Douglas Coupland, chronicling post-boomers


From USA Today (September 21, 1992)

by Deirdre Donahue

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the young - like the rich - really are different.

And as painful as baby boomers find it, they are no longer on the cutting edge of youth, of innovation, of hipness. The young today, says writer Douglas Coupland , have a "globalized youth culture," from malls to computers to MTV to zappers to mousse. Shudder all you like, but for some people, "Flipper reruns are a concrete, cultural document," he says.

In his novels - the surprise 1991 best-selling sleeper Generation X and the just-published Shampoo Planet (Pocket, $ 20), Coupland has successfully limned this new sensibility. As the subtitle of his first novel suggests - "tales for an accelerated culture" - Coupland believes that new technology like CNN gives "the illusion that history is happening at a faster pace than before."

Rather than lamenting the seismic changes jolting our culture and language, Coupland revels in its possibilities. For example, he notes that because of the ever-thickening blizzard of ads, sentences like "I fell into the creek and now I'm extra moist" spring to his mind, reflecting decades of hearing cake mix lingo.

Shampoo Planet details a loving but fragmented family. Mom is a kind- hearted but ineffectual ex-hippie who does housework in the nude, pothead dad went off years ago (and now lives in a polygamous hideaway with two wives and 10 kids) and an ex-and-hostile stepdad is in bankruptcy. To top it off, the kids can't believe grandma and grandpa are franchising "KittyWhip Kat Food System."

Set in Washington state near a failed nuclear power plant, the novel details the life of the oldest son, Tyler, as he seeks love, security and hair care in the face of his family's - and peer group's - downward mobility.

"There are no longer prescriptions for a successful life trajectory," says Coupland, himself "30 and proud of it." With his novels, he has articulated the listless apathy mixed with hostility that people in their late teens and 20s often feel toward boomers and older people.

Jim Fitzgerald, executive editor of St. Martin's Press, which published Generation X,-- immediately realized that Coupland possessed a different perspective. He showed an early manuscript to people in their 20s at the publishing house. The immediate response, Fitzgerald says: "Finally, someone is writing for me."

After reading Shampoo Planet, one expects that Coupland was commune-hatched as Dew Blossom. Nothing could be more wrong. Coupland describes his still-married-after-35-years mother and father as resembling Lee Remick and Charlton Heston. Raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Coupland attended art school. He finds holding a mundane job difficult. But despite his distaste for the 9-to-5 rut, Coupland doesn't disparage the comfortable lifestyle that his peers find increasingly out of reach. "North American middle class life is the best in the world," he says.

Back in Vancouver, where he lives, the unmarried Coupland is working on a new novel. Although he's loathe to reveal the topic, it probably won't marinate in nostalgia. A lot of people indulge in what Coupland calls "vaccinated time travel" where they forget the different eras' downsides. For a lot of young people, "the `60s have become a theme park. The hair is long but it's clean.

"I'm really anti the past, I'm really pro the future," Coupland says. "Embrace the inevitable is my personal slogan."