|Doug Coupland's New Phrase|
From The Washington Post (July 13, 1995)
by William F. Powers
Hey there, Bill. It's Doug calling you from . . . nowhere! Seat 2C on Flight 1697, Vancouver to San Francisco, on United Airlines. Thought it would be an interesting time to talk about cultural blanks, which I've been thinking about a lot. I'll try calling you tonight. Okay. Bye. - Recent voice mail from Douglas Coupland
In recent years, it's occurred to some readers of Doug Coupland that maybe it's time to shrink-wrap him and stick him in that big meat freezer down in the cultural basement, right next to Andy Warhol, Timothy Leary, Gloria Steinem, Tom Wolfe, the Tofflers, Arthur Hailey, David Byrne, Gail Sheehy and all the other generational spokespersons, professional aphorists and Zeitgeist artists.
Or would that be rash?
He is only 33 years old, a former sculptor from Vancouver, Canada, who in 1991 was miraculously transformed into a famous novelist. It was then that he bestowed on pop culture the phrase "Generation X," the title of his debut book. The success of that novel, which was about three spiritually lost young Americans, prompted marketers and journalists to leap on the term as a rubric for all the young adults who followed the baby boomers. Coupland in turn recently disowned the whole idea, declaring "Generation X" meaningless, a rotting corpse of a phrase that someone ought to bury fast.
Tough to argue with him there.
His fourth novel, "Microserfs," is just out. It's about a group of young Microsoft employees who flee the faintly sinister computer empire of Bill Gates to seek riches and a more humane existence in a Silicon Valley start-up venture. The book has won attention from the usual media outlets, particularly the modish Wired magazine, where Coupland is a contributing writer and where two long excerpts of the novel have appeared.
Thanks to the book, which a lot of influential people have now heard about but will never read, and to a forthcoming TV show based on it for Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, the word "microserfs" may now enter the language. If that happens, count on it to ripple out into ever wider social, commercial and media circles until it winds up an embarrassing linguistic husk that's just aching to be eradicated, exactly like its predecessor.
The novel also has been a topic of feverish chatter in certain literary corners of_need we even say it? -- cyberspace, so it must be pretty cool, right? Wired has a binary system for pronouncing the hipness of a person, product or concept: It's either tired or wired. Coupland is most definitely the latter.
Why? What is it about Couplandism that commands all of this attention?
Take a journey through the many cultural roles that Douglas Coupland seems to be playing at one time or another, and one begins to understand his strange influence.
This is the label that Coupland's editor, Judith Regan, applies in a phone interview. But modern book editors tend toward blurbspeak. The fact that Regan has also edited such, uh, visionaries as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh suggests a certain skepticism is in order. Isn't there a distinction between society's seers and its entertaining pulse-takers?
"He's always the first one to characterize the way we are living right now," says Regan. "Before we've even reflected on it and given it a name as a trend, he's written a book about it."
Actually, this is true. Coupland began writing "Generation X" as a nonfiction guide to life in postindustrial society, and later transmuted it into a novel. Among the remnants of the original project_and arguably the best part of the book_were a lot of deadpan, dead-on observations about society, in the form of definitions running down the margins. No one had noted these features of the modern landscape in quite this way before. Among intelligent readers of all ages, there was instant recognition of his coinages:
"The Emperor's New Mall: The popular notion that shopping malls exist on the insides only and have no exterior. The suspension of visual belief engendered by this notion allows shoppers to pretend that the large, cement blocks thrust into their environment do not, in fact, exist."
"Air Family: Describes the false sense of community experienced among workers in an office environment."
These are cute, and simultaneously better than cute. If "visionary" seems a stretch, there's no question Coupland is the first one to spot and name certain features of mundane existence that most of us miss or ignore.
The press release announcing the recent "Microserfs" book tour specified that "interviews will be done `Ouija-style.' Rather than speak with Coupland directly, interviewers will be invited to sit with Coupland and use a Macintosh PowerBook to have a machine-mediated dialogue."
This idea arose from two sources: the fact that the characters in the novel do a lot of communicating by e-mail, and Coupland's own belief that newspaper profiles and interviews are "such a corrupt information form." On a previous book tour he told a reporter for the Boston Globe, "No one takes the profile process seriously anymore, most of all the reader. It's like cynicism on every level. I'm cynical about the process, you're cynical, the reader's cynical. I wouldn't be doing it, no one would be doing it, unless they had something to sell. It almost reaches the point where unless there's some cash transaction at the end of it, people can't even make sense of it."
