Author Goes Beyond Generation X, Sets Out To Find God


From The Sunday Gazette Mail (June 12, 1994)

by Matthew Gilbert

BOSTON - Head heavy on the hotel couch, armed with a mean-looking remote control, Douglas Coupland has little to say. He's not having a nice day.

The postmodern world is exhausting, especially since he's in the soft chewy center of a national book tour and losing his religion to hotel coffee carts, "CNN Headline News" and reruns of "Laverne & Shirley."

Of course, the reluctant voice of Generation X never had much religion anyway, having been bred on "Good Times," "Happy Days" and "I Dream of Jeannie," not to mention Maxwell Smart's shoe phone.

Here's what shaped the spirituality of writer-futurist-trendologist Douglas Coupland: God died and left Aunt Clara to baby-sit.

"I could just close my eyes and doze off," he threatens, blue eyes webbed with red, legs laid out across the coffee table. "But I won't."

Ah well, another shot of java and some light channel surfing might help. Last night was New York, tomorrow is Chicago, today is more non- spokesmanship and forced promotion of his latest book, "Life After God" (Pocket Books), a collection of stories that proclaims: "You are the first generation raised without religion."

Like "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," his 1991 campus hit and cultural watershed, Coupland's new fiction addresses the 32-year-old author's own age group, the post-boomers stuck working "McJobs" for some "bleeding ponytail" of a boss. (Six 30-second videos in support of the book are airing on MTV.)

"My brain's not working right now," Coupland said. "I'm sorry."

Here's a small bit of advice: To Douglas Coupland from a lost-in-space stupor, ask him about the Generation X phenomenon. Mention rip-offs of his first novel, like "Reality Bites," the latest Hollywood product marketed to twentysomething adults. He'll turn from "Headline News," his Canadian accent swimming toward you as fast as Flipper on a rescue mission: "I don't talk about that. Didn't they tell you that before the interview? You're welcome to leave, but I don't talk about that. I have nothing to do with the phenomenon. And I never did anything to feed that except write the book. I'm amazed they didn't tell you. I don't want to waste someone's time if they expect to come here to talk about that. I don't. I won't. I won't discuss it, and by discussing not discussing it we're continuing it."

What would Andy Warhol do? Ask Coupland to nap on the hotel couch and then detail his raffish, unshaven face, his unbuttoned khakis, red suspenders fallen around his hips? Chronicle his electronic dreams about Agent 99 and a patent-leather boot phone? Coupland said he would prefer to give an "anti- interview," then states the obvious: "I hate profiles. No one takes the profile process seriously anymore, most of all the reader. It's like cynicism on every level. I'm cynical about the process, you're cynical, the reader's cynical. I wouldn't be doing it, no one would be doing it, unless they had something to sell. It almost reaches the point where unless there's some cash transaction at the end of it, people can't even make sense of it."

This is Coupland's outline of the celebrity interview, circa 1994:

Interviewer: Borderline rude question, which presupposes hidden agenda on part of interviewee.

Interviewee: Evasive parry with charming look thrown in.

Reader: Puke.

OK, what about that "cash transaction"? "Life After God," a small book illustrated with Coupland's line drawings, reveals a U-turn in Coupland's sensibility, from the fast-food humor and generational envy of "Generation X" to a sincere, even maudlin hunger for faith.

Gone is the ironic distance for which he - and the generation he refuses to speak for - may be best known. The characters in "Life After God" wander aimlessly, apocalyptically, on the scent of something enduring.

One narrator, in a story dedicated to R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, fears "it would be such a sick joke to have to remain alive for decades and not believe in or feel anything." Another confesses, "My secret is that I need God, that I am sick and can no longer make it alone."

What's this - a new Zeitgeist? As the anti-interview proceeds, Coupland said he did not calculate this provocative spiritual sea change: "I write about my own life always. It has never been otherwise."

He said that "real-life things have happened" to alter him, but the reformed ironist won't open his personal file to describe them. He will say that breaking age 30 has had a sobering effect. "My 20s stank. I wouldn't change them for anything, because I think they made me a more compassionate person. But I was a real smartass when I was like 25, just an insolent little smartass. So I think it's possible to change for the better. When you're in trouble, the last person you turn to for consolation is a smartass. You turn to someone who's had problems of their own, someone who's detoxed, someone who's had a divorce."

