A Night Out With Douglas Coupland: Escape from Generation X


From The New York Times (September 9, 2001)

by Phil Patton

"'I'M going to keep that door open,'' Douglas Coupland said nervously. ''I'm agoraphobic. I can't deal with crowds.'' It was not long before a party Thursday evening at the Totem Gallery on Grand Street, to celebrate the publication of Mr. Coupland's new novel, ''All Families Are Psychotic,'' and the opening of a show of his sculptures called ''Spike.''

But hours later, Mr. Coupland was still there, not even glancing at the door, happily signing books.

''I haven't crossed that line for two hours,'' he said with pride, gesturing to a perimeter marked by his table. He wore a striped shirt without a tie and a few days' worth of beard.

He was not wearing a stone tablet around his neck reading ''Generation X,'' but he might as well have been. A decade ago, he gave currency to that label as the title of a novel. Most guests at the party looked more Generation Y, but the book was what they knew Mr. Coupland for.

''I don't want anyone to think of this work as like Red Skelton painting sad clowns,'' Mr. Coupland said, pointing out that his past as a sculptor predates his celebrity as the Gen X guy. He went to art school, then worked as an industrial designer and only turned to writing later.

''I always thought of words as art supplies,'' he said.

He greeted his friend Spike Jonze, director of ''Being John Malkovich,'' and Mr. Jonze's wife, the actress Sofia Coppola. (The novel has been optioned by Michael Stipe's production company Single Cell, which produced ''Malkovich.'')

The inspiration for both the novel and the sculptures was a family crisis, Mr. Coupland said. His niece, Sarah, was born in Vancouver two years ago without a left hand, at a time when statistics there marked an upward turn -- a spike -- in birth defects. Each family member seemed to take blame for Sarah's lack, he said.

Something similar happens in the novel, which centers on a family reuniting in Florida, where the daughter -- born without a left hand -- is about to be launched into space.

The sculptures include huge plastic bottles, recognizable even without labels -- Tide, Downy, Alberto VO5. Mr. Coupland had a vision one night in a Vancouver Wal-Mart, he said. He was struck with the beauty of detergent bottles and bought dozens.

''Any passion to collect has some meaning behind it,'' he added. The meaning was revealed when a friend pointed out that the bottles were all shaped to attract the hand -- and that they contained chemicals that might cause birth defects.

The other pieces are giant toy soldiers in an almost radioactive green. The soldiers are deformed, as if they hadn't come out of the mold just right, or had been damaged by mischievous children. One lacks a leg. Another is cut in half at the waist. The sculptures range in price from $8,000 to $12,000.

Some guests wore white T-shirts with a toy infantryman silhouetted in bright green. One was Karim Rashid, the Toronto-born designer, whose work is also shown at Totem. He brought his copy of the book over for Mr. Coupland to sign.

''Has this become the Canadian cultural mission?'' someone asked David Shearer, Totem's owner.

A Generation Y furniture designer said he was impressed by Mr. Coupland. ''I knew of him as a guy who wrote this very cool book and expected a sleek, stylish, cool guy, but really he's, well, kind of dorky.

''And that's cool.''

Photo: Douglas Coupland signs books at Totem, where he has sculptures. (Thomas Dallal for The New York Times)