The PowerBook game was billed as an experimental attempt to see if this tainted interview format could be revived through technology. Last week, however, Coupland said he was sick of the whole experiment and opted for a half-dozen long phone conversations instead.
The gimmick-weary reader may grimace upon first flipping through "Microserfs." Written in the form of a PowerBook diary, it includes all kinds of typeface experiments and word games. Two pages consist of nothing but columns of the word "money" repeated over and over, for example. Though these experiments make a few interesting points about the mind of the narrator, they contribute to the whole packaged-product character of the "Microserfs" juggernaut.
Editor Regan reports what happened when she sent a copy of "Microserfs" to her boss: "I tell you who's a great fan of it is Rupert Murdoch," she says. "Loved it! . . . That was unusual. I don't send him all my books. I think it's the only book I've ever sent him."
When asked about the aggressive marketing of the book, which looks like the sort of thing Coupland's commerce-overloaded Generation X characters would have hated, he sounded hurt. "I don't think we've done anything tawdry," he said. "I don't think I'm complicit in anything sordid."
In another conversation, he read from his PowerBook a long list of philosophical axioms he had jotted down while at a modern art exhibit in Madrid. One was: Art Strategy is Contemptible.
Coupland's generalizations about society come from a narrow source. The X-ers he wrote of were not a whole generation, but a much smaller subgroup of white, intellectually inclined suburban upper-middle-class North Americans people like Douglas Coupland.
"You are the first generation raised without religion," he writes in his third novel, "Life After God." That conclusion was derived from the fact that Douglas Coupland was raised without religion, and hardly speaks accurately about all those millions of other North Americans his age.
"Although Mr. Coupland has an observant eye for the loopy detail and a touching affection for his wayward characters, the reader quickly loses patience with these people, so self-indulgent and self-important are their concerns," wrote Michiko Kakutani, a New York Times book critic, of that book.
But Coupland's intense focus on his own perceptions can also be productive. One of his most notorious works is a cover story he wrote for the New Republic last December, "Los Angeles 90049," about the world in which Nicole Brown Simpson lived. In this instance he had the audacity to simply turn in his notebook jottings, unimproved by connective text or any other narrative structure. The piece seemed shockingly lazy at the time. Go back to it now, more than six months later, as the O.J. trial marches on like pop Euripides, and a strange thing happens: This abstruse, self-conscious, presumptuous "essay" has gained a resonance that no straightforward coverage of the world of the Simpson family has. It reads like Joan Didion on a sugar buzz: "In the daytime, Brentwood is almost exclusively a city of women_old and young, concentrated in a small retail strip along San Vicente Boulevard. There are women peppered with hunky aspiring actors; there are slinky actresses springing about, going from their auditions to their gymnasiums. It is a soap opera terrarium of post- humanized objects of desire pantherishly unleashed into the boudoir."
"It takes time, lots of little notepads and attention to the invisible," Coupland said recently when asked by a fan on America Online how he does the research for his books. "What do people keep in their glove compartments? If you were to check under their couches, what would you find?"
There are few works of ambitious fiction about the American business world, and of those that exist, even fewer are based on close observation. Business people tend to be imagined as passionless, pathetic men and women in monkey suits. Coupland is among the most prominent exceptions to this rule. He spent a few months collecting material among Microsoft employees in Seattle and among the denizens of Silicon Valley. He knows that, contrary to what one would think from reading most modern fiction, much of American life takes place where people work.
On the WELL, a Bay Area on-line service that attracts a lot of authors and journalists, there was a little discussion recently about the quality of Coupland's fact-gathering on the computer business. Some were arguing he got his journalism wrong. Others stepped up to defend him.
"Uh, journalism?" wrote Mike Godwin, a WELL regular who lives in Takoma Park. "I was under the impression that Coupland was writing fiction. . . . By the way, I understand that `Moby Dick' is not a realistic portrait of life aboard a whaler."
In an interview in his downtown Washington office, where Godwin is staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he elaborated on his enthusiastic views about Coupland as writer. Godwin, who started the on-line discussion, is a close follower of modern popular fiction from Pynchon to Gibson. He was a graduate student in literature before he went to law school.
As he spoke, Godwin was simultaneously eating lunch and writing furious e-mail about a controversial Time magazine article on cyperporn. Among the writers he said Coupland calls to mind: Updike, Burroughs, Melville. Click click click went the keys.
