Reviews by Michael Brockington.
|The subject of Douglas Coupland's books is the culture we inhabit.
He sometimes comes across as a literary equivalent of Faith Popcorn, identifying
trends, inventing catchphrases to cope with the present. Traditional concerns
like plot and character get de-emphasized. If he's on-target then his characters
become instant stereotypes - immediately familiar, even if they have no
fictional precedent. It's easy to view a book like Generation X
as a lexicographer's handbook, a sociological study, rather than a piece
This first, and best-known novel, reinforces its pseudo-documentary impression through design. A running glossary fills out the margins, along with spot illos and the occasional cartoon. An appendix of economic statistics footnotes the thesis. Chapter titles are a tantalizing crossbreed of bumper sticker and McLuhanesque probe. "The Sun is Your Enemy", "Shopping is Not Creating", "Adventure Without Risk is Disneyland". This is a novel disguised as a magazine article, an enticingly packaged consumer object as up-to-date as next month's Sassy.
Coupland has currency. He coins words and phrases. He lends himself to description in the vocabulary of economics.
If Generation X was a ad agency wet-dream, if it froze a whole segment of youth culture in its headlights to be picked off by target-marketeers, is that really Douglas Coupland's fault? Can we blame him for infinitely annoying beer commercials and slacker sitcoms? All he did was get it right.
Except for Microserfs, almost all of Coupland's work has been written in the present tense. His characters operate in the tense of television, where even in flashback events are always happening now, in real time, as we watch. Laudatory dust-jacket quotes are drawn from fashion rags - Cosmo, Elle, Details - at least as often as respectable literary magazines. He flirts with the fashion vortex of absolute now, where being out of date is ample cause for mockery and abuse.
Coupland sees the present clearly, which is about as much as we expect of prophets nowadays. His fiction is so contemporary it has the zing of science fiction. Despite the humour, reading his collected output in one fell swoop was a cumulatively depressing experience. Of course, reading the paper has the same effect, without the insight.
My original copy of Generation X is inscribed, "To Michael, on the occasion of his 26th birthday." I haven't been 26 for some time, but I figure my generational loyalties should be disclosed.
In the novel, narrator Andy, and two other twenty-something drop-outs try to invent a meaningful way of living. They drift together in the California desert, disdain consumerism, and try to impose a layer of narrative on their lives by transmuting their past into fiction. Yuppies have destroyed the world: the desert is a preview of coming attractions.
Several years later, what I remembered most was the lethal humour of the writing. But I had forgotten, or overlooked at the time, how sharp and bitter an attack it was on the baby boomers. I suspect Coupland alienated a sizable chunk of readers with this first novel, and probably not a few critics, which may account for the minor backlash he seems to be suffering recently.
In the early '90's, yuppies were drawing plenty of flak, but Generation X still stands as an extreme manifesto of intergenerational warfare. The second page finds Andy's dogs lunching off discarded yuppie liposuction fat. It's an audacious, hilarious image and a compact illustration of a generation reduced to surviving on human waste and hand-me-downs both mental and physical. It certainly gives a different spin to "living off the fat of the land."
Coupland stacks the deck a bit. Setting these characters in the retirement community of Palm Springs emphasizes the age divide, and the desert provides a conveniently bleak landscape, all sagebrush and sarcoma. Boomer appearances are unsympathetic, but the worst contempt is reserved for desperate yuppie wannabes, Gen-X turncoats.
Given that the basic theme could be overstated as "Eat Your Parents" (one of the chapter titles), Coupland is surprisingly even-handed when it comes to depicting the lead character's mother and father. They are atypically well-meaning, despite bafflement at their offspring that must rival birds faced with a cuckoo hatchling.
Summarized, the book sounds like a self-involved whine; as developed in the novel, it is unceasingly clever, and filled with endless small moments of recognition. Not of people or situations, necessarily, but of thoughts and emotions. I have a hard time dismissing writing that seems so congruent with my own experience. In 1996 the analysis still seems essentially accurate; the focus is simply too narrow.
