The Un-Ironist: A Primer on Douglas Coupland’s Novels

October 5, 2010 | 13 books mentioned 9 12 min read

1. Couplândia

“I’m not saying that the bulk of novels out there aren’t art — they are — they’re just not modern art.”

Douglas Coupland, “Why Write Modern Fiction?

How ironic that Douglas Coupland, the man who popularized the term “Generation X”, turns out to be one of the least ironic novelists of his generation. His novels may, on the whole, be loaded with typographical trickery, brand names of the nanosecond, slacking youngsters, and Simpsons references, but he’s also deep into a suite of timelessly, radically un-hip novelistic themes. At the lightest readerly touch, Coupland’s smirking surfaces and visual bravado give way to a landslide of questions and concerns about, as Andrew Tate put it in his book-length study of Coupland’s writing, “conviction, community, connection, and continuity.”

Take Coupland’s work as a whole and his strengths become starkly apparent. He’s especially good when writing in the voice of an actual character, not a neutral, disembodied narrator. (He’s even better when writing as several of them.) Often criticized for peppering his texts with marketing detritus forgotten or best forgotten — Tae Bo, Gap, Pets.com — he deals with the timeless human problems best when discussing them in parallel with things so disposable. His penchant for suddenly dropping protagonists into bizarre scenarios also draws reviewer heat, but when he successfully mixes the very bizarre and the very mundane, there’s nothing quite like it in literature. He’ll often steer away from the norms of plotting and typesetting tradition, and when he does, the harder he cranks the wheel, the better.

The less conventionally novelly a novel Coupland writes, in short, the richer it is. He appears to understand this. “It seems the more experimental my work gets,” he writes in the blog post quoted above, “the more people respond to it.” This was borne out during my own immersion in the ink-and-paper world I’ve come to call Couplândia. The author begins his literary career at the dawn of the 1990s, a healthy yen for experimentation governing his watchful eye for the moment. This slowly weakens, bottoming out in the early 2000s. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it returns with an new intensity, allowing him to produce novels delivering the distilled, unadulterated — and to his fans, annoyingly addictive — essence of Coupland.

2. The generational books

coverThe idea and the reality of Generation X, the novel that made Coupland’s name, are surprisingly different. While generation-flavored enough to fit under this heading, it’s only just. More apt is the oft-made comparison to Boccaccio’s Decameron, in that it’s a book of fictional characters who themselves invent fictions. Lacking prospects of a fulfilling career or even a stable identity, Andy, Claire, and Dag each independently move out to a chintzy motel-ish complex of bungalows in the (then even more geriatric-geared) desert town of Palm Springs. There, they work future-free jobs and search for conviction/community/connection/continuity — a sort of makeshift family, even — by telling each other stories. Sure, they drop references to 1960s and 1970s media culture, attempt to build identities by futilely repurposing midcentury trends, and bitterly resent the Baby Boomers, but there’s more to it than that.

Take the novel’s ending, in which narrator Andy speeds toward what he thinks is the mushroom cloud civilization has spent the Cold War waiting for. He approaches and realizes that it’s just smoke from farmers burning a rice field. A pure white egret flying in front of the wall of blackness catches his eye. A bus full of developmentally disabled teens stops to watch too. When the egret swoops too low and slashes Andy’s scalp, the kids swarm, all clumsily trying to hug him at once. At first he’s frightened. Then he doesn’t want them to stop. I have come to regard this as a quintessential Coupland moment.

coverIt’s also one of the elements missing from Generation X’s 1992 follow-up, Shampoo Planet. Where Coupland’s first novel portrays an age cohort that has effectively opted out of politics and the economy, his second portrays a slightly younger one that has opted out more or less out of politics but opted way in to the economy. Its main character, named and modeled closely after Andy’s clean-living, financially grasping little brother Tyler, dreams of nothing more than heavily gelling his hair, hanging out the mall, and rising through the ranks of a large defense contractor. He’s a representative of what Coupland (and Tyler himself) terms the “Global Teens”. The book satirizes them, but — and perhaps this is evident in the phrase “Global Teens” alone — I’m unsure how well it knows them.

coverMicroserfs, however, knows its subjects, and well. Published in 1995, Coupland’s third novel is ostensibly the contents of its main character’s PowerBook. Daniel Underwood, a lowly bug-catcher employed by a Microsoft at the height of its powers, finds himself at the center of a group defection from Redmond to Silicon Valley. The move is as much mental as geographical: first they’re replaceable (but comfortable) drones in a sprawling corporate hive, then frantic (but innovative) paddlers on a leaky start-up raft. Their new company, called Interiority, produces an odd combination of programming language and 3D modeling environment called Oop!

