rec.arts.books review


From rec.arts.books review (June 17, 1995)

by Steve Brock

Though Coupland seems to have joined the long, strange trip just before it reached its final, even stranger, destination, the title of his new book can be interpreted on many levels. In its broadest interpretation, the book is a travelogue of places Coupland visited where death (as a threat to life or as a metaphor for something more obscure, such as our increasing inability to stabilize our collective destiny) has reared its skeletal (tophatted) head.

"Polaroids from the Dead," Coupland's "kitchen drawer filled with snapshots and postcards" of his travels and observations during the early 1990s, is divided into three parts. Part One, the title track, is a collection of fictional vignettes of Grateful Dead concert attendees in Oakland, California. Coupland watches men who all look like Charles Manson and women who all look like Sharon Tate, as they "embrace the meltdown," look to score (on each other or on agents that will turn the sea of winking Bic flames into the landing spaceship from "Close Encounters"), or wander the parking lot, looking to improvise their lives with "whatever's lying around."

Part Two is a set of ten short essays (postcards) that originally ran in "Spin," "The New Republic," and other periodicals, which showcase a more upbeat Coupland, ferrying a young German reporter around Vancouver, turning a day into a life in the Bahamas, or writing a tribute to James Rosenquist's "F-111" painting - its "awkward dimensions" asking us to "love the machine that formatted the diskette that is *you*."

It's in Part Three, though, a biting look at a day in the life of Brentwood, California, where Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Brown Simpson died a few blocks from each other, that Coupland's sense of irony is at its best. With the music of "The Days of Future Past" by the Moody Blues playing in the background (the sections of the article echoing the song titles), Coupland explores the "secular nirvana" of a city that's "no longer a place where one goes to breed Brady's." It's now inhabited by anonymous, "denarrated," people, indifferent to their lack of history (just as no-one can remember how Brentwood got its name) and primarily concerned with good land values and shade (the last because most of the new antidepressants cause photosensitivity) - a perfect environment for suicide and murder.

"Polaroids from the Dead" isn't for those looking for encouragement to create a firm base of operations on Planet Earth (Coupland seems to thrive on profiling just how tenuous is our foothold, both physical and psychological), but the book, in many places, reminds readers that there are still ways to "make visible the previously invisible." And in the end, this is Coupland's way of saying that, in spite of the grim pictures of life in the 1990s, there are reasons to care about what develops in the future. Grade: A-.