THE X-MAN // Douglas Coupland, from `Generation X' to spiritual regeneration // Ironic voice softened by need for faith


From USA Today (March 7, 1994)

by Mike Snider

WASHINGTON - A makeshift sign on the ticket window reads: "9:50 show - Reality Bites - sold out."

"See, they don't need to make my book into a movie. Everybody else already has," deadpans Douglas Coupland, whose 1991 campus cult-hit novel Generation X made him a sought-after, yet reluctant, spokesman for the post-baby boom generation.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (its full title), the first novel from the Canadian writer, now 32, succeeded where many others fell short: It got inside the heads of twenty- and thirtysomethings coming of age in this "accelerated culture," as Coupland called it.

Media and entertainment types still try to quiz Coupland - a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The New York Times and Wired magazine - on what makes the generation tick. But that's a McJob (defined in X as "low-prestige, low-dignity") from which the former art school student shrinks. "I speak for myself, not for a generation, I never have," he asserts. "I seem to travel through life with that one disclaimer."

His new book, Life After God (Pocket Books, $17), may help him shed that onus. Like his choice in movies (Shadowlands won out over Reality Bites), Coupland's collection of short stories leans toward the serious. What's on his mind is on display in Life After God, out three weeks and No. 207 on USA TODAY's best-sellers list.

As the self-styled protagonist puts it in "1,000 Years (Life After God)," the book's last story, growing up "ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless. . . . (But now at 30) I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched."

Coupland recently described how he turned his back on irony - "one of my most powerful writing tools" - during a recent progression of e-mail messages, phone conversations ("E-mail-only relationships only go so far") and over a pasta dinner at a Washington, D.C., restaurant.

Early in a 10-city book tour that just ended in the Pacific Northwest ("It was quite the Tupperware experience"), Coupland looks every bit a "slacker." His usual cherubic, inside-bookcover likeness has been overrun by several days' worth of auburn stubble, in part to hide the recent removal of a longtime scar.

Born Dec. 30, 1961, on a Canadian NATO base in West Germany, Coupland was raised in Vancouver, where he still lives, as do his parents. But his rich, borderline-nasal monotone is nearly accentless ("from `nowhere,' " he says).

Spirituality replaced the material world by accident for Coupland. In search of a low-tech topic after writing his take on ambitious twentysomethings, Shampoo Planet, Coupland decided to explore - no kidding - the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1847. But somehow, short stories "started popping out of me."

Coupland fashioned them into small books, bound at a nearby Kinko's Copies center, that he gave to friends. "I had no idea they'd become a book-book until near the end."

So that Life After God kept the feel of these "mini-books," Coupland asked that it remain smaller than the average hardback. It fits in your back pocket. The back inside cover flap reads: "Please remove cover jacket flap before reading."

Why? "So the book won't be judged by its cover, and so readers will be aware that they are holding this oddly retro little zero-tech paper-and-word object called a book."

Coupland constantly tosses out phrases like this. Description and summarization are his specialties. For instance, he can succinctly name as-yet-unnamed objects. At an after-reception reception, small wine glass holders that attach to dinner plates are marveled at. "Schmooze clips," Coupland deems them.

Longtime Vancouver friend Ian Verchere, a video game developer, says Coupland is always in detail-gathering mode, "like a sponge. If he were at dinner with you, he'd be soaking it all in." Details fascinate him. In preparation for doing a story for Wired about young Microsoft employees, Coupland actually moved in with some. "I Gorillas-in-the-Mist-ed with all these people. I feeded with them, went bulk shopping with them."

Management at the secretive software developer apparently was disconcerted that Coupland nailed personality profiles dead-on with his own neo-journalistic style. "You see yourself in his writing," says Wired managing editor John Battelle.

Being a writer wasn't in Coupland's plans. But after art school, he began working for a Montreal magazine to fund his sculpting pursuits. A series of twentysomething lifestyle profiles netted him an advance to write a handbook describing the generation. That book mutated into X.

Coupland put some of his art background to use in fashioning six 30-second co-promotions with MTV for Life After God running on the channel throughout this month. Various Coupland personas - "sub-Dougs," he calls them - appear in the spots.

In one, his living disembodied head nuzzles an early Macintosh monitor - an avant-garde still life. In another, a full-bodied, wool-jacketed Coupland mugs with an unlit pipe in a grainy noir-ish clip. Yet another black-and-white spot has him bewigged as the desert drifter. Over the videos, he reads Life After God sound bites.

The stories reveal a change that Coupland says he's undergoing, a realization that "the Other World (as described - or at least alluded to - in Life after God) is more `real' than our everyday allegedly real world of keyboards, coffee mugs, Toyotas and newspapers, etc. and is hence more worthy of exploration."

All this probably bubbled forth, Coupland says, because he wrote the stories at a "down period of my life." Tools he needed to cope "with loss and mortality," like religion or another belief system, weren't there.

"For me there was nothing - not even the seed of a religious experience to grow from - and I found that I had to build (and continue to) try and build some sort of faith for myself using the components taken from disposable West Coast suburban culture. Malls and nature and fast-food places."

Coupland's parents wouldn't talk about religion when he was growing up, and the family never celebrated religious holidays like Christmas or Easter.

Likewise, Coupland's characters must cope with divorce, separation and death without benefit of a religious foundation. They ponder how people relate to each other, "to time, to memory, to loss, nature and faith."

In "1,000 Years (Life After God)," the main character finally quits taking anti-depressants, gets to know himself and accepts that he needs God to make him a better person.

The stories ring true because Coupland "went to the desert. He went to the valley," Wired's Battelle says. "Then he created all these great characters that exposed the physical surroundings and then the thoughts you have in those surroundings . . . like in a car, a desert, the woods."

Coupland believes his work has found sanctuary in the religious realm. "Everything I write or think about now seems, in the end, to veer toward the religious," he says. "I can't alter this, and so I try to create from it. This wasn't something I ever expected to happen.

"I don't know what I ever really expected, but it certainly wasn't this."