Talking 'bout his generation


From The Times of London (June 24, 1998)

by Sarah Johnstone

As hard as he tries, Douglas Coupland is still having trouble shaking off the tag of pop culture guru. "Where does that come from?" he says bemusedly. "I often wonder if people have even read the books."

In 1991 the author hit the world stage with his debut novel Generation X , all about smart young things with high expectations but uncertain ambition. Since then everything he's written has been viewed in the light of this new sociological phenomenon which critics claimed he had articulated.

In the same media-fuelled manner, Coupland has also become emblematic of the cyberpunk revolution. With his fourth book, Microserfs , in 1995, he became the first mainstream writer to get into the bits and bytes of computer culture. This hilarious account of junior programmers trying to get a life, as they move from Microsoft to Apple to their own fabulously named company, Oop!, has won him many techie fans.

His publicist calls him "a real e-mail guy". It turns out that he has a wonderful website and spends time in Silicon Valley, where he is working on "all sorts of projects", including a Lara Croft "worship book" - a Tomb Raider game guide, that is.

When he talks about the "multi-point challenge" of giving the curvaceous virtual heroine an equally well-rounded personality, I have to wonder if there's not a little more truth to the media- created image of him than the author would like to admit.

Another project Coupland has under way is the movie version of Microserfs , which Universal Pictures is due to start shooting in his home town of Vancouver at the end of this year. Surprisingly, he's doing the set design and not the script. "I'm sort of getting back to my basics there," he says, referring to his original training as an artist and sculptor.

With others responsible for the screenplay, it will be especially interesting to see how the book's witty asides, its obsession with lists and its graphical use of typefaces, computer code and e-mails will work off the page.

Coupland insists he writes about those who work with computers "with an infinite amount of affection". And he writes about them because technology permeates modern life as much as the clothes, toys, TV shows and stars he's also so fond of name-checking.

"When Microserfs first came out, most people thought it was a tightly focused anthropological look at a tiny group of historically transient information workers in the American Pacific Northwest. It turns out they were forming a template of the way everyone else in the world works in and around information. As time went on it became a lot broader, instead of a lot narrower, which is what happened with Generation X .

He believes there's plenty of untapped fictional fodder in today's wired office: "It always amazes me that 90 per cent of people in the States now work directly around a PC. That's like a billion person- hours a day spent, and yet none of the stories we tell, or the books we write, take place in an office.

"There's just so much of the human soul and imagination in that strange environment now. I'm amazed we don't see 50 books a week on office life."

With friends who have worked for Microsoft and Apple helping him with research for Microserfs , Coupland admires the creativity behind a lot of technology. But he still recognises its ambiguous potential. "Obviously it does both good and bad," he says.

His new book, Girlfriend in a Coma ("It'll sure get a lot of people buying The Smiths CD backlist," he quips) represents an equivocation in Coupland's erstwhile celebration of contemporary culture.

This almost mythic tale of a coma patient having visions of the end of the world as her former friends grow old and embittered, is a more mature work. It's about getting be yond the surface and finding something deeper.

"I think it's sad that we abandoned all notion of a caring society at least 12-15 years ago," he says, railing against today's division of people into winners and losers, and a soundbite culture which "demonises" taking time for reflection.

"It's gotta end, it's really gotta end, and I think it is turning round. This is where the people in Microserfs come in. I think they hit the nadir, and then they started coming out the other side."

Coupland's website is still a little mired in the contradictions of his changing direction. It's as much testament to why he has been called the chronicler of his generation as it is to the breadth of his talents and interests.

On it, you'll find a series of adverts he did for MTV, an unpublished chapter of Generation X , Japanese pages of Microserfs , a piece about environmentalism in Canada, a collage diary from one of his latest reading tours and a great selection of downloadable clip art.

There's also an excerpt from Microserfs read by Friends star Matthew Perry, and plenty more.

Maybe the author wouldn't like his home pages described as such, but they're still

* Girlfriend in a Coma is on sale now (Flamingo Pounds 12.99). Douglas Coupland 's website is