Gen X Author Coupland Clears Record Spokeman Says Post-Baby Boomers Have Innate Need To Believe in God


From The Plain Dealer Cleveland (March 11, 2000)

by Steve Rabey

Douglas Coupland didn't coin the term "Generation X," but he may as well have.

Soon after the 1991 publication of his debut work of fiction, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," Coupland became an unofficial international spokesman for the angst and ambivalence of literate, lonely post-baby boomers.

Coupland did coin dozens of new catch-phrases, like "McJob," "veal- fattening pens" (his term for the omnipresent workplace cubicles parodied in "Dilbert" comic strips), "air family" ("the false sense of community experienced among co-workers in an office environment"), and "me-ism" ("a search by an individual, in the absence of training in traditional religious tenets, to formulate a personally tailored religion").

There have also been intriguing similarities between Coupland's life and work. When a character in Generation X says, "I have no memory of having once been hugged by a parental unit," that character is speaking about Douglas Coupland's own life.

Today, when Coupland does a reading at a bookstore, like the one he did recently at Denver's Tattered Cover, fans invariably ask him to sign copies of his 1994 work, "Life After God," which closes with this haunting confession: "My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone."

In another case of art imitating life, an epigram in "Life After God" reads, "You are the first generation raised without religion." That sentence pretty much sums up Coupland's own thoroughly secular and "insanely middle class" upbringing.

The Canadian writer's later works, including 1995's "Microserfs" (his soon-to-be-a-movie look at Silicon Valley) and 1999's "Miss Wyoming" (his seventh and latest book, and his first full-fledged novel) include plenty of stinging critiques of the shallowness of pop culture, the pervasiveness of celebrityism, and the gaping spiritual vacuum at the heart of contemporary life.

But there are a few things Coupland would like people to understand, and he spells these out between bites of spaghetti during an intense but rambling interview before his Denver reading. Talk of real things

For starters, Coupland is interested in much, much more than the superficial TV sound bites that constitute much of his characters' and his own conversations.

"I have so been looking forward to this interview so I can discuss real things," he says, describing both his frustration with 10- minute phone interviews conducted by deadline-driven journalists who haven't read his work as well as his anxiousness to talk about the spiritual themes in his work.

For another thing, the writer who skillfully skewers his generation's skepticism is himself a convinced anti-skeptic.

"I am the most uncynical person on Earth," he says, earnestly. "I'm ironic. I admit that. I'm Joe Irony. But people confuse irony with cynicism, which is like battery acid. It just wrecks everything."

And one more thing. Coupland believes in God. "But I'm really mad at him right now," he admits.

At this point Coupland, in his late 30s, sets down his fork and begins speaking off the record about family tragedies that shook him to his core and continue to torment him. His pain is palpable as he describes calamities of the kind that have made saints curse the cosmos and doubt the existence of God. But Coupland is no doubter.

"Belief in God is something that's innate in people," he says. "Even if you took a group of babies and raised them on a desert island without ever once indoctrinating them about religion, they would probably arrive at monotheism anyway."

In spite of his own religion-free upbringing, Coupland vividly recalls "growing up with this unbelievable sense of yearning for something," a yearning he first tried to express by writing about art.

Coupland is an unlikely candidate to become a card-carrying, churchgoing theist. "It's like people who were raised without NBA basketball," he says. "They just don't get what basketball is all about.

"Look at religion. It's really important to a lot of people, but others just don't get it. My own experience has been like navigating this entirely secular universe, trying to find errors in the system, searching for fault lines where things broke or shifted, looking and seeing what's buried beneath the surface." More mellow, mature

During the course of his decadelong, million-selling literary career, Coupland has mellowed and matured. The man who once wrote that "most of us have only two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives, and the rest is filler" has now populated his "Miss Wyoming" novel with characters who undergo profound transformations, even achieving a degree of redemption.

"I've seen people redeem themselves big-time," says Coupland, whose next novel will focus on a NASA astronaut and her troubled, troubling family.

Asked why he writes, Coupland answers wistfully. "Instead of just making pop artifacts, I'm trying to make something eternal."

Then he asks himself a couple of unanswerable questions. "Is it possible to write a book that is better than yourself? Is it possible for something I create to embody a spirit that is better than me?"

Hard-core cynics would snicker derisively at such thoughts, but Coupland believes.

PHOTO BY: RELIGION NEWS SERVICE Douglas Coupland: "Believes in God but is really mad at him right now." PHOTO BY: RELIGION NEWS SERVICE Douglas Coupland's first full-fledged novel explores spiritual themes of Generation X.