Is There Life After Irony for Coupland?


From The San Francisco Chronicle (March 1, 1994)

by Bronwen Hruska

Douglas Coupland is sitting in his hotel room amid his dirty socks, underwear, jeans and Macintosh Powerbook while a snowstorm rages outside. He is slightly panicked, though amused, to find that his reading from his newest book, "Life After God," later on will be competing with the face-off between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

"Life's not fair," he says. "Nature is cruel."

He can't really complain, though. The national obsession of the moment illustrates Coupland's theories about modern life quite succinctly. In Coupland- ese, life is a big storyboard waiting to be completed.

"We're all riveted because this Tonya Harding thing is a narrative," says Coupland, whose books, from "Generation X" to "Life After God," explore the task of becoming an adult in a bleak society.

"My characters are in supermarket checkout aisles or stuck in traffic thinking, `When is my story going to start and end?' They wonder why there's no resolution."

Sound a little sentimental for the edgily hip Coupland who wrote "Generation X" five years ago? The man responsible for giving a voice and title to a nameless generation of post-college kids lost in a world of dead-end "McJobs" and `70s sitcom reruns has grown up into a sober, surprisingly unironic man.

His newest book began like all his novels, as several hand-bound minibooks for his friends. "Life After God," however, is different, not only because of its compact size.

"The other books were personal, but not this personal," he says of his new book, in which the protagonist worries that he's deadened to his own feelings. The book also spawned six 30- second MTV spots in which Coupland, a former art student, married stylish visuals to tidbits related to the book with a simple but to-the-point corporate slogan: "MTV Plug In."

Coupland, 32, a Canadian, has done some thinking about the big questions: life, death, identity, religion.

His new sincerity set in two years ago, during a family crisis, which he refuses to discuss in detail.

"The irresolution of death and loss, that's part of the last few years for me. I was going a little berserk. And it continues today," he says. Growing up without religion, he says, has made it harder to find satisfying answers. "It's like Lego religion. You've got to build your own."

Coupland denies that he's the voice of a generation. "I only write about my life and the lives of my friends. I would never, ever, ever, ever go around saying, `Well, we think this.' My life is pretty average, and if it overlaps with other people's experience, that's their business to interpret it."

Coupland's Pocket Books editor, Judith Regan, who also edits Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, stole him away from St. Martin's after "X."

"He has a completely unique voice and a fresh take on the culture and times in which we live," says Regan. "He has an extraordinary mind, not just as a writer, but as an artist, conceptual thinker and designer."

Whether he's describing the post-college angst of three friends in Palm Springs in "Generation X," Global Youths coming of age in a dying industrial town in "Shampoo Planet" or peeking into the bug-busting code-writing lives of Microsoft computer programmers in "Microserfs," his January Wired magazine cover story, Coupland paints a vivid landscape and captures the flavor of a historical moment as few writers can.


For "Microserfs," a piece of research-based fiction, Coupland infiltrated Microsoft's Washington State headquarters by recruiting contacts through the company's E- mail system and shacking up for three weeks "Gorillas in the Mist"- style with actual Microsoft "computer geeks." (The August Wired will carry his latest story_this time about Silicon Valley.)

He wrote about the sharp twentysomething power earners who burn out on 18-hour days within seven years at Microsoft and about their fiftysomething parents who are being terminated from jobs because of the "down-sizing" their children's work has facilitated.

He has nailed the brainy but oddly sterile and sad Microsoft culture in which employees manage to remove themselves from messy human questions such as death and identity.

Coupland revels in exhaustive laundry-list descriptions and attention to details. "It's what people put in their glove compartments, what they're eating -- the things we were trained to overlook," he says.

"We thought those things were so mundane they couldn't be important. But collectively they add up to a real portrait."

For example, in "Microserfs," Coupland listing his characters' "Jeopardy!" "dream categories" (the topics they would ace if they ever went on the game show). One character's repertoire includes: "Fortran, Pascal, Ada (defense contracting code), LISP, Neil Peart (the drummer for Rush), Hugo and Nebula Award winners, Sir Lancelot."

Many of Coupland's references_obscure insider techie language_go unexplained. You don't need to understand the meanings. The language, coupled with the reference to a cheesy game show, betrays the genius-geek quality he's going for.

"Redmond, Wash., is theoretically the world capital of a historical secularity," says Coupland of his time spent at Microsoft HQ.

"Even there all I was seeing was death denial and all these super-intellectual geeks trying to subconsciously build the machine that will build the machine that will give the answers."

Maybe that's why rereading "Generation X" is "embarrassing" to Coupland. "I've been there_it's like, `done that, now it's time to go on.' " But he fears that his younger readers may not tolerate the kind of spiritual self-help Coupland injects into "Life After God."

"When you're younger, you think a little irony is all you need. You think it'll get you to the grave, but it won't. Loss always seeps through. You do need to deal with it."


What better way to spoon-feed deep thoughts to MTV junkies addicted to "Beavis and Butt-head" than to make videos from tidbits of "Life After God" and insert the slickly made spots between popular programming?

One such spot, a quick-cut black-and-white image of a man (him) with a pipe, accompanies Coupland's words as a disembodied voice (his) contemplates: "What makes people people?"

The voice says: "The only activities I could think of that had no animal equivalent were: smoking, bodybuilding and writing. And that's not much considering how special we seem to think we are."