Coupland in Trivial Pursuit


From the Toronto Star (March 18, 1998)

by Philip Marchand

Douglas Coupland is entranced with the menu in the dining room of an upscale Toronto hotel. It's so '90s.

``This is a really good '90s menu,'' he states, glancing over items like jalapeo ginger crusted salmon with soba noodles and spicy peanut sauce. ``The items are all individual - like no ingredients are repeated anywhere. And the food is so elegant as to be inedible and unappetizing.

``It wasn't like '80s food - big and colourful, but there was nothing in it.''

Problem. He really wants to eat something, but not this . . . jalapeo ginger crusted stuff. When the waiter arrives, Coupland is clearly nervous.

``Ummmm. This menu is a little big for us. Ummmmm.'' His head sinks to his chest, which often happens when Coupland is ill at ease. He mumbles something about room service. The waiter stands there with his pad.

Now Coupland is practically writhing in embarassment. ``Ummmmm. I can't believe I'm going to say this . . . Could I have a cheeseburger?''

The waiter doesn't miss a beat. ``Certainly sir. How would you like it?''

``With little Disney characters. . .'' he mumbles.

The waiter pretends he hasn't heard. ``How would you like your cheeseburger, sir?''


``Very good.''

Negotiations between Douglas Coupland and the outer world can often turn delicate. But this episode also demonstrates what fuels Coupland as a novelist, ever since the writing of his first, and most famous, novel Generation X. Coupland has an insatiable eye for the details of his environment, and their cultural context. To some readers, the result is simply an emphasis on the trivial and the trendy. (Readers who like Rudy Wiebe novels about Indians.) But in fact this love of social trivia, this ``passion for fact in a raw state,'' as the late American critic Mary McCarthy put it, was part of the makeup of classic novelists of the 19th century. They didn't spare the reader their fascination with details of the whaling industry or slang current in Parisian boarding houses.
In this sense, Coupland is very much a traditional novelist. Certainly Coupland, who reads tonight at 8 at the Brigantine Room, 235 Queen's Quay W., has injected his latest novel, Girlfriend In A Coma (HarperCollins), with a good deal of cultural reportage of the kind that informed his last, largely non-fiction work, Polaroids From The Dead. Coupland did no promotion for that book, published in 1996. As he explains in a statement included in the press kit for Girlfriend, he was depressed for almost all of 1996 because of a ``disastrously exhausting European tour.''

``It was way too many cities,'' Coupland now says. ``Foreign reporters who had bizarre or alien ways that I didn't understand. Strange food. Language barriers. It was just all these things that just completely , oh man, it was just, uh, when I finally landed in Seattle they had to scrape me off the floor of the 747 with a spatula . . . It was sort of affection deprivation. ``I don't want to talk about that too much. Enough said. Water under the bridge.''

With Girlfriend In A Coma, Coupland turns to a subject that has long fascinated him - the remarkable story of Karen Ann Quinlan, who spent 10 years in a coma before she died in 1985. ``I think what I like about comas is that they are one of the few ways we have of radically re-inventing yourself while you're still in the same body,'' Coupland says. ``If you woke up after a long time in a coma, people would expect you to be completely different. I guess in fact things would have changed so much while you were unconscious that you would have changed by default.'' As part of his research for the book, Coupland phoned the family of a Kentucky man who had woken up after six years in a coma - an unprecedented event. (Doctors assume that anyone who spends one year in a coma will never wake up.)

``They saw it as something miraculous - as they should,'' Coupland recalls. ``He came out and was pretty clear for a while, and then he started to slip back - not completely, but it was like that Oliver Sachs' movie, Awakenings. Eventually he just drifted off again.``But his family members were grateful he had woken up at all. Anything was better than nothing, as far as they were concerned. It was really sweet. It was really nice.'' In Girlfriend In A Coma, Coupland invents a Vancouver teenager, Karen Ann McNeil, who drinks two vodka cocktails after taking two Valiums, and ends up in an 18-year coma. When she awakes, in 1997, she is suddenly confronted with a society she feels has become more soulless than the one she unexpectedly left in 1979. Sure enough, she has barely started to enjoy being conscious again when an apocalyptic plague descends upon the Earth, in what seems like divine punishment.

Coupland, now 37 and living in Vancouver, maintains that he himself does not feel in an apocalyptic mood. ``Some people say we live in an apocalyptic era,'' he says. ``In 1944, when every country on earth was at war, that was apocalyptic. Right now, it's a cakewalk. Things have never been better for many people. ``What is making things feel the way they feel right now is that a lot of ideological experiments that have been in operation since the 19th century, like Marxism and Modernism - they're not dying off, they've just run out their logical course. ``We're leaving behind systems where you can let someone else do the thinking for you - someone else you can sub-contract your beliefs to. If somebody tells you they're a Marxist, it's like saying, `Hi, I'm an antimacassar.' There's something really poignant about it.'' ``I think we've already entered something completely new, but that should be exciting. That should be, you know, wonderful. ``I mean, think about that. That's really cool. ``Whatever happens next will be completely new, it won't be the continuing thread of Modernism or Dadaism, or whatever.''

The novel ends with the main characters dedicating themselves to the radical questioning of current beliefs and practices, in order to hasten a new order of things. In keeping with previous Coupland books, the theme is one of shedding ironic, super-cool attitudes in favour of un-ironic, un-cool ``acts of kindness and honesty.''``What I know and what I'm really comfortable around is irony - ironic people, ironic situations, ironic everything,'' Coupland admits. ``But you're not going to get to heaven rehashing Mary Tyler Moore re-runs. ``You just have to give all that up. It still has its place - the academy awards are coming up, and I'm going to be at an academy awards party, throwing popcorn at the screen. ``But what I'm saying is, you're not going to get better than you are just doing irony or being ironical.''