The X Man, A Few Douglas Coupland Moments with the Writer Who Coined Generation X


From South Florida Sun-Sentinel (February 8, 2001)

by John Tanasychuk

One of the many Web sites devoted to Douglas Coupland invites visitors to share a "Douglas Coupland moment."

"Realize it," one fan wrote in an effort to get more people to share their moments. "We're kind of missionaries in that way. This is religion in the life after God."

Coupland, who 10 years ago roared into our cultural consciousness with his generation-defining novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, seems to inspire that kind of adulation. There have been six books since, including the new-in-paperback Miss Wyoming (Vintage Books, $13) which he was in Miami to promote last weekend. Each book examines some aspect of our culture, whether it is the software geeks of Microserfs or the Hollywood has-beens of Miss Wyoming.

Read his books and you come to understand the crux of a Douglas Coupland moment, one in which some truth is spoken, a truth tinged with irony. These moments spring from personal experience, but they are somehow also universal.

As Coupland walks through Miami's Bayfront Park, squinting on an overcast South Florida day, he looks up at a squat, mirrored 1970s office building and declares: "Very Patty Hearst as Tanya."

It's a very Coupland moment for anyone who came of age in the '70s.

Coupland, 39, is supposed to be promoting Miss Wyoming, but he says the book is so far off his radar that the just-passed Groundhog Day is a perfect metaphor for the way he's feeling about a book he wrote a good three years ago. Who really cares if the groundhog saw its shadow.

Similarly, when the 10-year anniversary of Gen X comes up, Coupland says he'll talk about it only if he must.

That first book, he recalls, was eight months late being published. It received little promotional support from its publisher. Coupland was a nobody Canadian who still calls Vancouver, British Columbia, his home.

No one envisioned the book would have the impact it did. "I thought only the people I went to high school with would ever understand what I was writing about," he says.

What he was writing about was the generation that follows the Baby Boomers. Aimless, and while not quite complacent, unwilling to reach out for any tangible signs of success.

Coupland refuses to see himself as a spokesman for a generation, especially since at least technically he's a tail-end Baby Boomer.

"Can you just be a spokesman for this article?" he's been asked by reporters.

"If you're a spokesman," he says, "you're not a person. You're an object."

He calls Gen X "my Campbell's Soup cans," something he'll always be associated with, much like Andy Warhol will forever be known for his iconic treatment of a mundane pantry item.

Coupland has long been fascinated with Warhol and other pop artists. One look at his personal Web site,, and you can see he owes them. Coupland's writing is, in many ways, a form of pop art, where he peppers his novels with cultural references of the moment that may or may not ring true when read after the fact. At one point in Microserfs, a character lists his favorite make-believe Jeopardy categories, including the history of Apple Computer Co. and Jell-O 1-2-3.

Coupland is the definition of the tangential conversationalist.

One minute, he's talking about his all-time favorite Halloween costume, which involved flashing lights attached to every moveable joint in his body. Next, he's talking about his disdain for TV interviews and Christmas lights. Then he'll riff on British sculptor Henry Moore, and then talk about his favorite TV programs, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and Law & Order.

He does all this with a blank expression, squinting his eyes until it appears he's gathered up the necessary vocabulary to speak. He says he prefers to do interviews by e-mail.

Coupland's got a new book coming out in September, set on Florida's Space Coast. In it, a young woman, born with a Thalidomide- induced birth defect, is scheduled to go into space. The family gathers for what Coupland calls a dysfunctional 10-day Thanksgiving dinner in the Peabody Hotel, in which several generations of family feuds and vendettas come to life. It's called All Families Are Psychotic.

For a man who has written seven novels, it's surprising that he didn't set out to be writer. He starting writing by accident, when he was asked to write a piece for a Vancouver magazine after a postcard he'd written caught the eye of an editor.

Coupland has a degree in sculpture and then went to Japan to earn another degree in business science. He still goes to Japan every year, and although he speaks only "taxi Japanese," he calls it the only country besides Canada where he'd consider citizenship.

In the past few years, Coupland has returned to his visual art roots.

This fall, some of his sculpture will go on display in New York. He describes it as larger-than-life resin bottles in the shape of Fantastik and Alberto VO5. It will be shown at a gallery where the mandate is art on the design/function cusp.

Coupland also has designed several pieces of furniture for a company called Pure Design. Two tables stand out: one inspired by Roy Lichtenstein that looks like the Twister mat, another called Hockey Night in Canada, with a hockey rink's center ice.

As if Coupland weren't doing enough, he also has a sideline as a futurist and was asked by Steven Spielberg to help brainstorm for his movie The Minority Report, which is set in 2080 and stars Tom Cruise.

But writing, he says, has become his true passion, though he'll always be a visual artist whose words are his art supply.

"I can't not write. If I didn't do it, I'd turn into a David Cronenberg head," he says. "That started happening about three years ago. It's reached this weird point where the only worlds I'm interested in are the worlds I create."

John Tanasychuk can be reached or 954- 356-4632.

PHOTOS 2; Caption: Photo courtesy Douglas Coupland Dotty: In the past few years, Coupland has returned to his visual art roots. Photo courtesy Douglas Coupland Douglas Copeland