Shampoo Planet features the younger siblings of Generation X. Rebelliously conservative, religious preference: materialism. These kids still congregate at the mall, even though most of the shops are boarded up, and only feel safe buying heavily advertised products. They worship the God of the Marketplace, not out of faith, but because there's no other deity to turn to. Their devotion to manufactured goods has the paranoid quality of survivalists stocking up for the Big One.
Narrator Tyler lives at home and studies hotel management, in between trips to Europe and excursions to California. This is a road-novel about people who still live with their parents. The family which was largely absent in Generation X enters the foreground in strange permutations: flower-child mother, ex-stepfather a failed real-estate speculator, biodad a stoned-age hippie dinosaur.
The economic affliction broadens in Shampoo Planet. Boomer parental-units are victims as much as perpetrators of an expanding recession. Even the obliviously wealthy grandparents manage to lose their equity in a mutual fund fraud, and are reduced to a multi-level marketing scheme involving pet-food. Multi-level marketing stands as the template of a self-consuming post-consumer economy whose primary product is salesmen. A phantom economy emerges where everyone is self-employed, but nobody works.
Life After God is a collection of short stories, many set in the Lower Mainland. The borders of fiction blur, with Gen-X observed in its native habitat. The characters here are a bit older, like the author, and less angry than before, for good or ill. Prozac is starting to look like a sensible career-planning tool. The first few stories are slight - the landscapes seem over-familiar, though whether to myself or to Coupland is a valid question. Later stories are consistently strong.
I remember the following lines being much-quoted in reviews:
... 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. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.
I think this was interpreted as an apology for being such a smart-ass in his first two novels. And it's true they risked irony overdose, both in the characters and in the writing itself, which could grow tiresome. It was a more restrained version of the attitude that makes David Letterman such a comedy nazi, a pathological inability to treat anything seriously.
One character suggests, "Beyond a certain age, sincerity ceases to feel pornographic." Life After God certainly avoids any comedy surplus.
There are other signs of contrition for past boomer-bashing. Another character admits, "I feel like the punch-line to a joke I might have told you ten years ago." There appear for the first time narrators who are parents rather than children. There's even a concession that Gen-X'ers, on the North Shore of Vancouver at least, may have suffered extraordinarily privileged childhoods.
Without the gleaming surface of irony, though, the aggregate emotion evoked by Life After God is an almost overwhelming sadness.
It was a great relief to encounter resurgent comedy in Microserfs. In Coupland's most recent novel, a group of young software coders escape Microsoft Corporation to start their own Silicon Valley software company. Call it Life After Bill. Nerds emerge from a corporate-sponsored extended adolescence and develop personalities en-route to a post-human condition.
The book is eerily cheerful. By this point, even corporate giants like IBM are being dismembered by an amok economy. The belief that any particular group can be blamed has evaporated, which provides one perverse reason for the upbeat feeling that pervades the novel.
Everything Coupland's published to date has been written in the first person. This is deceptive, making it easier to assume the imagination, research, skill of his writing is simply disguised autobiography. The high-technology nerd milieu of Microserfs provides a convincing counter-example, a markedly different setting from his previous work. As someone who has spent chunks of the last 8 years as a computer programmer, I feel qualified to assert that Coupland does a mighty convincing job of getting into the heads of this gaggle of geeks. He makes their vocabulary his own. If one of the milestones of learning a new language is being able to joke in it, then Coupland speaks fluent geek.
My final impression of Microserfs is of a kind of literary clearcut - there doesn't seem much point in anyone else tackling the topic for a few decades.
Polaroids From the Dead is Coupland's latest and least successful book, a grab-bag of short pieces -- fiction and non. The first third consists of ten very short stories set in the world of Grateful Dead fanatics. Deadheads seem an ideal subject: a dropout subculture, alternative community, even a hint of generational conflict between old-guard sixties survivors and the young kids hooked into the scene by the famous performing skeleton video on MTV. But somehow it all seems too superficial; Coupland doesn't manage to convince us that he understands what motivates such an extreme lifestyle.
