The Net Wants to Know


From rec.arts.books review (June 1996)

by Steve Brock

Douglas Coupland's 1991 debut novel, "Generation X," placed him at the forefront of a cultural non-revolution as a spokesman for disaffected, disillusioned, overeducated, and identityless twentysomethings, also called slackers and the 13th generation. Soon after publication of the book, however, Coupland rejected the idea, largely created by the media, that he was a spokesman for anything but himself. Today, he refuses to answer any questions about the Generation X culture, except, occasionally responding to a very specific question about his first novel. Subsequent works by Coupland are "Shampoo Planet," (novel, 1992), "Life After God," (short stories, 1994), and "microserfs" (novel, 1995). The paperback version of "microserfs" has just been released, and his new book, "Polaroids from the Dead," is a lively trip through several pockets of the world, looking for stability, endurance, and change for a fifty so he can purchase a tie-dye T-shirt with a skeleton on it.

On the Internet, Coupland fans have several places to gather. The most popular are the Usenet newsgroup alt.society.generation-x, and the "Coupland File" web page at

As most of you know, I solicited questions for Coupland from netters on both the Internet and Microsoft Network, and he graciously agreed to answer those that interested him. I e-mailed (Coupland is most receptive to e-mail) every question submitted, as well as a few of my own, and below are his answers. I promised that the best question (or set of questions) sent to me would win a copy of "microserfs," and the winner is Kathleen Morris. Congratulations, Kathleen!

Q: Got any gum?

Doug: I don't, but my parents have, literally, buckets. They discovered the bulk shopping thing years ago and, like Abe in 'Serfs, they've been buying 1000 of everything since. They have two tubs of Bazooka.

Q: Do you have a philosophy yet, or are your characters' ruminations just a conversation with yourself?

Doug: Hmmm. I think I have a philosophy. Or I'm getting there. I'm far closer to getting there than I was five years ago.

Q: Isn't twelve different covers (of "microserfs") overkill?

Doug: Speak with any author: thay have essentially no say in the cover design of their books. My editor at St.Martin's thought it would be a groovy thing to do and they've been doing it ever since. In general, you'll find the writer is, a) always the last to be informed of anything and, b) rarely ever consulted about anything.

Q: Can you sign my passport?

Doug: Yes.

Q: Who decided that Patty Hearst would run in Spin? That was the worst story in the book ("Life After God").

Doug: I'm assuming you therefore enjoyed a few of the other stories. PLEASE SEE ANSWER TO QUESTION NUMBER THREE. That book has polarized more readers than any other thing I've written. You either love/hate it, or go back and forth between the two. Reviewers either adored it or foamed at it. It's their life. I get the best mail from people who read that book. People Magazine put it on their Worst Ten List, but as I said in an interview with the LA Times, "being on People's Worst Ten list is exactly the same thing as being on People's Top Ten list, I mean, if you think about it. The knife--it cuts both ways."

Q: How did the Microserfs react to Curt Cobain's death?

Doug: People at Microsoft you mean? I think it had a negligible effect on the Campus.

Q: What's your opinion of irony these days?

Doug: The Simpsons had a recent episode where Homer takes Bart and Lisa to 'Hullabalooza.' One of the audience members says something sarcastic and his friend asks him, "Were you being real or sarcastic," and he replies, "I don't know any more."

Nobody knew that irony was going to be the signature tone of the decade. In the end, it's just one more way of conveying a type of knowledge, and once you've learned it, there's nothing more to learn and you go on.

Q: Do you have a physical fitness regimen?

Doug: Absolutely. I work out 3 times a week and jog 1.5 miles on the other days. I have a 70-year old trainer. He was Mr. Canada in, like, 1963. He's seen everything twice and makes amusing comments about the gym rats at Gold's who systematically destroy both the machines and their bodies daily. I of books and don't think the written word has caught up to modern culture. ...And tut-tut on *you* for parroting jingoistic academic prattle. It's 1996, not 1896. Go to the Moby Dick discussion group if you're gonna snark out like that. Lots of people *there.* Oooohh....

Q: Is your voice still a new one?

Doug: I have no idea.

Q: Do you take smart drugs, and if so, which ones?

Doug: No.

Q: Doesn't Tyler realize that defacing currency is a federal crime?

Doug: No.

Q: Is the rant cathartic?

Doug: Antarctic.

Q: What are you reading now?

Doug: "Winesburg, Ohio," by Sherwood Anderson.

Q: Tell us a bit about your new book.

Doug: Polaroids? I feel too weird talking that way. I never know what to say when anybody asks me what any of my books is "about." I freeze.

Q: Are you as pessimistic as you come off?

Doug: I don't think so. I didn't think I came off that way. Hmmm.

Q: Why is it that novelists like you and Neal Stephenson always describe your computers in terms that either suggest or explicitly say "Macintosh?"

Doug: All writers I've ever met, both book writers and in magazine writers, use Macs. It's still hard for me to believe the whole world doesn't use them (or how Apple dropped the football).