Coupland cares about the Microserfs-turned-Interiorites’ relationships with technology, with one another, and how the former and the latter interact. Some find love, some gain and lose ideologies, some get sick, some finally get in touch with their sexuality, and some get really nice shiatsu massages. Yet at the same time, the book is awash in artifacts of mid-1990s technology, geek, and popular culture: laser pointers, “Stop the insanity!”, Gak, the Virtual Boy. It’s the clearest early example of one of Coupland’s primary strengths, a Beatlesque ability to combine extreme datedness and extreme timelessness.

Two more strengths are also on display. The text-as-digital-document conceit lets Coupland bust out a typographical creativity that, while glimpsable in Generation X, runs relatively wild here.  Some of the pages represent “subconscious files” in Daniel’s PowerBook, which are haphazardly (or so it seems) covered by disconnected phrases like “Demonize the symbolic analysis,” “Uranium and Beethoven,” “Define random,” and “You’re smarter than TV. So what?

The novel also delivers more abrupt moments of absurdist humor than its two predecessors combined. While these have multiplied in Coupland’s more recent work, I still think none beat this passage from Microserfs:

Emmett has 4,000 manga comics from Japan. They’re so violent and dirty! The characters all look  as if they’re saying unbelievably important things — talking to God and the Wizard of the Universe — but when you translate them, all they’re really doing is making belching noises.

Maybe you had to be there.

3. The reverse experiments

To look at Generation X, with its wonky large format and artistic-informational sidebars, or Microserfs, with its words all over the place at so many different scales, you’d assume they were the work of an avant-gardist with an unusually porous mental wall between literature and visual art. You’d be right, in a sense. Though it’s unclear how much Coupland accepts the “avant-garde” label, he’s a visual artist as well as a novelist. His two personalities aren’t usually compartmentalized, except in 1998 through 2001, when Coupland’s novelistic mind seemed to endure an uncharacteristic bout of traditionalism. Though they’re pretty much devoid of geekdom or other such subcultures, the three novels published in this period don’t suffer from particularly conventional content. They do, however, suffer from conventional form.

coverGirlfriend in a Coma, by far the strongest of the trio, explores with startling directness a few of what have become Coupland’s signature themes. Karen, the titular girlfriend, falls into her titular coma at the end of high school in late-1970s Vancouver. Her circle of friends — and especially her boyfriend Richard, who seems to do a lot of the narration — grind through life, some aimlessly and some with blinders on, until Karen wakes up in the late 1990s. A media circus erupts around the woman, who, if you think about it, is kind of a time traveler.

But in the future though she may be, Karen doesn’t like the future she sees. Through her eyes, late 20th-century society is both hardened and dissolute, filled with people drifting unmoored both from absolute values and from one another. Coupland builds toward Karen’s return to the living and confession of disappointment by riding the suspense lever with almost Stephen King-like hand. When an inexplicable, fast-spreading malady kills off everyone but Karen and those close to her, comparisons to embossed-cover types are even harder to resist. But King, Koontz, Patterson, et al. probably wouldn’t have ended a book with the ghost of a notoriously horny high school football player lecturing the characters about their failure to adequately foster the communal sphere and define nobler aims for themselves and each other.

coverCould you call Coupland a moralist? In a sense, you could, though the moralism of a book like Girlfriend in a Coma is very much his own, and thus at least more interesting than most. Unfortunately, 2000’s Miss Wyoming picks easier targets. It tells two stories, non-chronologically and in parallel, though they eventually bend and converge. One is of Susan Colgate, a floundering television actress and former professional beauty pageant entrant. Presumed dead in an airliner crash of which she was actually the sole survivor, Susan seizes the chance to escape her life and high-gloss aspirational harridan of a mother. The other is of John Johnson, a hacky Hollywood producer, sort of a Don Simpson who bottomed out, flatlined, and went on an impoverished Kerouac-style vision quest instead of just dying. Unfulfilled to say the least by his foray into humiliating modern asceticism, he starts to suspect that Susan might be the answer to his questions about existence.

coverBoth Miss Wyoming and Coupland’s next novel, 2001’s All Families Are Psychotic, suffer from a plot problem. That is to say, they’ve got too much of it. Miss Wyoming‘s John and Susan, incomplete searchers both, seem always to be performing the next action in a long causal chain, which itself was a result of whatever falling dominoes happened to precede it. The same goes for the troubled, partially criminal, largely AIDS-afflicted Drummond clan at the center of All Families are Psychotic. If we aren’t watching these characters’ elaborate peregrinations and collisions, we’re on a drip feed of explanatory information about their pasts. This sounds normal, and it is; that’s the problem. It’s certainly not normal by Coupland’s standards. How I longed for the freedom from these standard novel syndromes enjoyed, for instance, by the relatively plotless Generation X.

