Waiting for Doug: a generation lines up


From The Ottawa Citizen (March 19, 1994)

by Stephanie Small

Of the more than 350 Generation Xers who have crowded into this downtown auditorium to see Douglas Coupland, there are very few who feel like they're meeting him for the first time.

They've read his books; they've absorbed his language. They feel like they're meeting an old friend.

For one night at least, no one cares that he's been slagged in the media as a whiny, pretentious, intellectual lightweight.

Best of all, few care that their own worries the same worries that sometimes overwhelm their idol_are seen as self-absorbed snivelling from a privileged generation.

He speaks to them from under a bright spotlight, on stage at the National Library. He's an unlikely looking hero, with dishevelled hair, the beginnings of a beard and wide red suspenders hanging down from his waist.

This isn't so much a reading as it is a telling his stories littered with extra "and ahs" and "anyways."

And even though this is his third book, even though he's moved on into a search for spiritual meaning, his stories and anecdotes still ring with a reassuring irony. He's speaking their language.

He thanks them for showing up even though there's a new episode of the Simpsons on TV. Then he wraps up by inviting them out to the lobby for some "Krusty-the-Clown-like merchandising of myself."

They line up for more than an hour for a signature and outline of his hand on new copies of his books.

With adulation like that, he can afford to slough off the criticism he gets from some reviewers. Some of it comes from members of an older generation who, perhaps, just don't "get it."

"We grew up in a very dense media-rich environment, surrounded by TV and magazines," he says of his peers. "And with it comes a sort of defacto sensibility. We tend to feel a bit ironic, if not a lot ironic."

"But older people, they grew up in a different media environment. It's like trying to run a Macintosh computer on an IBM computer_it's just not going to work."

Criticism also comes from young adults who resent being pigeonholed and refuse to let Coupland speak for an entire generation.

"What I find is that even the ones who get all nasty grudgingly admit, somewhere two thirds of the way into a review, 'well, OK, he can write, but don't let that let you think that this reporter has been fooled.'

"It's because there's all this phenomenological baggage."

Coupland insists he's not the official voice of Generation X, even though his work has played a large role in describing the phenomenon of a generation of overeducated, underemployed young people who feel cheated by the success of the baby boomers. He gave a personal vocabulary to generation Xers working at "McJobs" in their "veal-fattening pens small, cramped office workstations built of fabriccovered wall partitions."

But even with the whirlwind of attention he's received in the past three years, he tries to keep his distance from parts of the culture he writes about so ironically. He's reluctant to be interviewed on television, he refuses to do ads for The Gap or sell the movie rights to his books.

He just wants to write, to sort through some of the concerns he feels he shares with a growing segment of society.

"Sure people are losing their jobs, or their university degrees didn't mean what they used to, or whatever. But at one level deeper, what is happening is that the stories that we used to assume would compose our lives_the templates within which we drew the shapes of our lives_are rapidly changing. And we're not coming up with any new story-making devices to fill the gap."

In his latest offering, Life After God , the characters are forced to move beyond the obsession with ironic distance found in Generation X and Shampoo Planet, and search for spiritual meaning to their lives.

"With X and Shampoo , I was touching on these ideas unconsciously. And with this book here it was as if suddenly I was up in a helicopter and got this view above the city."

Many of his themes are universal, and have certainly been addressed before, by other generations. But he also speaks directly to a generation that laughs knowingly at the Brady Bunch or remembers the sound of Bruce Marsh's voice describing fine home cooking with Kraft during the intermission of Hockey Night in Canada.

"It was always, like, any two combinations, seemingly at random, like Jet Puff marshmallow and peanut butter, mixed with a can of tuna_always a can of tuna, or Jello covered with bread cubes and broiled for fifteen minutes."

Coupland's discussions of society and the meaning of life are sprinkled with conspiratory asides like that one.

Back at the reading, a young woman gasps and repeats a parodic Coupland phrase. "We always say that_'an event that rocked the world'," she giggles to her friend.

But for every person enraptured by an author who has an uncanny knowledge of private conversations, there's another who ridicules his efforts to be anything more than a pop culture critic. That's why Coupland refuses to be called a mouthpiece for his generation.

"I'm not, I'm not, I'm not," he moans, rocking back and forth in his chair. "I sort of think I'm like this ink blot for, like, whatever people want to read into about Douglas Coupland."