The middle section includes four stories set in the political milieu of Washington, D.C., some brief travel writing and a few bits of autobiography. These make for an interesting comparison, sharing the North Vancouver setting of several short stories in Life After God, but being distinctly less compelling. The stories retain a titillating sense of biography, without losing the suggestion of underlying meaning, of a coherent narrative which seems more plausible in fiction than in life.
"Brentwood Notebook" is the last and by far most interesting third of the collection. Billed as 'municipal analysis', it's a longer essay on the Brentwood suburb of L.A. with the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Brown Simpson providing the structural underpinnings.
The consistency of tone which flowed through the individual stories in Life After God is absent in Polaroids From the Dead. Much of the material was previously published in magazines. Collecting it here is convenient, but more marketing opportunity than publishing event. Full page photographs are scattered through the book in an effort to impose some unifying feature, but the tactic is successful only in terms of design. The images themselves are curiously impersonal and unaffecting, often drawn from stock photo banks, and flattened still further by low-contrast reproduction.
The thrifty might prefer to simply dig up The New Republic from December 1994, where portions of the "Brentwood Notebook" first appeared. When you think about it, isn't the notion of reprinting stale-dated Coupland almost heretical?
Generation X was subtitled "Tales for an Accelerated Culture." The phrase is stamped on the cover like an FDA seal of approval. This is the first axiom, the dominant metaphor of Coupland's work.
Cultural acceleration is not simply change, but the speed of change, the rate at which things speed up. Social change between 1996 and 1986 was far greater than between, say, 1956 and 1946. The world where modern youth operates is so distant from that of their parents that the generation gap escalates into generation warfare - breaking out into open combat at the end of Shampoo Planet. Even the minor age difference between siblings is sufficient to produce separate tribes.
Coupland's characters are stratified into social groups, not by ethnicity, nationality or even social class, but by age. These groups become a necessary substitute for family, when relatives seem kindly strangers at best, indifferent predators at worst.
In an accelerated culture, the past becomes a place without differentiation. Any personal connection gets lost as family and geographical roots are eroded. There's no real separation between Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Sex Pistols. Neither exist in the current moment, but reproductions of either can be accessed with equal ease. Our information society makes history more available, but less real. History becomes another commodity, available to those who can afford it, and tailored to suit the customer. Indeed, for these characters, the twentieth century reduces primarily to a history of consumer trends: clothing, hairdos, architectural styles, fashions in industrial materials and design.
Why Polaroids? Because polaroids are immediate, capable of capturing the present. Snapshots would acquire the taint of history in the time between taking the photograph and developing the film.
Memory becomes the only method of accessing history in an unpackaged form. It's our only access to authentic experience beyond the moment. And in an accelerated society, our storage limits of memory are rapidly exceeded, filled to overflowing by constant overstimulation, a glut of ersatz media memories. It's a theme that surfaces strongly in Life After God, and returns in the autobiographical section of Polaroids From the Dead:
Like many people my age, I was exposed to extreme amounts of well-produced, high-quality information and entertainment from birth onward. The other day I saw a Shake n'Bake TV commercial, one I had not seen in twenty years, and in a flash, the whole commercial came back to me, as though I had just seen it five minutes ago. So I guess my head is stuffed with an almost-endless series of corporation-sponsored consumer tableaux of various lengths...
I think the unspoken agreement between us as a culture is that we're not supposed to consider the commercialized memories in our head as real, that real life consists of time spent away from TVs, magazines and theaters.
I suppose novels by Douglas Coupland could be added to that list. Although surely there is some payoff for Coupland in having his memories and fantasies archived on paper and in the brains of others.
The software engineers of Microserfs are likewise preoccupied with memory and its limits. Ultimately though, they remain sanguine; after all, it's a hardware problem. As such, it only represents a temporary technological bottleneck.
Memory is only the first thing to go: people age quickly in the accelerated culture. "Dead at 30, Buried at 70" is the slogan from Generation X. (And presumably, the Sixties catchphrase has evolved into "Never Trust Anyone Under 30.")