It’s a shame these novels have execution troubles, because Coupland’s interests are still there, and his interests remain, er, interesting. This is mostly true of All Families Are Psychotic, which is in parts driven by cogitation about noble lies, generational incompatibility, the disintegration of the public sphere, and crippled humanistic optimism. Janet, the enervated Drummond matriarch, laments her place as a member of “a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances of doing the right thing — to care about caring.” At some hard-to-define point, she simply “stopped believing in the future,” as so many Coupland characters do, not that they always understand they’ve done so, let alone state it so baldly.

Where Girlfriend in a Coma debuted Coupland’s way with multiple narrating characters, Miss Wyoming and All Families Are Psychotic are told in the third person, omnisciently. That the effect is so deadening reveals the inseparability of first-person narration (especially from several persons) from what’s great about Coupland’s fiction.

4. The calm

cover2003’s Hey Nostradamus!, a textbook example of that most delightful literary genre, the return to form, seems conceived down to its very structure to exploit Coupland’s skill of letting the cast write the book. Its central event is a Columbine-style school shooting. (Or, given Coupland’s Canadian-ness and his proclivity to root his books firmly in his native land from this point forward, an École Polytechnique-style shooting.) Coupland interprets this massacre and its legacy through four different consciousnesses: Cheryl, a teenage victim speaking from a life-death borderland; Jason, Cheryl’s secret husband who subsequently falls into long-term chaotic isolation; Heather, the woman with whom Jason eventually finds some degree of solace; and Reg, Jason’s dogmatically religious, monstrously domineering father.

As in Coupland’s other novels, families wield less of an influence than you’d expect over their members, and when they can muster any power, it tends to be of the restrictive or damaging kind. What do the real good and ill are extrafamilial bonds and social units: young Cheryl and Jason’s marriage, made official one surreptitious afternoon in Vegas; their Christian youth group, exerting tremendous pressure and sanctimony even in adulthood; an under-the-table child-fathering arrangement between Jason and his brother’s widow; the doomed, camo-clad three-man shooting squad, their motivations refreshingly never diagrammed.

coverIt’s the same way in Eleanor Rigby, Coupland’s 2005 novel and his brief return to single-character-narrated narrative. That character is Liz Dunn, a plain, overweight, middle-aged office worker who, despite having near-unlimited spending power from well-timed Microsoft stock purchases, nonetheless remains invisible to society. Her actual family, resembling a cloud of semi-benevolent mosquitoes, does her no favors. It’s not until her long-lost, terminally ill son turns up that she experiences any real human-to-human connection. Born suddenly and almost unexpectedly twenty years earlier, when Liz was a teenager, the foster-raised Jeremy brings to this near-featureless setting an embattled but enthusiastic engagement with life and a series of apocalyptic pastoral visions about “farmers [who] had lost their belief in the possibility of changing the world.”

Loneliness: it’s beyond obvious in Eleanor Rigby, but it’s evident in all of Coupland’s novels so far. Despite usually enjoying each other’s company, Andy, Claire, and Dag all live their desultory lives in response to loneliness. Despite his drive, his 100-percent modern bedroom, and his vast collection of hair care products, Tyler nonetheless finds himself trapped in moments of loneliness. Daniel and his hard-coding coterie beat down their loneliness with technology, a habit they their story overcoming. Thrust into a new and unfamiliar era by her coma, Karen can’t avoid loneliness; dragged into it by time and life itself, her friends can’t avoid theirs. Desperate to fill their own emptinesses but knowing only the frameworks others have thrust them into, Susan and John walk their lonely, (mostly) separate paths. Each of the Drummonds are embroiled in their own lonely crises, until their crises merge into one big family crisis. Lost between the living and the dead, Cheryl is doubtlessly lonely; stripped at once of both wife and belief system, Jason is lonelier still; when Jason disappears, his girlfriend becomes so lonely that she falls prey to a low-class psychic; with one son missing, one dead, and everyone else in his life driven away by control-freakishness masked as religiosity, Jason’s father is lonely indeed. But in Coupland’s oeuvre, Liz is the loneliness queen.

5. The explosions

coverBut oh, how even to sketch a context for jPod? Published in 2006, it comes a bit over a decade after Microserfs and is often discussed as an update to it. In that sense, it has a logical place in Coupland lineup of novels, but in another, more immediate sense, it seems to have sprung, spontaneously and without inhibition, straight from the man’s id. It’s 447 pages of three-letter words, classic arcade machine specifics, Chinese characters for concepts like “boredom” and “pornography,” walls of text made up of not quite non sequiturs, love letters to Ronald McDonald, and random numbers. It’s Coupland’s most divisive book, and no wonder.

