No More McJobs for Mr. X


From The New York Times (May 29, 1994)

by Steve Lohr

Tired of all the rumination and hand wringing about Generation X? So, he says, is Douglas Coupland. "It's beyond a cliche by now," said the author of "Generation X," a chronicle of twentysomething angst and sensibility whose title has become part of the vernacular.

Cliche or not, Mr. Coupland's quirky first novel about three untethered young people in Palm Springs, Calif., with glossary entries in the margins for terms like McJob ("a low-pay, low-prestige, low-benefit, no-future job") and bleeding ponytail ("an elderly sold-out baby boomer who pines for hippie or pre-sellout days"), is still doing well.

Three years after it was published by St. Martin's Press, it is still selling nearly 6,000 copies a month, and more than 300,000 copies are in print. By now, people who never read the novel or heard of Mr. Coupland (pronounced COPE-lund) use the term Generation X as everyday shorthand for a demographic group, the 42 million Americans in their 20's, and for an attitude.

Mr. Coupland, a 32-year-old Canadian, has published two subsequent works of fiction, a 1992 novel, "Shampoo Planet," and "Life After God," a recent collection of short stories whose narrators are in their early 30's. No longer a twentysomething, he has moved on to life after X.

His current fascination, and probably the subject of his next book, is a realm far removed from McJobs: the curious subculture of affluent, young workaholics at high-technology companies. His first foray into that world was a long story, "Microserfs," in the January issue of Wired magazine. Though fiction, it depicted the hermetic lives of the young software programmers who work for Bill Gates at the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Wash.

But the author-of-Generation-X label comes back to him every time an X-related blip appears on the cultural radar screen, like the current movie "Reality Bites," the story of post-college friends in Houston, or the suicide in April of Kurt Cobain, the grunge rock star. (After Mr. Cobain's death, Mr. Coupland wrote an appreciation for The Washington Post in the form of a letter to the musician.) Even a spoof, "Generation Ecch!!!," by Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman, two writers in their 20's, is scheduled for publication in August by Fireside Books.

"Sometimes, I have to remind myself, 'X, right, that's me,' " Mr. Coupland said over a room-service tuna sandwich at the Macklowe Hotel in New York as he took a pit stop between book-tour appearances. "It's like saying I'm left-handed." He wore the grunge uniform of blue jeans, flannel shirt, black army-style boots and a few days' growth of beard. He is just over six feet tall, but probably his most distinctive characteristic is his voice, deep and raspy, suggestive of the Darth Vader school of elocution.

He says he speaks only for himself, but Mr. Coupland is clearly read as and he often presents himself as a generational voice. His readers tend to be college students and people in their 20's and early 30's, reared on personal computers, MTV and grunge, jaded by advertising and the mass media, skeptical of the future.

While the subject of his fiction has shifted in venue and somewhat in tone, it remains in a generational vein. Speaking of his work, Mr. Coupland explained:

"I'm interested in people my age and younger who have no narrative structure to their lives. The big structure used to be the job, the career arc, and that's no longer there. Neither is family or religion. All these narrative templates have eroded."

Mr. Coupland grew up with three brothers in Vancouver, British Columbia, where his father, Douglas Sr., is a physician. His mother, Janet, who has a degree in comparative theology, spent most of her time, Mr. Coupland said, "raising four brutish kids."

Mr. Coupland was educated as an artist, with a degree in studio sculpture from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver. In 1987 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, he had a one-man show of his representational pieces, in fiberglass and wood, of everything from a water molecule to suburban houses. He did the illustrations in "Life After God," his current book.

After college, Mr. Coupland sometimes took low-pay, low-prestige jobs to pay the rent. He pumped gas, designed baby cribs and copied blueprints. His writing career started in the 1980's when he wrote a few articles for Vancouver Magazine, mostly on art scandals, after an editor was impressed by Mr. Coupland's writing on a postcard he had sent a mutual friend.

In 1989, Mr. Coupland got a $22,500 advance to write "Generation X," which was supposed to be nonfiction. But Mr. Coupland wrote a brief novel instead. "It was completely different from what I bought," recalled James Fitzgerald, executive editor of St. Martin's Press.

The book was no instant success, and Mr. Coupland remembers 1991 mostly as "a year of living off oatmeal and hot dogs."

Things improved, though, after Pocket Books bought his next novel, "Shampoo Planet," and "Generation X" sales picked up. Today, Mr. Coupland lives comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver overlooking thick stands of forest. He regards his apartment as a "design laboratory," filled with items ranging from a chair made of deer antlers that he designed to the modern art of Jenny Holtzer, a language artist.

His work regimen is anti-slacker, seven days a week and no vacations. "I've never taken a holiday," he said. "To lie on a beach someplace seems almost sinful. What's the point of being around unless you're working on something?"

In "Life After God," which is in its third printing, with 72,000 copies out, Mr. Coupland's characters have the unhinged quality of the people in his previous books, even if the characters are in different circumstances_a divorced, alcoholic aerobics instructor, an H.I.V.-positive stockbroker, an ex-porn star. But "Life After God" is less glib, less protected by what one character in "Generation X" called the "carapace of coolness."

Mr. Coupland is shifting gears somewhat by focusing on young, high-tech professionals. The first installment of what will probably be a novel on the subject was the 15,000-word "Microserfs" story in Wired, a year-old San Francisco magazine of computer culture and issues. Mr. Coupland said his goal in writing about the culture of the Microsoft Corporation was to capture the feel of "life within an information-technology monoculture."

For three weeks, he hung out with young programmers who work at Microsoft headquarters and typically live together in "geek" houses. "It was a 'Gorillas in the Mist' kind of observation," he explained. "What do they put in their glove compartments? What snack foods do they eat? What posters are on their bedroom walls?"

Mr. Coupland is fluent in computer technology. He travels with an Apple Powerbook and established contact with many of the Microsoft employees by posting an electronic inquiry on the Internet, the global computer network. But unlike many people in the personal computer industry, he does not regard the technology as an egalitarian force for good. "Computers are no more moral or evil than a spoon," Mr. Coupland said.

Not surprisingly, the narrator of his story shares that view. "I mean, if it weren't for the cult of Bill," Mr. Coupland writes, referring to the hero worship of Bill Gates, "this place would be deadsville_like a great big office supply company. Which is sort of what it is. I mean, if you really think about it."

In June, Mr. Coupland is planning several more weeks of close-up observation, for another story for Wired and presumably another chapter in his planned book. This time, his subjects are the young entrepreneurs around San Francisco who are developing software that combines video, voice and text, in computer games, educational programs and interactive television_the suppliers of progamming for the information highway.

"They are typically people my age or younger, who made a Faustian bargain with a high-tech monolith like Microsoft for six or seven years, and then bailed out, starting their own companies," he said.

Slackers they're not.