Back with a vengeance


From The Ottawa Citizen (September 19, 1992)

by Christopher Levenson

Encyclopedia of twenty-something lifestyles, self-help manual, regress report on the state of the ecology and the economy - Douglas Coupland's second book is all these things and more, even marginally a novel, and if you loved his first, Generation X, which caused a sensation last year, you'll want to read this too.

It doesn't have all those instant definitions in the margin, (McJob - "low pay, low prestige, low benefit, no future jobs in the service industry" or Down- nesting - "the tendency of parents to move to smaller, guest-room-free houses after the children have moved away so as to avoid children aged 20 to 30 who have boomeranged home") but it lacks none of the wit and virtuosity that distinguished its predecessor.

True, sometimes it's simply a matter of one-liners - "You are my trailer park," And you, Anna-Louise, are my tornado" - but usually Coupland jolts the reader in the same way that poetry does, through unexpected images or analogies:

Out east I see power lines down in the middle of a harvested barley field. Oddly, the cables on either side of a transmission tower have been severed and drape from the triangulated outstretched aluminum arms like a mother weeping for her kidnapped child, holding forth samples of her missing child's pajamas to the CNN camera.

The effect of this, or of lines like "bald eagles hung out in the updrafts like preteens massed in a video arcade," is to connect for us phenomena in our contemporary world that we usually experience separately, and so to suggest both a unifying tragi-comic vision and at least the possibility that things are connected and do make some sort of sense. An incidental function perhaps is to suggest the pervasiveness of the worlds of advertising, PR and commercial jargon, a point emphasized by the TM or R symbols that accompany the many invented brand names.

At times, though, and readers will have their own personal thresholds, one senses the strain of being too clever, too flip: for me, chapter 20's comments on Europe seem perversely imperceptive and call into question the whole method of would-be brilliant generalization and exaggeration. Yet Coupland is versatile, modulating from mild sociological froth through mock-visionary rhetorical fervor, as when he deals with dead factory towns, to a chillingly sober account of the "future towns" that will replace them: You're not supposed to notice futuretowns - they're technically invisible: low flat buildings that look like they've just popped out of a laser printer; fetishistic landscaping; new-cars-only in the employee lots; small backlit Plexiglas totems out front quietly brandishing the strangely any-language names of the companies housed inside: Cray. Hoechst. Dow. Unilever. Rand. Pfizer. Sandoz. Ciba-Geigy. NEC. Futuretowns are the same in Europe as they are in California. I figure they're the same the planet over. Futuretowns are like their own country superimposed onto other countries.

It's just as well that the book does have such passages and discusses such themes as the denial of European-style history or the reinvention of the self, because most of Coupland's characterization is two-dimensional, tending towards caricature, and the actual story line is thin, a transparent skeleton on which to hang sociological or psychological insights: there is the narrator Tyler's affair in Paris with Stephanie, who later comes to visit him in his depressed Washington State hometown, their trip to L.A., Tyler's getting a management job with the corporation that his ex-hippie mother had firebombed back in the '60s and near the end a rather melodramatic confrontation with his ex-stepfather Dan.

But whatever else this book may be, it is a triumph of the 20th-century art of packaging. To enjoy this book you must have a taste for energy, exuberance and exaggeration, whether in language itself or in ideas. If you do, the style can quickly become addictive.