'Polaroids': Coupland's snapshots capture spirit of '90s


From USA Today (June 20, 1996)

by Deirdre R. Schwiesow

Unlike Douglas Coupland's previous books, Polaroids From the Dead is not a novel, but an eclectic collection of essays and stories (and sometimes it's hard to tell which is which).

Most of the pieces have been previously published in some form and are generally so time-specific that they seem already dated (especially the ``Brentwood Notebook'' section, which, though ironically conceived before the Simpson/Goldman murders, is irrevocably connected to them). However, this does not make the book less enjoyable.

The title refers to the book's first section, a group of vaguely futuristic- style stories set at a Grateful Dead concert, before the death of Jerry Garcia. More generally, however, ``the dead'' also applies to Coupland's obsession -- evident in most of the selections -- with people or places that are either literally dead or dying, or else fading from memory.

Though the collection has a slightly haphazard feel, in all the selections Coupland tries to pinpoint the Zeitgeist of the first part of the 1990s. The primary link between the pieces is that each serves as a forum for discussing what Coupland calls ``denarration,'' that is, ``the process whereby one loses one's life story.''

His characters -- both real and fictional -- wander lost, with ``no religion, no family connections, no ideology, no sense of class location, no politics and no sense of history.''

But in the most moving piece, ``Two Postcards From the Bahamas,'' Coupland reaches out from the technology-created void, trying to celebrate the authentically lived moment. Especially gratifying for Coupland fans is how he reveals himself in this and some of the other selections, rather than functioning exclusively as a roving eye and the most accurate chronicler of postmodern ephemera.

The writings in Polaroids From the Dead share the combination of wistful nostalgia and ironic commentary that characterizes his novels, and the book offers fans of Coupland's work a satisfying look at how his unique sensibility translates into other formats.

The question that remains is whether his own writing will stand the test of time or will one day be regarded as an odd cultural artifact in the same way that the objects of his attention are.

An excerpt

This morning I figured that if you lose your memory more or less completely, then each individual day becomes your entire life -- because the next day you've already forgotten what came before. For a person with no memory, existence becomes a chain of discrete, day-to-day lives.

So anyway, today I figured that since this is where I'm headed anyway, I might as well attempt to see today itself as representative of my whole life, or rather, as a whole life unto itself.