Coupland said that during the bleak period when the "Life After God" stories surfaced, he found himself reaching for something to believe in. Alas, his generation "didn't get a Lego box of religious bits to work with," he said, especially since parents "put a lot of their faith in infrastructure like the space race and highway systems. It was considered liberating to raise your children without religion."

At the same time, Coupland said he prefers not to be locked into religion. "It's really ... the word "challenging' sounds so Susan Powterlike or Deal-a-Meal Plan. But I wouldn't have it any other way. It might be nice to have a full-blown set of metaphysical answers and guidelines and ways to sidestep dodgy issues. But I'd much rather have to figure it out."

Coupland spent his "smartass" 20s learning sculpture in Vancouver, his hometown, with forays to Japan, Italy, Toronto. Though he never formally studied writing, he sometimes wrote magazine pieces to make art-supply money. In a fateful stroke, he landed a contract with St. Martin's Press for a nifty handbook about life after the baby boom. When he turned in a novel, "Generation X," the younger editors assured their nervous elders that Coupland was breaking new and important ground. "Generation X" went on not only to become a pop classic but to give its target audience - and the media - a formula with which to fathom the triumph of global Bradyism.

He even stretched the English language to suit his generation, inventing now overused terms like "McJob" and "Lessness." After another novel, "Shampoo Planet" (Pocket Books), about the hair-obsessed post-X generation, Coupland set out to write about the Irish potato famine, a project he abandoned for the "Life After God" stories.

Since the 1991 release of "Generation X," Coupland has been viewed as a generational leader along with artists like "Slacker" filmmaker Richard Linklater. Consistently, vehemently, Coupland has publicly denied the role. At a packed reading at Waterstone's later in the day, Coupland will again reject X spokesmanship as a "media fabrication."

"I would no sooner speak for you than I would want you to speak for me," he'll tell the eager under-30 crowd.

If there's a role Coupland is comfortable with, it's as guide to the accelerated future of cyberculture and global television. This is where regional accents, weather, even traditional interviews are turning antique.

Along with regular pieces for New Republic magazine, Coupland writes for the computer magazine Wired, most recently a fictional cover story about young Microsoft employees called "Microserfs." He said he feels sorry for older generations because "the world is coming apart, and most of them can't understand that."

The mantra of 1994, he said, is "What happened to time?" Time is moving exceedingly fast "because we have naturalized this enormous list since around 1980: the affordable PC, software, bar codings, just-in-time delivery, Fed Ex, cablevision, satellite TV, USA Today, MTV, truly sophisticated graphics, cordless phones, answering machines, fax machines, car phones. Any one of these mentions alone would over a period of time create a subtle change in the weave of society's fabric. But together my gosh. And yet we still look at the world like it's Richie Cunningham's Milkwaukee "Happy Days.' It's not!

"We're rapidly cleaving into a world of information haves and have-nots. Money is important, but it's almost beside the point. Discretionary time is now the important thing. You want to help poor people, but you want to help people who have bad time management like, I wish I had the time equivalent of a buck to give you."

By now, Coupland has turned off the TV, noting that Olympics coverage is getting old: "The whole notion of countries, like in 10 years it's going to be so out of date. Russia who'd have even thought that at the last Olympics? Canada's falling apart." He proudly displays his Boston College jacket which he bought thinking "BC" stood for British Columbia.

And then Coupland reveals exactly what happens at the end of an anti-interview. At home in his non-personage, cheered out of the PR pits by the prospect of future Powerbook forays, a growing friendship with Michael Stipe and countless Kraft dinners, the subject deconstructs his "boring, generic" hotel room.

He turns into a performance artist, lifting paintings off the wall one by one, leaving a single print hanging on its hook sideways. He forages the unscuffed carpeting for found art a shoe, a glove, a hat then balances them on the empty wall hooks. He takes the phone receiver from its base and tosses it onto the couch. He laughs and laughs again, a sly Danny Partridge kind of laugh, boyishly reinventing everything that is flat and unself-conscious in North American culture.

No one, after all most of all the interviewer and his interviewee, manically combing his suitcase for other strange wall-hangings wants the reader to be sick.