Metaphysics & other stuff


From The Toronto Star (March 23, 1994)

by Philip Marchand

Is it possible that Generation X has aged to the point where its members are starting to worry about things like . . . back pain?

"It's asymmetrical! It must be cancer!" Doug Coupland yelps, sprawled on his back on his hotel bed. Coupland, an author now and forever identified with the phrase "Generation X" - it was, of course, the title of his first, bestselling novel - breaks out with a laugh which is half self-mockery, half excess nervous energy.

But seriously - he wonders if, at 32, he is now at the age where, you know, you get things like these spasms in your back.

It's not exactly the deeply serious kind of metaphysical question he deals with in his latest book, a short story collection called Life After God, whose characters ponder the meaninglessness of their lives and the existence of God.

"It's a very interesting puzzle to which I'm going to find out my own answer," Coupland says of the latter concern. "It's only something I began working on 18 months ago, so it's like a new project."

Perhaps it is understandable that Coupland has abandoned his customary irony and obsession with high-tech culture for a more serious look at life, just at the point when his body is giving its first intimations of mortality. But in other respects - his restlessness, his goofy humor - he has not changed much from the aspiring sculptor who got a call eight years ago from Malcolm Parry, then editor of Vancouver magazine, to do a piece on a noted Los Angeles art dealer.

Coupland, who had written nothing at this point, was baffled by the call.

"You know art, don't you?" Parry demanded.

Coupland frowned. "Well, I've been to art school."

"You can write can't you?"


"Well, Don Stanley (another Vancouver editor) said you wrote a really funny post card."

The conversation might seem bizarre to those who don't know Parry, now a gossip columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He had a free-wheeling approach to editing, which was not universally appreciated by writers, but it meshed perfectly with Coupland's temperament.

"We were in the Vancouver Sun building a few weeks ago looking at the seagulls and having a contest to come up with the most disgusting thing a gull could eat," Coupland says. "He won. He said, 'A Band-Aid.' " Parry became, in any event, the catalyst in Coupland's writing career. The young sculptor, it turned out, was not really averse to journalism. "It was to pay bills," Coupland says. "When I was doing sculpture I was always going down to Windsor Plywood in Vancouver, and everything cost, like, $ 29.95."

Coupland went to Los Angeles for Parry, wrote a terrific piece, and became a regular for his magazine. Among his assignments was to cover the founding convention of the Reform party in Vancouver.

"It was just, you know - very rarely does one encounter an event so gratuitously self-parodying," Coupland recalls. "It was too easy almost."

When Parry went to Toronto in 1988 to edit the glossy, short- lived magazine Vista, Coupland followed. It was there that Coupland got into the habit of taking refuge underneath desks - the position in which he first met John Fraser, according to Fraser's recent Saturday Night profile.

"He would have a nap under his desk to get away from the fluorescent lights and the peculiar chemicals that he and others alleged were coming out of the air conditioning system," Parry recalls.

It was also at Vista that Coupland wrote an article about "Generation X," and developed a regular comic strip with the same title in collaboration with an illustrator. Later, after Vista folded in the fall of 1989, Coupland wrote the novel.

"Once I decided to do fiction, I thought, 'It's right there,' " Coupland recalls. ' "You love doing it, it comes naturally, it's much more immediately expressive of what's going on inside you - why don't you do it?'

"Duh. It took me how many years to figure that out?"

That the religious concerns in Life After God are "immediately expressive" of what's going on inside Douglas Coupland may be news to readers of Generation X, and Shampoo Planet, his second novel. It is even more surprising given the near total void in Coupland's religious upbringing.

"I don't even have an Easter egg hunt to draw from," he comments. "I grew up in the British Properties (an affluent Vancouver neighborhood.) There are no churches there. You go anywhere else on earth and there's at least a church or two."

Not that he's in much danger of becoming, say, an orthodox Jew or Christian. In general, Coupland avoids reading anything, as he puts it, that "doesn't have a telephone in it." That eliminates books written much before Evelyn Waugh (a favorite author), or the 1920s, including the Bible. "There's no point in using outdated sources to inform you," he insists.

Still, his recent work is an indication that he is distancing himself from the world, as he puts it, of "high-tech whiz-bangery." As part of that process, he now emphasizes the traditional literary nature of his vocation, and expresses a desire to meet other writers.

"The only writers I know are (science fiction author) Bill Gibson and Evelyn (Lau), because they're neighbors," he says. "I'm curious. Do writers know each other? Is there some Club PEN where they all meet together and talk about technique?"

In fact, Coupland's high spirits, his love of cultural trivia, and his light touch with language make him an oddity in a Canadian literary community oriented toward grim moral pronouncements and heavily weighted prose. Still, he insists that he is more than ever committed to the low-tech act of writing.

"Hollywood certainly puts a carrot and stick in front of me, literally every day," he says. "And no, I'm not working on some multi-media, inter-active project, like everybody else west of the Mississippi. What I do is write.

"I come from an unemotional, undemonstrative family. It's just the way we were. I think when I went to art school there was a part of me that said, 'Express or die.' If I didn't do it, I think I would go nuts. That is not an overstatement."