Coupland's coup at embassy


From The Washington Times (February 24, 1994)

by Anne Gowen

Author Douglas Coupland - all trussed up in the black garb of a Canadian religious sect, his hair curled atop his pointy head - might seem an unlikely pop culture idol. But there he was in the granite-and-marble confines of the embassy of his home country, prattling "slacker-like" and signing copies of his latest book, "Life After God," for a bevy of gushing beauties.

"Your name's Amy?" he said to one twentysomething admirer, signing with a swooping hand and a 1970s quad-color pen. "Did you identify with Amy Carter when you were young?" ("Yes, as a matter of fact I did," she answered, surprised.)

"Laurie, that's a lovely name," Mr. Coupland said, moving on. "It's very late-20th-century, like freeways or ski vacations."

Spreading pop culture references as thick as peanut butter, so goes a typical conversation with Mr. Coupland. He's the author of the best-selling novel "Generation X," the 1991 work that gave a name to the 41 million Americans born after the baby boomers, from 1961 to 1971.

The author stepped away from the crowd - writers mostly, a few of whom have turned up as characters in his sometime autobiographical work - to talk about "Life After God," his new collection of short stories that features accompanying shaky-line doodles he did himself, a la Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

"Fiction is an amalgam," he confided. "Margaret Atwood once said she gives one character a freckle and everyone she's ever known with a freckle says, `That character, that's me completely.' Of course, it's never that direct."

Perhaps not - but this much is true: Right there on the steps of the Canadian Embassy, during the presidential inauguration last year, Mr. Coupland experienced the tiny epiphany that became the crux of his latest work. The moment shows up in the title story - where a young man, standing on the sidewalk listening to parade music, realizes he can feel after all.

"It was based on three or four wonderful days that were spent here, yah," he said.

With the new book, Mr. Coupland hopes to move out of the generational-debate ghetto (i.e., boomers vs. twentysomethings vs. the Social Security crowd) where his voice has so often been heard.

"People ask me if I have any religion and I don't know what to tell them," he said, although the book's theme - the members of Generation X reduced to searching for meaning in days without God - seems to be an answer.

"The thing that's great about what he's doing is that he's a student of people rather than the `Under-35 movement,' " said Eric Konigsberg, 25, a free-lance writer and Coupland pal. "You know all the cliches - everybody [in Generation X] has a PowerBook and has lots of CDs and nobody has a job and nobody's going to get married. It was a lot of empty rhetoric created by people making ad campaigns. Douglas has moved beyond that."

Flickering on the wall, natch, were six video screens showing random bits from television's inauspicious past, intermingled with six new Coupland-made videos now appearing on the pet Generation X cable network, MTV. In one, Mr. Coupland floats above a bright blue swimming pool, intoning, "As suburban children we floated at night in swimming pools the temperature of blood; pools the color of Earth as seen from outer space."

A cadre of talented writers turned up to wish Mr. Coupland well, including New Republic editors Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, and Naomi Wolf of "The Beauty Myth" fame. Canadian Ambassador and host Raymond Chretien also made a brief appearance.

Baby boomer Michael Kinsley, of CNN's "Crossfire," sidled in looking uncomfortable in the youngish crowd. ("More twentysomethings," he sighed, coming upon a knot of fresh faces in an adjacent room.)

He said he was halfway through the original Coupland volume, "Generation X," because he "wants to know what the other generation is thinking."

Also turning up were Xer's in full force, a phalanx of friends from Mr. Coupland's personal global village - New Yorkers, Washingtonians - as well as a back-of-the-room grouping of youngsters wearing post-grunge thrift shop togs and motorcycle garb, including two members of the punk band Fugazi, with attendant groupies engaged (for much of the evening) in an intense recounting of a recent trip to a shopping mall.

Global Village friend Michael Tchao flew in from San Francisco for the party. Mr. Tchao, 30, has the delightful job title of "Trouble Maker" (product planner) for Apple Computer Inc.

"A lot of what he wrote was resonant with my life," Mr. Tchao said. "The loneliness, sense of alienation."

Former Gap model Andrew Sullivan, for his part, came prepared. "I read [the book] in its original installments in Douglas' little handmade books," he said, referring to the fact that Mr. Coupland self-published each story and sent copies to friends before the book's official debut this month.

So what does he think of the new work?

"It's enchantingly Douglas," Mr. Sullivan said.