Doug Coupland and the human world


From the Toronto Star (October 7, 1995)

by Philip Marchand

Douglas Coupland stands on the stage of the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall in his black Reeboks, his jeans, his outdoor construction worker vest, his toque that covers his hair except for a little tuft in the centre of his forehead. His arms are held stiffly by his side, until he decides to dispose of them by clasping his hands behind his back.

The audience, nearly a thousand students, is silent, waiting for him to speak, but he is looking off in the distance as if he is desperately trying to remember what he's supposed to say.

It's a silence just long enough to cause the first stirrings of unease.

I'm hearing a little feedback noise," he says at last, in the tone of somebody who's finally figured out why he's standing on a particular street corner.

"But it must be in my head."

Coupland, 33, then reads from three prose pieces - a reflection on Karen Ann Quinlan, the New Jersey teen who spent 10 years in a coma before dying; a memoir about hanging out in cemeteries in Vancouver; and a meditation on what a person from 1975 would feel if suddenly transported to 1995 San Francisco.

And the audience is with him every second - Coupland, it turns out, is a master at this. (Keying up an audience by standing in silence for several seconds is a classic technique of famous orators throughout history, including a certain German dictator.)

The audience even appears to enjoy a video, Douglas Coupland: Close Personal Friend, which is screened after Coupland's readings, and which, in some ways, shows him at his sententious worst. In the video, he fields various questions, including one from a very nice young male bikini-clad bodybuilder (symbol of today's mold-your-own-identity youth).

"Okay, here's a question, Douglas," the bodybuilder says. "How is a typical person of today different from a typical person of, say, 200 years ago?"

The Convocation Hall appearance is part of a promotion tour for Coupland's latest novel, Microserfs. For some reason , he felt he could not read from the book. Hence the video.

It's the day before this appearance and the reporter meets Coupland at the intersection of Yonge and Davisville - a nostalgic neighbourhood for Coupland. It was here he worked for several months in the late '80s at the ill-fated Vista Magazine - brought there by editor Malcom Perry, a fellow Vancouverite. Perry had overseen Coupland's transition from visual artist to magazine writer in his previous posting as editor of Western Living.

Coupland likes to recall that his decision to write fiction, as opposed to continuing with magazine journalism, was made while drinking coffee at the Golden Griddle restaurant, right there at northwest corner of the intersection.

He had asked to meet the reporter at this historic spot, but Coupland has decided the atmosphere inside the restaurant is not congenial and is waiting outside when the reporter arrives.

He is wearing his black Reeboks, his jeans, his outdoor construction worker vest, his toque that covers his hair except for a little tuft in the middle of his forehead.

He is holding his arms stiffly by his side. On stage, this constrained manner has a fey quality, but in person he simply seems fragile, as if he is physically unable to relax even for a minute.

Coupland and the reporter decide to go to the rooftop bar at the Park Plaza Hotel, where the latter is staying. While waiting for a taxi, Coupland explains he is "futured out" after spending months on a thinking about a series about the future for Wired magazine.

Somehow it is fitting that the taxi they hail is an oddity, shaped more like an armoured personnel carrier than a car. It is used, its passengers discover, for transporting people in wheel chairs and consequently there is a large empty space between the back seat and the driver's seat.

"Got enough leg room?" the driver asks jovially.

"Why can't you be a Quantas flight to Sydney?" Coupland replies. He spots a small plastic troll hanging from the driver's rear view mirror. "Ooh, what is that ... a shrunken head?" he wonders. "That's like the future, too. Welcome to the futuremobile."

The idea of riding in a taxicab, circa 2010, intrigues him. He goes with it. "Well, let's see - these are your zero gravity hangers," he says, indicating a clump of seat belts used for wheelchairs. Next are three sheets of paper towels scotch-taped to the top of the windshield. "And those towels - those are for really bad ozone days."

Coupland taps a small, sliding window by his side. "Here's your television set. Let's see, interactive screen ..." Tap, tap. "Correct number of knuckle taps, let's see what mom's doing ... uh, mom ... let's bring up mom's EKG , see what's going on there.

"Notice how we're associating the future with technology, which is exactly what the Unabomber says. He does have some good points - did you know I had a Unabomber T-shirt made up? Ooh, that man looks so weird."

The reporter looks out the window but cannot tell which pedestrian Coupland is referring to.

"I'm blithering," Coupland admits. "It feels so good to be able to blither. I haven't blithered in eight days."

