Generation next


From The Times of London (April 11, 1998)

by Mike Bradley

Douglas Coupland 's seminal book, Generation X, turned dropouts into "slackers", but will his latest novel, a bleak vision of the future, press the buttons of the thihiking, it is hard to see how he would be willing to surrender control of his rigorously regulated bachelor life to something as time-wasting as drugs. "It does not matter what time zone I am in. What I am eating or doing. It is always the same: bed at 2am, up at 10.15am. Exactly eight and a quarter hours of sleep. Any more or less is a disaster. I'm glad to know that about myself," he says.

"Part of the reason I went to art school and everything else," he continues, "is because I could never have a morning job. It's a biological incapability for me. I always wondered why rich people hang out with bohemian people and then I realised: they're the only ones who have the free time. By the way", he adds quickly, "I put myself in the bohemian category, NOT the rich."

Oh no? He says this despite a string of globally successful cult books - one of which, Microserfs (1995) is currently being turned into a film - that have made Coupland a very wealthy man.

Evidence is amply provided when we arrive at his designer eyrie - a 1960 house by the Canadian Modernist architect Ron Thom. Rosenquists, Warhols and Lichtensteins line the walls, and there is even one room given over to a large spotlit polystyrene boulder, a bizarre objet trouve "shaped" by a man with an unpronouncable Japanese name who comes to tweak it from time to time.

Coupland's own designs abound: bookcases and armchairs sit comfortably with the vernacular of the house. There is also the odd piece of original Coupland art. Outside on the balcony the late afternoon light eerily picks out the points of "the antler chair" a Beuysian piece composed entirely of found antlers enclosing a small plastic seat.

His love of nature is further reflected in what he calls "the bird wall", a three-feet square coloured panel painted to attract butterflies and birds. Beyond this lies his real sanctuary - the garden, where he likes to potter every day.

Ostensibly Japanese in influence - Coupland studied fine art and industrial design in Sapporo and "would live in Japan tomorrow if I could" - there is a plot devoted to indigenous shrubs and flowers, a plantation of young maples, stands of variegated bamboo and a goldfish pond ring-fenced against hungry racoons. Even the taller trees are encircled by electric wires, a precaution against bears who lollop out of the wilderness to raid dustbins, then scale the nearest cedar for a post-prandial snooze.

It is tempting to compare him to the solitary Little Prince of Antoine St Exupery's classic 1944 novel, battling against the baobabs on Asteroid B-612. Both share an innocent wisdom and a childish curiosity about the worlds they inhabit, though given the choice Coupland would probably never leave his modular Modernist mini- universe in west Vancouver, opting to conduct an exclusively virtual social life. "It is amazing how much I do not communicate with other people," he says. Coupland generally shuns phones and faxes but admits to being an e-mail fiend. "E-mail simply must be responded to. There is an epistolary golden age happening right now. On e-mail people write the way they speak, which is nice." It is also the way he writes his books, though he professes surprise when I say he has a good ear for dialogue.

Being "constitutionally unsuited to deadlines", Coupland has given up journalism, although he has a history of writing for magazines and newspapers such as New Republic , The New York Times , Time , and The Washington Post . In fact, Microserfs originated as a Wired cover story about six Microsoft employees. He recruited contacts through the company's e-mail system and lived for three weeks among geeks at the Microsoft HQ in Washington State.

Hailed as "a New Age J.D. Salinger on smart drugs" and "the voice of a generation" following the publication of Generation X in 1992, Coupland retains his ability to capture the flavour of history as it unfolds. With Generation X he was credited with inventing the concept of the "slacker generation", which reflected the nihilism of grunge bands such as Nirvana and spawned films such as Singles and Clerks .

He describes the Nineties as "becoming this enormous battle. If there is anything that defines this decade, it is the battle for staying and keeping yourself relevant. Are you relevant? Are you a geek? Like a geek is suddenly the coolest thing to be, because at least it means you are not losing the race."

On the subject of the race itself, he mourns the fact that "in the frazzle of modern life, which is getting faster and faster, the ability to reflect on the mystery of life is getting lost." His own efforts to solve the mystery have been difficult. "You have to construct some sort of empirically-based rational system of making sense of everything. Growing up in a secular environment only makes it harder. Religion is like Lego. You have to build your own."

Girlfriend in a Coma , a dark, prescient book, is itself a meditation on the mystery of life, the next step in a continuing search for meaning, and a welcome return for an important novelist temporarily hamstrung by a depression which lasted for most of 1996. That troubled time became a period of "enforced introspection", a subject he would rather not discuss.

As I prepare to head back to downtown Vancouver, Coupland shows me an expensive toy, the Geochron, an illuminated, wall-mounted "world time zone map", which enables him to see which parts of the Earth are in daylight at any particular time.

What he really wishes somebody would invent, though, is a globe with moveable tectonic plates. He is evidently impatient to project the way the world will look in the future.

Now there is a surprise.