End to identity crisis of Generation X


From The Financial Post (November 2, 1992)

by Rod McQueen

Douglas Coupland is surrounded by more than 150 people during his evening reading at the downtown outlet of Olsson's, a local bookstore.

"I realize the season premiere of The Simpsons is on tonight," begins Coupland, 30, in the self-deprecating and ironic style his fans have come to enjoy.

Most are clutching at least one of Coupland's two novels at this last stop in a 16-city fall tour that has taken him from the reverential silence of Brentano's on New York's Fifth Avenue to the roistering University of California at Berkeley.

Coupland's every appearance draws at least this many buyers. If there's a university nearby, the numbers swell to 400.

Even a one-hour wait after the 30-minute reading doesn't diminish the delight of the last person in the line for autographs. "This is the most accurate reproduction of the 20-something generation I've read," she gushes. "Many have tried."

Coupland, however, refuses any spokesman role. "I don't know that I'm a cult figure," he says. "I just write books. It's a good job description. I'm glad there's been success, otherwise I'd be a Century 21 salesman."

"He's in a new group of young Canadian writers who have thumbed their noses at traditional Canadian fiction about landscape," says Toronto novelist Katherine Govier.

"Coupland seems to have put his finger on something. Generation X has now come into the vernacular and that's a real stroke. It's a North American phenomenon."

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, published in 1991, has sold almost 200,000 copies in 12 languages. Shampoo Planet, published in August, had a hefty first printing of 50,000.

Shampoo Planet has been perched on Canadian best-seller lists for nine weeks and has also appeared on lists in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Village Voice Literary Supplement. Newsweek put the book on its "hottest of the hot" list, but the competition was less effusive. "Fascinating characters abound," said a Time review, "but unfortunately they have little to do."

"It's a validation of something people have been telling me for years was invalid," says Coupland. "I can't just engineer a weird aesthetic. This is the way my head works."

Coupland grew up in Vancouver, where he still lives, one of four sons of a physician. After a false start in the sciences, he graduated from Emily Carr College of Art & Design in 1984, then received a business degree from the Japan-America Institute of Management Science in Honolulu, a career lurch that even he now finds difficult to explain.

Coupland began writing to pay his sculpture studio bills and found there was a market for his acute sensibility and eclectic knowledge. In 1988 he joined the now-defunct Vista magazine where the first article was published on the post-baby-boomer crowd he called Generation X.

GenX evolved into a cartoon panel written by Coupland and drawn by Paul Rivoche, a Guelph, Ont., illustrator. It followed the careers of Brad (who craved success), John Boomer (a winner without trying) and the rest of the "young and restless workforce" wanting offices with real walls and ceilings.

At Vista, Coupland would arrive daily for work in the cubicle that he dubbed his "veal-fattening pen," alive with ideas from a teetering stack of little-known books and articles from alternative magazines, faxes from celebrities as diverse as rocker Bryan Adams and chef Wolfgang Puck, plus other more enigmatic items that combusted in his brain.

Literary agent Peter Livingston spotted Coupland's talent to connect the otherwise unconnected and pluck meaning from the apparently insignificant. But Livingston's idea for a book about GenX was rejected by almost two dozen Canadian and American publishers as too vague. Finally, St. Martin's Press in New York offered a modest advance in the low five-figures.

St. Martin's had a pop handbook in mind, but Coupland took a riskier road. "If I had to pay the advance back, it'd be like a student loan, so I made the book hugely personal," he says. "I was inventing something that didn't exist. There just was no consciousness of the twentysomething generation."

Generation X, was not well received by the elders at St. Martin's. But the work resonated with junior staff members who convinced the firm to do a small first printing. Word-of-mouth built sales, until the mainstream press took notice and sales exploded.

Shampoo Planet looks at "global teens," those who grew up behind GenX, believing in MTV and consumerism. Tyler Johnson, the 20-year-old protagonist, cares who he is and how he looks in a quirky rebellion against a dysfunctional family and parents derailed by the 1960s drug culture.

Even so, the anti-hero is driven by ambition and optimism at the book's end, unlike the depressed GenX crowd, the same kind of positivism with which Coupland faces the trimmed-down 1990s. "I got fed up with the type of people who bought a Barcelona chair and saw themselves as designers," he says. "Things might not be as good now 'stuff-wise,' but we're probably better for it."