The taxi stops at the Park Plaza. Near the elevator to the rooftop bar is an oval chandelier, somewhat larger than a bathtub. Coupland doesn't miss a beat. "That's Cher's dress from the The Carole Burnett Show," he observes.

Emerging from the elevator, he displays signs of even greater nervousness than usual. The rooftop bar is clearly upscale and Coupland's ensemble would not look out of place on somebody standing by Union Station holding out a paper cup. He gives the reporter a friendly nudge on the shoulder. "You go first, O necktied one."

After ordering a vodka and tonic, Coupland returns to the subject of his future of the world project.

"I used to worry that ideas were finite, but they're infinite, they really are," he says. "They just come and come and come and - well, you know me, I spent the '80s in studios mixing paint and so - what is it, four books now - each book is like you're at university, and there's some sort of graduation process, and now I'm out, and, uh - every day is like Harvard.

"But, really, there's so much going on. I think I'm basically learning all this stuff that people learned in school anyway, because the future project, I had to go and really study - I still don't know how to pronounce his name - Leebnitz? - Libenitz? (Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz) - all those old dudes - Kant and Hegel and Heideger - and looking for the roots of modern-ness or newness, and the separation of people from animals, people from the world, where the whole notion of progress came from, where we lost eternity and gained the future.

"To me, that's what the whole future project was about."

Coupland continues talking about the future project, until his gaze is arrested by the sight of a tall apartment building north of the hotel, with inverted arches along its rooftop.

"Ooh, look at that parabola!" he says. "A parabolic roof. That's so touching. I feel about it like the way a J.D. Salinger character feels about something a child says. It's so ... never to be repeated."

The reporter points out that the building was constructed in the '60s.

"You can bet money on it," Coupland replies. "The shade of blue (on the balconies), the way the apartments are spaced - that's totally '60s."

Hearing the enthusiasm of the applause at Convocation Hall, one could easily forget there is a considerable backlash against Coupland these days. Ottawa broadcaster Ken Rockburn's opinion, delivered in his recent book, Medium Rare, is that Coupland is "a spoiled, insufferable, egoistical little snot, lacking in grace, courtesy, generosity and ideas" is a case in point.

One can forgive Rockburn this display of feeling. Coupland was an unresponsive guest on Rockburn's radio show - interviewing Coupland for radio or television is always a dodgy business. On the September evening Coupland appeared at Convocation Hall, in fact, the reporter heard rumors that the author had put Shelagh Rogers through the mill in a CBC-Radio interview that very day.

It was said he'd drawn his finger across his throat, for example, every time she mentioned Microserfs, meaning: Can it. Coupland didn't want to talk about the very book he was supposed to be promoting.

But when the reporter called Rogers, the truth, as usual, turned out to be different from rumour.

It was true that Coupland arrived at the CBC studio for his 1 p.m. interview groggy from lack of sleep. It was true that he wasn't particularly eager to talk about Microserfs - although the finger across the throat gesture occurred when Rogers mentioned his first book, Generation X, not Microserfs.

(Understandably, Coupland is tired of the very sound of Generation X.)

And Rogers admitted the interview was "strange." Coupland, in effect, didn't want an interview. He wanted a conversation. He wanted to talk about Antarctica and the Irish potato famine and nature.

Rogers now feels that Coupland's reluctance to follow the format of author interview "really was provocative. I didn't think it was ego. It was just questioning systems."

That figures. Coupland has never followed the approved format of our literary culture. He did not begin his literary career, for example, in the typical Canadian fashion - that is, by starting out with gloomily realistic short stories or a gloomily realistic novel. His voice was lively and hip, instead of morose, or reflective, or faux cracker barrel.

He capitalized on his strengths - a keen eye for the details of culture, a gift for anecdote, a hyper-active intelligence. And he produced narratives that were both fun to read and had something to say.

But in one sense, he does remain strikingly unsophisticated and vulnerable to being misunderstood by people like Rockburn. Coupland is easily spooked by people's reactions to him. If people don't get what he's trying to communicate, he does not know how to smooth over or hide his awkwardness, which frequently comes across as hostility or prima donna-ish behaviour.

The human world excites him, with its odd, endearing little artefacts. He is even amused by the human world's attempts to disown the natural world, as if nature were a beautiful but retarded sibling of ours. But he does have trouble living in the human world.

"People think I know ... I mean, I don't know anything about the way I affect people," he'd burst out at the Park Plaza rooftop bar, a propos of nothing. "I can't read people."