Author Coupland Turns His Eye To New Generation


From Orlando Sentinel Tribune (September 16, 1992)

by Stephen Whitty

Douglas Coupland, the 30-year-old hot writer of the moment, is feeling, well, cranky.

"Look, you've caught me at the end of the day and it's not fair to you, but I can't fake perky," he says after one in a long series of pauses. "I'm sorry. I'm usually more sympathetic. It's just it's the end of the day, and you're talking to someone who's exhausted."

It's 5:30 on a Monday afternoon, and Coupland is speaking from his room at the Beverly Hills Hilton, promoting Shampoo Planet (Pocket, $20). It's his second novel in two years but the first for which he is doing a book tour - giving readings, doing interviews.

"You know we never did do a book tour for Generation X," he says. "It didn't do very well at first. It's been a slow, incremental building to whatever it's become."

What it became was a cult classic. The characters, all late-twentyish members of the TV-driven, culture-overloaded, Lost-in-Space Generation, struck a chord. The book's design - full of cartoons, catch-phrases and coined trend words - such as "McJobs" - got media attention. Suddenly Coupland became an instant expert, a cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope kind of guy. He became a trendologist, a younger Faith Popcorn, last season's Voice of His Generation.

His new novel is about a slightly different generation, the kid brothers and sisters of generation X. Their parents were hippies. They're "Global Teens."

"The title, Shampoo Planet - it's all about the first truly globalized youth culture," he says. "They all have the same look. I mean, look at their hair - it's so superficial it must mean something deeper. The average young person in San Jose and Lyons, France, and Nagasaki have an extraordinary amount in common, a thousand-fold increase from what it was 30 years ago."

Alike as they are to each other, Coupland thinks the Global Teens are different from the generations that came before.

"I think what happens with `60s parents teaching them `60s values in the Reagan culture is you end up with this split personality," he says. "On social issues - race, gender and sex - younger people tend to be liberal, if not the most liberal generation on the planet. On fiscal they're much more conservative. You have 21-year-olds who can tell you about mutual funds."

For a brand-new generation, they sound a lot like the much-reviled yuppies of the `80s.

"Who reviles hippies?" Coup-land asks quickly. "Reviled by who? I sort of like hippies." No, yuppies. Aren't Global Teens just younger yuppies?

"Well, I don't know. Who knows what people at 20 are going to be like at 40," Coupland says after a pause. "I don't want to play Mr. Demographics here. I write novels."

The novel Shampoo Planet is about 20-year-old Tyler, trying to juggle two relationships, deal with his hippie mother, Jasmine, and start a remunerative career in hotel and motel management. His favorite book is a millionaire's self-help manual.

He's not always an easy person to like, but Coupland defends him. "A lot of older people tend to rag on younger people - `Oh you're a bunch of Reagan careerist youth' - without realizing these kids have grown up with nothing but Ronald Reagan. Unlike people my age or your age, there's nothing in their memory banks to say there are other cultural options available."

Coupland's cultural options in college included sculpting. He was interested in fine art, and says he "just started writing in order to get money to buy art supplies." The free-lancing turned into a contract to write about a new generation, generation X - the 22-to 32-year-olds who came of age to find all the best jobs taken and all the nice beachfront property bought up. It wasn't a novel at first.

"Yes, it was," Coupland says. "It was always a novel. It was never anything else."

But didn't the publisher ask for a handbook?

"Well, yes, Generation X was supposed to start as a handbook," Coupland says. "But from the first sentence onward it was a novel. The way it was done the definitions in Generation X - that's just the way my brain works. Still, I think the publisher freaked out when he got it."

Junior editors rallied behind the book, though. The characters in the novel didn't know what they wanted, but they knew they hadn't gotten it and the book caught their mixture of envy and irony perfectly. It also spoke to a blip of baby-boom adults who felt their parents had spent their economic and environmental inheritance and whose bitterness was almost palpable. "We're like the White Russian aristocracy," Coupland told the Washington Post at the time, "exiled in Paris cafes, never to get what is due to us."

Coupland has gotten what is due him. Ironically, writing about his own displaced generation got him a "high five-figure" advance to write about a new generation in Shampoo Planet. And perhaps not so surprisingly, he finds the optimistic, go-getting characters of the new novel a lot more companionable than the envious ones he wrote about just a year ago, the contemporaries he now calls "the glumsters."

"I like the young characters in Shampoo Planet. I think they're a lot more optimistic about the world and the future. It was nice being able to refocus the way I look at the world," he says. "I think tomorrow is always better. Things get better. You know, just 15 or 20 years ago women were called `babes.' It's just because you're immersed in CNN and USA Today you get into this Chicken Little feeling that things are falling apart."

Things are coming together for Coupland. (What's he working on now? "My third book." What's it going to be about? "It's a novel," he says. Another long pause.)

He's an established writer. The threat of getting stuck in a "McJob" - working in a "veal-fattening cubicle," slaving for some "bleeding ponytail" of a boss - is long gone. By the end of the interview he's even starting to talk himself into a good mood.

"You know, I feel myself getting perkier," he says suddenly. "I'm getting perky. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so argumentative before. I'm getting older and crustier. At the ripe old age of 30 I am becoming such a grouch."

The glumsters would understand. The Global Teens would not.