Some Observations on the Millenium Milieu


From The Record (June 16, 1996)

by Marc Warren Watrel

POLAROIDS FROM THE DEAD by Douglas Coupland; Harper-Collins, 199 pp., $18 (also available on Harper Audio)

Douglas Coupland burst onto the literary scene in 1991 with the seminal Generation X, an ironic, probing novel that ultimately tagged him and his twentysomething contemporaries with the Gener-ation X moniker. He continued his examination of media-suckled, marketing-fed, MTV-dinnered American youth in such works as Shampoo Planet and Microserfs, in rich, dazzling prose that quickly earned him cult-writer status.

His work has been compared to J.D. Salingers Catcher in the Rye and F. Scott Fitzgeralds This Side of Paradise for its ability to capture the pulse of a generation blighted by cynicism yet curiously optimistic about the future.

In Polaroids from the Dead, a collection of short pieces of fiction and non-fiction, Coupland, with varying degrees of success, explores the world that existed in the early 1990s, back when the decade was young and had yet to locate its texture.

The book begins with a set of fictional pieces titled Polaroids of the Dead that were experienced over a series of Grateful Dead concerts ... the weekend I turned 30, in 1991. With precise attention to detail, Coupland captures the audiences excitement and joy in the Dead experience, though oddly enough he virtually ignores the music itself, as if it were incidental, irrelevant, an afterthought to the communing and mind expansion, the drug-taking and love-making of the crowd.

Coupland wittily catches the consumer cadences of modern teenagers: Dont you ever wonder about the way the world is going? This weird global Mc-Nugget culture we live in? All our ideas and objects and activities be-ing made of fake material ground up and reshaped into precisely measurable units en-tered into some rich guys software spreadsheet program. ... Were the McDead.Yet underlying the elegant prose, there is a disturbing emptiness. Something, perhaps intentionally, is missing, summed up in the title of one of these pieces: You Cant Remember What You Choose to Forget.

The second series of writings, Portraits of People and Places, ruminates on subjects that, for whatever reason, defined the early Nineties experience for the author. Most successful of these are two short pieces, Two Post-cards from the Bahamas, a beautiful poem on memory, and James Rosenquists F-111, a reflection on pop art.

The books final third, Brentwood Notebook: A Day in the Life, August 4, 1994, is a series of quick, e-mail-like observations that build in intensity, surveying a seemingly idyllic neighborhood, the American Dream come true, which gradually reveals itself to be a sterile, amoral landscape that certainly didnt cause the Brown Simpson/ Goldman murders but definitely provided an appropriate setting.

Polaroids from the Dead is a quiet, personal work, a peek into Couplands private photo album. Although hes been anointed the voice of Gen Xers, this lyrical collection of observations speaks to all of us.