The role models in Microserfs are first generation silicon wonderboys who seemingly become millionaires in early adolescence and retire at 35 to run bait shops. The narrator, Daniel Underwood, feels nearly washed up in the multimedia business by age 26, with a target market of 12 year old boys. Even his name is a giveaway, a typewriter in the age of word-processors.
Under such conditions it's quite sensible to schedule a mid-life crisis for your early twenties, like the characters in Generation X. Every aspect of adult life has been pre-experienced many times over through television and other media, before ever being encountered in actuality. One becomes jaded before the fact, particularly when the real event lacks the dramatic structure of infotainment. When synthetic experiences are larger-than-life, the merely real is anti-climactic.
TV advertising during the Olympics provides a timely example. Several current commercials use the motif of miraculous sporting prowess to push their products: people pole-vaulting over skyscrapers, diving off impossibly high waterfalls, out-racing jet aircraft. The Olympic athletes may be operating at the extreme limits of human possibility, but this is simply inadequate for the dramatic needs of a 30 second commercial.
In fact, aging is only a slow biological counterpart to the primary anxiety which spills over from the industrial world: obsolescence. Biology has its own rather inflexible pace, but obsolescence has the ability to move with the speed of the marketplace. Age once implied a reservoir of experience, wisdom, respect; being obsolete lacks any redeeming quality. In an accelerated society, the experiences of the elders are irrelevant to the young, and old-age devolves to obsolescence. With a payoff like that, who would expect one generation to pass along their power willingly to the next?
The Microserfs are convinced that homo sapiens is becoming obsolete as a species. Nor does the prospect seem to alarm them much. They are eager to evolve. Only the stubbornly human seem to find the environment of late market capitalism intolerable.
The "Brentwood Notebook" engages the same anxieties. Here the dominant culture is one of body fanatics, delaying aging through diet, exercise, steroids, plastic surgery, whatever. Marilyn Monroe, just prior to her death, is identified as the first instance of the post-famous individual, the human husk rendered superfluous by her own celebrity image. O.J. Simpson shows up as a modern counterpart. The O.J. industry continues, with tie-in books riding the bestseller list, but Simpson himself is now entirely beside the point, and incapable of controlling how he appears to the world.
At the same time as it homogenizes history, acceleration erodes the possibility of the future. In Generation X, even science fiction stories the characters invent are set in the past, in a sort of no-future future on an asteroid where the year is permanently 1974. Moving too fast, the future becomes past before we have a chance to glimpse it. The rate of change is unnatural, unsustainable, evoking a millennial sense of being at the end of history. Brakes are too feeble to slow us down: the only possibility for deceleration is a cataclysmic collision. Apocalypse becomes the one alternative to runaway change.
Nuclear armageddon appears first as a tale one of the characters relates in Generation X. It recurs in "The Wrong Sun", one of the stories in Life After God, in very similar form. The latter story catalogs fantasies about nuclear annihilation in a series of seductive, fetishistically detailed snapshots of the end of everything, each capped by the hypnotic tag-line "...and then I was dead."
In a deranged way, these vignettes come across as cold-war nostalgia, bathed in that golden glow of a better time. They betray longing for a moment when it still seemed possible the world could be made simple in an instant. The sheer attraction of the image reveals how deeply out of control the world now appears. With mutually assured destruction, at least we were assured of something.
Polaroids From the Dead includes a portrait of Los Alamos converting to a post-armageddon tourist economy, complete with plans for a Museum of the Nuclear Age. A similar mood of faded glory prevails. "Nostalgia is a Weapon" was one of the side-bar catch-phrases of Generation X. And what is nostalgia exactly? Only the assumption that the past is superior to the future. Nostalgia is the natural defensive posture of an accelerated culture.
Coupland's books themselves are deliberate artifacts of acceleration, tailored to the leisure-challenged and easily distracted. Little of substance remains in the mind after reading: the words precipitate out, leaving behind a pure extract of the chosen subculture. Nothing lingers, due to the essential plotlessness of most of his writing. This is not criticism, really -- just a stylistic observation. Plots require attention spans, the linking of cause and effect. In an TV-conditioned culture, plots are vestigial appendages good only for attracting plagiarism law-suits.
