Seeking deliverance from the cultural void of the electronic age


From the Toronto Star (July 13, 1996)

by Philip Marchand

Peoples ranging from the ancient Hebrews to North American Indians have believed that a person's name possesses its own magic, positive or negative. Contemporary writers such as Tom Wolfe extended this recognition when they discovered that even brand names of commercial products have a powerful, semi-magical resonance.

Douglas Coupland pushes this discovery about as far as anyone writing today. In his most recent book, Polaoids from the Dead, a collection of both essays and short tales - the latter centred on various characters who attended a Grateful Dead concert in Los Angeles - Coupland includes sentences such as, "The Econoline van next to the fire hosts a 24-inch Hitachi monitor displaying a never-ending spiral of vibrant Mandelbrot fractal patterns."

I have no precise idea what "Mandelbrot fractal patterns" are, but then again, I am also ignorant of many of the details of food and drink and clothing alluded to in the novels of Balzac. As a reader, you more or less guess from the context what's being referred to - usually with fairly accurate results.

In the meantime those brand names, as well as obscure terms that Coupland also tosses around - can someone inform me what "vacuoles of loofa sponges" are? - reverberate like echoes in a vast, hollow space. these echoes are about as substantial as anything gets in our current electronic landscape.

And this, of course, is one of the major points of Polaroids from the Dead. In a society where consumer goods, television commercials, celebrity worship, databases and the media in general have displaced memory, history and religion, we have little else to fill the void of our lives but such echoes.

Ours is a world, after all, in which even a middle-aged man who lived through the '60s can now remember that period only "through an AT&T commercial soft-focus lens." Ours is a world in which even Grateful Dead concerts - once a celebration of funkiness, rebellion, mystical transcendance - have dwindled into a theme park labelled, by a cynical child of the '90s, "GroovyWorld." Of course, it's easy to lament this state of affairs, and there is undoubtedly a strong tone of disapproval in both Coupland's eportage and his fiction (the two at times blur into each other)> But what makes Coupland's writing so appealing is not this tone, but the unexpressed exhilaration he feels in sheer observation of our weird, aural landscape - the playfulness of his language is simply an extension of that pleasure. Not since Wolfe and Didion and other new journalists of the '60s has anyone enjoyed himself so much simply noting what's going on. (It's no accident that coupland began his writing career as a magazine journalist.)

His sketches of the different kinds of participants at the Grateful Dead concert, for example, are a display primarily of his reporter's eye and ear, and only secondarily of his considerable storytelling ability. His essays on such locales as Lions gate Bridge in Vancouver, the former East Berlin, and the characterless Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood - where both Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Brown Simpson met their unfortunate ends - are travel writing of a high order.

All this said, there is a very strong note of suspicion in Coupland that the world he views is a kind of hell, after all. Understandably, he wants to be delivered from it. "I am choosing to live my life in a permanent power failure," he states at one point, reminding the reader of Bruce Powe's 1995 novel, Outage.

In that novel, Powe used his memory of the great blackout of 1965 as a point of departure for exploring the same electronic landscape Coupland chronicles. The blackout, by suddenly depriving us of what that really was like.

Coupland has discovered he likes` what happens during that sudden deprivation. "During power failures we sing songs," he notes, " but the moment the electricity returns, we atomize." This sentiment is in keeping with previous Coupland books, such as Life After God and Microserfs, in which the author expressed strong yearnings for an alternative to a memory-less, history-less, religion-less existence - yearnings, in short, for love, friendship, nature, God.

In the grip of such yearning, Coupland can display a surprisingly lyrical streak in his writing. Addressing a mysterious but loving and lovable "you," Coupland at one point, while touring the Bahamas, promises, "And tomorrow when I rise with a new sun and a new life, I will redeem myself and I will find you, and you will be here in my life, and we will walk the Island's roads together."

Such lyricism is very close to the sentimentality of greeting card prose. So what? Coupland might respond. Is it not part of the sinfulness, the hellish self-centredness of a place like Brentwood that it rejects "sentiment?"

Coupland's projection of wistfulness and childlike vulnerability make a strange combination with the merciless clarity of his reportage. Surely that combination, which seems genuine, cannot last - it is a formula for nervous breakdown.

So far, though, the combination has fueled Coupland through a number of highly enjoyable books. Polaroids from the Dead is one of the most enjoyable, partly because its form frees Coupland from necessity of imposing a larger narrative structure on his material, or developing multi-dimensional characters. His shakiness at both these endeavors has hitherto been one of his major weaknesses as a fiction writer.