The X Factor


From Saturday Night (December 1, 1999)

by Frank Mohler

Douglas Coupland can't wait

DOUGLAS COUPLAND IS SEEING the '60s exhibition he curated for the Vancouver Art Gallery, part of a five-decade retrospective called "Out of This Century," for the first time. Canvases scale the walls around him, geometric abstractions that look like gigantic game boards, their garish reds and purples and oranges duking it out for attention. Standing in the midst of it, he has a vague, "What hath I wrought?" air about him. And so he should: though it's hardly Coupland's fault that Vancouver artists back then were swept up in the some cultural tsunamis as everyone else, their paintings are, most of them, monumentally, teeth-grindingly ugly.

Coupland knows something of the perils of being too much of your time. He is famous, of course, for popularizing the phrase "Generation X" in his 1991 novel of the same name (along with others that caught on to lesser degrees, like "McJob" and "Bradyism"). Thus did he out-Wolfe Tom Wolfe by summing up an entire demographic in a single, Spartan apercu. Since then he has published six other books, only one of which, Microserfs, is so of-its-time that it should come with a "best-before" date, and each of which reflects Coupland's art-- student determination (he trained as a sculptor at Vancouver's Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design) never to repeat himself.

And yet he continues to be viewed as a '90s artifact, preserved in pop-cult amber. At thirty-seven he is, according to the Chicago Tribune, the "designated Generation X guru." The Guardian in Britain recently seemed to blame him for inventing irony, in an article reporting that cynicism is officially "out." He doesn't exactly reject the Gen-X tag - "It's my Campbell's Soup can," he says - but you get the sense, both from talking with him and from his new novel, Miss Wyoming, due out in the first month of the new millennium, that renewal is much on his mind.

With its somewhere-over-the-rainbow wistfulness, Miss Wyoming is as different from Coupland's early work as Rosie O'Donnell is from David Letterman. Amazingly, it's the first book he's worked on with an editor. About a year ago, Coupland's new agent found him a publisher ready to put him through basic training. "The learning curve just went asymptotic. It was just beautiful," Coupland says. "And I'm a better writer for it." In a similar way, the characters in Miss Wyoming - a burned-out Hollywood producer and an ex-sitcom star who fall most unironically in love - seek change with a fervour they might once have reserved for getting into A-list parties. "I'd like to simply stop being me,' says the producer. "I'd like to be somebody anonymous, without any luggage."

Coupland is hardly a has-been - one Web site claims he received a million-dollar-plus advance for this new book - but he understands his characters' ambivalence towards fame. "I had some sculptures showing here in 1987," he tells me as we head out into the general acquisitions area. "A few of my fans snuck into the office and stole a bunch of photos from the show." I ask him if he knows where the purloined images have ended up. "Probably on some Web site somewhere," he sighs.

Talking about just why the characters in Miss Wyoming are so desperate to turn the page, he ends up talking about himself. "You grow up and then you get older and you are who you are and you realize that unless something really odd happens, like a world war, then who you are is what you're going to be for the rest of your life, with some tweaks and modifications and entropy," he says, as if he's been thinking this through carefully. "And what if it's like -'Wait, I don't want that? I want to start over from scratch! Can you or can you not do that?"

Coupland's book says yes, people can reinvent themselves, and, in fact, had better do so lest they turn into smug self-parodies. As the producer tells a couple of set-in-their-ways buddies, in a neat instance of Couplandian phrase-making: "You two are the most drag-and-click people I've ever met."

It's one thing to allow for your characters' renovation, quite another to arrange your own. I didn't find those purloined photographs on the Web, but I did find Coupland's official Web site, looking distinctly makeshift. "Under Construction: reopening shortly. D," it declares, in a bold courier font. As they say: bookmark this.