Life After God is a collection of short stories, packaged with so few words to the page it resembles a reading primer, an impression reinforced by the childlike drawings and generous addition of white space. Polaroids From the Dead is likewise a selection of shorter pieces, padded with photographs. Generation X is structured to a large degree as a series of self-contained stories which the main characters relate to one-another in convenient bite-sized morsels, while Microserfs is written as a journal, many of its entries only a sentence or two long.
These books reduce to collections of incident, observation , conversation that elaborate their themes, without much in the way of obvious narrative structure. In such a diffuse environment, the occasional eruptions of action acquire considerable power.
Alienation from the natural world is a second core condition in the Coupland universe. His characters are products of constructed environments, creatures of suburban utopia. Utopia, of course, is a non-place - neither city, nor country, but some replica of a non-existent ideal. Suburbs transcend geography, generically replicated throughout North America. They repudiate history and genealogy. A suburb is a place where people live, but not a place anyone comes from.
One reason the Brentwood works so well as a subject for Coupland is that the locale is such an uber-suburb, an "anonymous, invisible Los Angeles neighborhood" circumscribed only by a zip-code. This is a landscape that can match his most exaggerated ironies with reality.
Wilderness becomes the subconscious of these self-conscious, engineered communities, repressed so savagely that it only achieves visibility at the scale of natural catastrophe - drought, firestorm, eclipse, global warming. Shampoo Planet includes periodic tables in which the standard elements - Iron, Copper, etc. - have been replaced by the fundamental building blocks of consumer society - Subdivisions, Celebrity, Credit Cards, Anorexia. It's a dream-perfect metaphor of technology displacing the natural world at the most basic level.
Those rare moments when Coupland's characters find peace, happiness, even transcendence almost always occur through a chance re-connection with the natural world. At the end of Generation X, it's a close encounter with a snowy egret over a burning field, while Shampoo Planet finishes with something akin to the accidental invasion of the narrator's apartment by a small zoo. In the final story in Life After God, the main character flees to the wilderness of Vancouver Island after antidepressants prove an inadequate means of adjusting to consumer society.
Wilderness is defined by the absence of the man-made, providing a refuge from our media environment. As such, it is the only reliable source of authentic, versus reproduced experience. It even offers an escape from acceleration, where the controlling rhythms are diurnal and seasonal, fundamental cycles that are still immune from human intervention.
There are points of ambiguity in Life After God, however; moments where technology and nature reconcile. A glow-in-the-dark Frisbee that attracts bats, a cordless phone used to eavesdrop on a beehive.
There is even a belated awareness that the suburbs weren't necessarily designed to be the antithesis of wilderness. The original template probably wasn't Love Canal. More likely, it was supposed to be the Garden of Eden, where nature was be integral, but never threatening, and God was your next-door neighbor.
Suburbia reaches its perfect worldly expression in the clean plastic abstractions of Lego, which is the common childhood obsession of the characters in Microserfs. Their proposed software product is an interactive 3D Lego World, a program that would install suburban utopia in the ideal no-place of virtual reality. Here at last is the landscape of perfect control, where wilderness exists only as simulation. It's a sterile vision of heaven that seems fearfully close to possibility.
Coupland is a neologist as much as a novelist. He works with buzz-words and slogans, advertising riffs, brand names, technological jargon, all the disconnected verbiage of our mutating media environment. These are the viral bits of language that colonize our brain. What Coupland manages to do is co-opt them, re-organize them to his own ends, edit the babble into a structure of meaning.
If you don't share his vocabulary and references, his work will always seem opaque and uninteresting. I had a taste of this in a couple of the short pieces included in Polaroids From the Dead, which are rife with art and architectural references I cannot decode. The two articles left me bored and annoyed, but I am reluctant to suggest that their impenetrable surface is equivalent to superficiality.
If you speak his language, then Coupland can translate all these words
about things into words about people. These sorry expressions acquire meaning
through a sometimes overwhelming avalanche of metaphor, through their continuous
application to what is human. He makes the denatured words that swirl around
us into something palpable, something whose significance can be felt, something
which -- in the purest meaning -- makes sense.