. "You don't think about it from one day to the next, because you've got a life to live," he said in an interview. "It's like being employee of the month at McDonald's. They put your picture on a little plaque above the french-fry computer. The next month there'll be someone else's picture on the plaque.

All the same, being a sought-after novelist does have its rewards. "I don't think I'd really fit in at Century 21 real estate, and it's a pleasure not to have to worry about getting work at Burger King or something," Coupland admitted. "But these things are only temporary. Besides, I'm going to write any way, whether rich or poor or somewhere in the middle. It's not like I have any choice in the matter."

From the moment it came to wide public attention Coupland's work has been controversial. Critical opinion has ben divided, often along generational lines.

"I think younger people roar through the books and really enjoy them and I think older people find them disturbing," Coupland explained. "I think with different generations, you have different kinds of brain. People literally think differently; they format their information and see the work in different ways."

But Coupland stiffened at the suggestion that he's become a mouthpiece for the twentysomethings of North America.

"I don't believe that," he said. Yet the twentysomethings do make up his primary audience. At his reading last week there were scarcely a half-dozen faces that looked as though they had been out of the womb for a minute more than three decades.

Coupland read from a piece he'd done for Spin magazine based on the Grateful Dead. Passing references to toxic waste, Miss Jane Hathaway of the Beverly Hillbillies, hard drives, and the popping sound Bic lighters make at rock concerts elicited smiles, giggles, and enthusiastic nods from the young men and women who had lined up to buy his books.

It's not hard to see why. These are the objects, the brand names, the cult heroes they have grown up with: this is their culture. And this is what Coupland does so well: he notices and names the things of their world, and in so doing validates them.

"My memories begin with Ronald Reagan," says Tyler Johnson, the 20- year-old hero of Shampoo Planet, and it's a shock to realize that, for many of Coupland's audience, this is exactly the case.

If there is a gap between Tyler Johnson's generation and those that precede it, it has to do with the fact that Tyler's peers don't need a glossary to know what skatebetties are, or mall rats, or Dungeons and Dragons. They can talk to each other about deleting and reformatting the landscape without having to stop to explain the computer metaphor, or refer to the Sputnik era as though it were part of the late Middle Ages.

It's hard for even the most studiously hip over-30-year-old to keep up with the laser-quick changes that occur in the culture Coupland writes about.

Coupland was born in 1961 at a Canadian Armed Forces base in Germany, but his family moved to Vancouver "before memory began." Unlike many contemporary writers, he never studied English literature or took a creative writing course. In high school Coupland was interested mainly in the sciences, and even spent a year in the physics program at McGill in 1979-80. But then he switched to art school, a move that changed the course of his life. "I loved every second of it," Coupland said. "And I tell everyone who asks me what they should do with their lives to go into art school immediately. I think I'd be a non-person if I hadn't gone."

Coupland trained for six years as an artist, in Vancouver, Japan and Milan, and was successful enough to be given a solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. An artist's eye is everywhere evident in his fiction. But Coupland's particular natural gift - the reason he's able to connect with his readers - is his voracious appetite, and boundless love, for the world that surrounds him, junk and all.

"I meet people who wish they could live in the France of Louis XIV, or in Bloomsbury England, and I think there's some Doug Coupland who lives in the year 2500 who wishes he could live in late 20th-century North America. And he got his wish. Suddenly I'm here and look, I can't believe it, there's Styrofoam, I've heard of that, and oh look, it's a satellite dish, and wow, cars. So I'm not so down on this world: it's like I made this wish and now I'm here. I do look at all the stuff we've got like fax machines, and even the scary stuff like toxic waste, but still there's a wonder to it all."

Coupland paused for a moment to find just the right analogy to express that sense of wonder. "It's like you were on a game show a few hunded years down the road," he said, his voce soft but passionate. The grand prize is that you get to be a middle-class citizen of North America in the late 20th century. What a treat.