You'd really place him in that league?
"You have to think about Flaubert, who gets deep by getting the surface of things very right. I think you see a consistency of tone and a consistency of observation that gives you a sense of richness and depth."
Godwin is in a minority. The book reviewers seldom rate Coupland a great artist. More typical are those who, while praising the way he captures a cultural milieu, are left cold by his characters. Wrote one participant of a cyber-discussion on Coupland: "The Hardy boys were better for character development."
Still, Anne Wheeler of San Anselmo, Calif., responded to all the WELL talk about whether Coupland accurately captured the culture of high-tech with this message: "I can't speak to the veracity of the environments described in the book, but it spoke to my heart in the development of friendships and the meaning of family. It's sort of embarrassing to find yourself crying while riding to work on the Larkspur ferry."
Coupland, in the middle of a late-night phone conversation: "Wouldn't it be great if you found out the Unabomber was, like, Morgan Fairchild?"
Of all Coupland's ongoing obsessions, perhaps the most interesting is his belief that our memories are now largely defined by commercially manufactured culture. The Shake `n Bake commercial you saw back in third grade is just as vivid, if not more so, as your memory of the first time you rode a bicycle without training wheels.
He is not troubled by the persistence of this "popular database"_in fact, he believes it brings people together. When offered the notion that there are actually Americans who have relatively small such databases_someone raised in Nepal by American parents_he says he would feel kind of sorry for that person. Such a "cultural blank" wouldn't know about, say, the significance of "Reuben Kinkaid sleep goggles."
He fills his books with such allusions to popular and corporate culture. On a randomly selected page of "Microserfs" one finds references to: the Ice Follies, Smurfs-on-Ice, "tousled mall hair," spandex, Lego, Canon photocopy shop, "Melrose Place," Dustbuster, the Internet.
This is the kind of thing teachers in creative-writing programs abhor.
Coupland, who has read a lot of novels (he loves Nancy Mitford and Richard Ford) but never studied writing, will hear none of it. "There's this sort of agreement that we have as a culture, that the memories you have from watching television or flipping through the pages of a magazine are not real memories, that memories happen `out there.' . . . What if we democratized memory and said, `I'm not going to put my memories on a high-low spectrum,' and we made all memories equal?"
Maybe he's on to something. Or maybe not. But more than most of what appears in new fiction by young writers these days, it's an idea that makes you think hard about the kind of society we have become. In fact, such ideas are what Coupland is all about. The novels often feel like vehicles for carting around his incisive, obsessive observations and constructs, which may be why his characters always feel not quite whole.
Last month in Details magazine, Coupland wrote an essay declaring the end of Generation X. He says he had meant the term to signify the ironic, sentimental yet wholly positive search for meaning that people his age and younger had been going through in a time of lowered economic expectations. But, he says, the phrase was conflated with other images of post-baby boomers for example those in the movie "Slacker" and took on all kinds of negative meanings he never intended.
In the same essay, Coupland reveals the origin of the term. He had been inspired by a book called "Class," a field guide by the literary and social critic Paul Fussell to the various social classes of North American society, from the very high to the very low. Fussell ends the book with a description of a group he calls X people: intellectual sorts who do not necessarily have money, are not snobs about pop culture, flout social conventions at will and continue to live throughout their adult lives the inquisitive, mischievous, eccentric, ironic life of the bohemian university student. Unlike aristocrats or middle-class or blue- collar sorts, these people defy easy categorization, thus the term X.
"Marketers and journalists never understood that X defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world," Coupland writes, in scolding those who appropriated his title for demographic purposes.
The only problem here is that Coupland himself gave it chronological meaning by putting the word "generation" in front of X. As he proved in the marginalia of that book, summing up and categorizing social and cultural trends in this sweeping way is one of his great strengths. He does it constantly, almost compulsively, as if it's the only way he can make sense of all the data he ingests every day.
So he's in an oddly untenable position. Reading his books often is like parachuting into one of those late-night conversations about the meaning of existence that college students allegedly are fond of having. Coupland has attempted to turn that ideal into an entire career, but in the process it's become a commercial product and inevitably lost its greatest quality: purity.
The lingering question, the one his huge audience ought to watch, is where he will take this strange dilemma.
"One of the great issues of the 21st century is going to be whether or not individuality survives," he said in a characteristic moment during one phone interview. Two sentences later he had moved on to the cultural significance of Michael and Lisa Marie.