An Ode To… Douglas Coupland

It’s been 13 years since Douglas Coupland’s Generation X was first published in the dawn of the ’90s. A tale of three social dropouts, Andy, Dag and Claire, living slowed down lives out in the Palm Springs desert, a story about storytelling, Coupland’s debut novel documented a culture at a particular point in time and exerted a considerable influence over it too.

Generation X was responsible, if not for creating than for populising, the concepts of the McJob and the mid-20s breakdown (“A period of mental collapse occurring in one’s twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of structured environments coupled with a realisation of one’s essential aloneness. Often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage.”)

A pop culture literate look at a decade yet to find its identity, its title has become indelibly etched on our lexicon. His skills as a social commentator can sometimes seem to overshadow the fact that his prose is unfailingly beautiful, startling and true, that he has an amazing ability to locate the perfect metaphor, to choose the most resonant image and that, when he’s at his very best, his writing can pack enough emotional punch to make you cry in public.

Eight novels have followed since Generation X’s publication, as well as a selection of non-fiction writing and some titles published only in Canada and Japan. Overburdened by expectation, his second book Shampoo Planet was a mainly successful attempt to document the lives of those 10 years or so younger than Andy, Dag and Claire, those of us unfortunate enough to have grown up in the ’80s. It’s a light, but enjoyable journey through a world of summers spent inter-railing through Europe, quality hair care products and kids with an unnerving OK-ness with all things corporate.

This was followed by Life After God a pared down collection of interlinked stories and illustrations, far more personal and less structured than what had gone before. In Microserfs Coupland turned his attention to software start ups, pinning down a culturally significant time and place once again, with his depiction of coding obsessives and Bill-lust and the inexorable rise of email and the Internet.

The apocalyptic Girlfriend in a Coma marked something of a turning point in his writing. Some critics commented that it showed he was maturing but while it’s true that stylistically it was something of a leap forward (ghostly narrators, end-of-the world pyrotechnics) he was merely making explicit themes and tendencies that had been present in his work since the beginning.

Karen NcNeil emerges from a seventeen-year coma to find her friends older and unfulfilled, and a future that isn’t the place she’d hoped it would be. Coupland wrote Girlfriend after going through a breakdown. He’d been existing on a vodka diet and the “television was telling him to burn things.” As a novel it is bleak but ultimately hopeful, an important piece of writing; a warning and a wake-up call it said things that needed to be said.

The novels that followed Girlfriend have been darker than his earlier writing, they take chances that don’t always pay off, but they’re always interesting, always startling, even the weakest is packed with moments of beauty and wonder. NASA, visions, teen religious groups, plane crashes and a high school canteen massacre unavoidably reminiscent of Columbine have all played a part in his more recent work.

His skills as a writer of fiction are constantly evolving; his latest book, Eleanor Rigby (2004) is a touching study of loneliness, of a middle aged woman meeting for the first time the accidentally conceived son she gave up for adoption twenty years ago. Some people have said that no matter who he writes about, Coupland’s own voice always streams through, but if this is a flaw it’s a welcome one, his is a unique, distinctive voice and always worth hearing.

While none of Coupland’s novels have yet to make it onto film his cultural influence is remarkably wide for an author, he can count Michael Stipe as a friend and once you’ve read Microserfs with its randomly generated computer poetry you can tell what was on Thom Yorke‘s bedside table while he was penning OK Computer.

An art college graduate and an internationally exhibited sculptor, Coupland’s work has always been about more than just words on the page.

His most recent project, September 10 2001, was a “rehearsed monologue” commissioned by the RSC for this year’s New Work Festival at Stratford-upon-Avon. Performed in the intimate Other Space, the suited and bearded Coupland sat on a plaid coffin in the middle of a sparse stage dotted with bottles of water and discussed the interests that have shaped his writing, his art work.

A warm performer, he was never indulgent, frequently amusing, and asked some very necessary questions. He talked about the need to address our views of the future and asked his audience if given a pill that took us back to September 10, would we take it? Would we return to a world before the towers fell?

The production encapsulated everything that is good about Coupland’s writing, his ability to see beauty where others struggle, his willingness to engage with love not just in a romantic sense but between friends and within families, and his desire to explore God’s place in a millennial world.

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