There’s a main narrative in there, somewhere, about a cubicle cluster of misfits at a Vancouver video game firm. (None dare mention the name Electronic Arts.) This “jPod”, so dubbed because of its J-surnamed members, is assigned a thankless task: go back and insert an edgy turtle character based on the host of Survivor into a skateboarding game already in development. Buffeted by the substantial winds blown by his marijuana-growing mom, his philandering actor dad, his nonsensical workplace, his aggressively lazy co-workers, and a threatening yet amiable Chinese people-smuggler who makes his boss disappear — not to mention a spiteful, cynical version of Douglas Coupland himself — narrating jPodder Ethan just tries to cope.

coverCompared to jPod, any book would seem subdued, especially the epistolary novel The Gum Thief which followed the next year. But in its quiet way, it’s the stranger of the two works. Taking his multiple-voice technique to its limit, Coupland composes the book as a series of letters, journal entries, short stories, and novella excerpts passed between Roger, a fortysomething alcoholic divorcée with a dead son, and Bethany, a chunky, disaffected young goth with a dumb boyfriend. Both work at the same branch of Staples. Roger writes to Bethany, Bethany writes to Roger, Roger writes his novella, Bethany reads his novella, and Roger’s wife and Bethany’s mother are contributing their own epistles as well, each small text influencing the others. It’s a hall of mirrors, at some turns: Roger’s novella itself contains a novel whose protagonist seems a lot like Roger himself.

But jeez, that novella. Glove Pond is one of the most engaging fictional bad books I’ve ever read. Though at first it simply seems inept, it develops throughout The Gum Thief into a true masterpiece of deep askewness. Something’s badly wrong with this bizarre Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pastiche’s every sentence, but, like any art rotten at its core, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what:

Within minutes, all the cheese and crackers were gone, and Gloria had eaten the two pickles. Now what would they feed their guests? Steve remembered some pancake mix at the rear of their cupboard. Was the mix beweeviled? That’s okay. Heat will kill them.

coverSwitching narrators every chapter also forms the structural foundation of Generation A, Coupland’s most recent novel. It sounds like a jPod to Generation X’s Microserfs, which isn’t far from the truth. Coupland once again brings together a group of young people to tell stories for one another, except this time it’s in a slowly emerging future setting where bees have died out as a side effect, as it were, of the production of a drug that stops its users from thinking about the future or their fellow man. The kids, loosely speaking, aren’t just North American this time; they’re from New Zealand, Canada, France, the United States, and Sri Lanka.

It’s a more elaborate, international, science fiction-y version of Generation X, then? The assessment sounds dismissive, but the concept that both books share, that storytelling offers the last line of defense against a barren world of social isolation — against loneliness and disconnection — is still relevant. It’s unlikely to get less so.

6. An earnest apocalypse

Are we really headed for a such a bleak future? Is it really because we’re ignoring it, because of our willful information bombardment, our mass denial of absolutes, our retreat into our individual selves, and the breakdown in our ability to hear and tell stories? It’s the scenario each and every one of Douglas Coupland’s novels warns us against. Yet somehow that never ends up being the feeling I take away from any of them. I close most Douglas Coupland novels with a mind jazzed on fresh literary possibilities, not just because he breaks so well from threadbare forms and hybridizes so well with foreign ones — especially visual “pop art,” of which his novels are an equivalent — but because he does it in a way that no small quantity of people seem to actually read. Call it a victory of slickness over substance or marketing by minutiae if you must; in experimental fiction, that’s a world-saving feat.

, in addition to his journalistic and blogging pursuits, produces video and sound art and hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas.

9 comments:

  1. Great work; I’ve been wanting to know more about Coupland for ages. My basic question is still unanswered by this: which would be the best book to start with? Microserfs seems original and typical of his style, right? Or Gum Thief?

  2. Coupland’s short story collection “Life After God” is absent from this piece but i’ve always considered it to be one of his best works. Maybe not the ideal book to start with but definitely worth reading down the line.

  3. Absent indeed, because I only had the resources to take on the English-language novels. I’ll include Life After God, City of Glass, Terry, both Souvenirs of Canada, Polaroids from the Dead, and God Hates Japan in an expanded version. Maybe.

  4. Only read Generation X, but that was enough to spur interest. Found a lot of myself in that book, the good and the not so good.

    Great as always. Many thanks, Mr. Marshall. Big fan of your blogging/writing/whatever you feel it should be called. Keep at it.

  5. Rick, that looks like a delightful show. I’m going to download the podcast of it (I assume there is one) with all deliberate speed.

    Ben, thanks much. The “whatever you feel it should be called” issue has actually become a problem; I’ve got no obvious good (or obviously good) way to market myself. But I’ll keep pluggin’ away, ’cause I got no alternative.

  6. If you haven’t already, check out Coupland’s biography of Marshall McLuhan. It’s concise, informative and very fun to read.

  7. I’d be interested in why you consider “conviction, community, connection, and continuity” to be un-hip. I’d say the opposite. These themes are about truth and meaning, which I’d argue are both radical and hip in the true sense of the word (i.e. way beyond shallow slick-ness or adherence to fashion).

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