Q: Is "A Close Personal Friend" available at Blockbuster?

Doug: No. Probably never will be. Long story.

Q: List your last five moods.

Doug: Calm. Zenned out by nature (sunset). Planning. Blank. Busy.

Q: What's the thing with your auntie Grace's necklace?

Doug: No, no--it's *Gracie's Necklace,* named after a local politician named Grace McCarthy who may well be dead now. It's simply what the (Lion's Gate, Vancouver) bridge lighting is called.

Q: Are there any foods you avoid like the plague?

Doug: I don't like green bell peppers or even red or yellow peppers. If you make spaghetti sauce, it tastes like spaghetti sauce, but then you add green peppers and the sauce tastes like green peppers and goo. Nowadays everybody loads everything with peppers and the only reason they do it is because pepper-cultivating technology has leapfrogged ahead of all other vegetable cultivation technologies this past decade, and because of this, they're cheap. But they taste creepy, and I have a friend who works in a restaurant and she says that when the plates come back to the kitchen and everybody's picked out the green pepper slices and put them to the side. Will the chefs of this world please wake up?

Q: What's playing on Channel Zero?

Doug: Depeche Mode and Ellen deGeneres are hurtling burning cars off a cliff while they play DM's new album they decided not to release and you can only hear it on Channel One. QUESTION: What's the deal with DM.. does anybody know? Did D.G. try and kill himself? Can't find out anything.

Q: Are you still "Kindness Man?"

Doug: (veiled reference to London, Novemeber 1995, just before the crash) Sort of. I mean we all try.

Q: Who's going to win the U.S. presidential election? Do you feel our pain?

Doug: Americans would probably feel happier with (I hate to say it) another Hollywood person in charge. Susan Sarandon seems headed that way (2012?) All the really smart Hollywood people seem to cash out and move to Carmel. When I heard that Margot Kidder was found toothless and sort-of ranting in somebody's woodpile in Pasadena, I thought she'd be great as President, but then she's Canadian. I always said that Morgan Fairchild was the Unabomber. This may still be true. Morgan for Pres? How about Glenn Close... she seems smart. (Rumor: The Gimp in Pulp Fiction? ...that was Glenn Close).

Q: Will the demise of Calvin and Hobbes be a metaphor for lost innocence or corporate repression or something like that in any of your future books?

Doug: You sound like you miss C&H a fair deal. I didn't mind it, but I didn't foam over it. SEMI-RELATED FOOTNOTE: I was at the ABA (American Bookseller's Association) convention in Anaheim a few years ago, and at the end of the third day this enormous fantastically expensive looking limousine--it's not even a Mercedes-- it's like, a Messerschmitt or something--pulls up to the curb by the piazza and all of the convention goers are quite honestly, stunned by the expensiveness of the vehicle before them. Much oohing and ahhing about who may be inside. Kennedys? Arms dealers? Klaus von Bulowe? Someone leans over and whispers into my ear: "It's Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield."

Q: What's your favorite Web page?

Doug: I don't have a browser so I don't know. That sounds so bad.

Q: Is the distinction between fiction and non-fiction important to you?

Doug: Yes.

Q: "Microserfs" in Wired is notorious for having been mistaken for non-fiction...

Doug: *Notorious*? To me that means good research and I take it as a compliment.

Q: Does the idea of some of your fiction being mistaken for non-fiction (or vice versa) bother you?

Doug: No. Ultimately anything anybody writes, no matter how hard they want it to be otherwise, is in some way autobiographical. Your grocery list is autobiography. I always say that a good exercise is to sit down and write a description of the person who is the *opposite of yourself*. If you think you're one thing, then the anti-you is the opposite of that. And once you've done this list, lock it in a drawer for a year and come back to it and you'll say, "Wow, who wrote this accurate description of me?"

Even if I wrote a cook book or a western, it's still merely an inflection of my own being.

Q: Which do you prefer writing?

Doug: Depending on my head space, both. Sometimes I like doing visual things to cleanse the palate (check

Q: Do you work differently on one versus the other?

Doug: I don't work differently, but I think I use different parts of my brain.

Q: Do you read more of one or the other?

Doug: About 50-50 when it comes to books... this may be different if we assume that newspapers count as non-fiction.

I asked Coupland what he's been up to lately, and he replied that he won't be doing an author tour for "Polaroids," and he shrinks from providing a description of his new book. "I can't stand describing my work like a catalogue," he says. He calls this "a personal failing on my part," but I think that, after putting so much of himself into his writing, he'd rather not pigeonhole it into a particular descriptive classification, preferring to let the professional promoters and reviewers do their job.

As for the future, Coupland is working on a novel. On a typical day, he writes in the morning and responds to the demands of life (which he tries to keep to a minimum) in the afternoon. "Life is nice and quiet for once," he says. "Wish I could thrill you there, but I'm happy to have a nice quiet routine for the first time since high school."