Monday, January 16, 2006

BOOKS: I'm OK. You're OK. Douglas Coupland is OK. We're all OK. OK?

For the past ten years, I've believed that I'd already read Douglas Coupland's Polaroids from the Dead. It turns out I was wrong.

Polaroids from the Dead by Douglas Coupland (#1)
I think I can reconstruct the chain of events that led to my misapprehension. First, Generation X came out. I read it before all the hype, loved it, and waited eagerly for his next book, Shampoo Planet. Liked it a lot, but not as much as Gen X, but that's okay. Fast-forward a couple of years. Read Microserfs and dug it more than Shampoo, which prompted me to rush out and get Life After God, which was so terrifically meh that I didn't pick up any of Coupland's new books for ten years. I had officially surfeited on the alleged voice of my generation.

In retrospect, I think I came to believe that I'd read Polaroids around the same time as Life After God, since they're both collections of short writing. Fortunately for me, Polaroids (which actually came out in 1996, two years after Life After God), is a much better book.

The title refers to the first dozen pieces in the collection, a series of snapshots and character studies of the denizens of the temporary community created at a Grateful Dead concert. The remainder of the book is comprised of personal essays on topics ranging from O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown to Kurt Cobain to Coupland's platonic crush on the Lions Gate Bridge, which goes from downtown Vancouver to the suburb of North Vancouver. (I can appreciate his appreciation on aesthetic grounds. It's a beautiful bridge to look at. To use, on the other hand, it's an absolute nightmare. Occasional high-spirited ranting aside, I'm not normally an angry person, yet the Lions Gate Bridge has, on almost every occasion I've used it, catapulted me into a transcendental state of rage.)

All the essays in Polaroids were written by Coupland in the second half of the 90s, looking back on the first half of the 90s. Visiting these essays exactly a decade later provided a nifty little temporal frisson that recurred for me throughout my reading. There's something so incredibly, exactingly in-the-moment about Coupland's writing that makes it seem dated within 0.3 seconds after it's published. And yet this quality is what I like more and more about reading his early work. It brings out my inner Margaret Mead.

Some random thoughts:

I wonder if part of the reason why so many of us feel a knee-jerk compulsion to disparage Douglas Coupland is because he writes so nakedly about trying to figure out the meaning of life. As if watching someone baldly and publicly ask these questions embarrasses us, kind of like watching your dad dance. As if wondering about the point of existence is all well and good when you're an earnest undergrad but a little, you know, off-putting when you're in your 30s.

I know that many people resent Coupland because they believe that he arrogantly overgeneralized and oversimplified an entire generation. But then take this passage from Polaroids:
"Cheer up, baby. Come on. Embrace the meltdown." Then, pleased with himself for catching the drift of her lecture, he adds, "We're the McDead."

"Yes," says Caroline, dreaming of another world where complex issues refuse to masquerade as oversimplicities, "we're the McDead."
I love Coupland a little bit for that snippet of writing.* It's such a deliciously subtle, casual "fuck you" to the critics who seem determined to misconstrue his writing.

It's always seemed to me that Coupland has spent the years since Generation X trying to cram the idea in people's -- and by "people" I mean mainstream book reviewers -- heads that he wasn't the person who tried to oversimplify an entire generation: they were.

I was definitely guilty of hopping on that bandwagon at the time, but I gradually became aware that I'd misdirected my resentment at being summarily categorized and dismissed, and I've since taken steps to point said resentment in the right direction: at the stupid mainstream media that seized a few of Coupland's ideas and made them into some of the most flagellated talking points of the late twentieth century.

Coupland does, of course, create his own lexicon, which lends itself all too readily to abuse. But in my opinion, this is less about oversimplification and more about creating shortcuts to understanding our ridiculously complicated zeitgeist.

A potentially helpful analogy (though I'm not making any promises):

An old friend of
Rusty's is a doctor. Not the fun prescription-writing kind, but the kind who's good at math and teaches at universities. This guy's area of specialization is bioinformatics, which, as I understand it, is the study and practice of inventing computer code that allows massive chunks of data -- so massive that they could never be processed in real time in our lifetime -- to be processed and analyzed in shortcuts. This is particularly handy for endeavours such as the Human Genome Project (which Rusty's friend worked on for several years). I would argue that Coupland's lexicon -- his knack for identifying cultural and social forces and summarizing them in soundbite-y snippets -- is almost equally useful in helping Coupland (and his readers) find shortcuts for understanding the wide-sweeping vagaries of 21st-century western human behaviour.

It's a theory, anyway.

Or maybe the reason why some people fear and loathe Coupland is because nobody likes being pegged neatly and aptly by someone who doesn't know them:
New Order sturates the warming car. Erik and Jamie have returned to a future they can live with: spare, secular, coherent and rational -- a future reflecting their own puritanical belief that excess is its own punishment.
Sound like anyone you know?

Others, of course, castigate Coupland for being flip and ironic and, well,
Gen X-y. Methinks they doth project too much. Take a gander at this passage, about how a hippie mom relates to her now-adult hippie daughter:
Despite the obliqueness of her reply, Melissa couldn't help but regale Columbia with endless tales of that long-gone era: tales of gardens and horses and moonlight and tear gas and beards and electricity. And from these tales, Columbia knows that at the heart of the sixties dream lies a core truth, a germ that refuses to die, an essence of purity and love that is open to abuse -- and continually abused -- but without which Columbia could not live her own life peacefully.
If there's anything flip or ironic there, I can't see it. Coupland strikes a similarly soft and forgiving note in another essay, "The German Reporter," when he observes that "middle-class peace is something to be cherished, not mocked, because without it, we are lost, and we are only animals and never anything more."

Douglas Coupland, semi-official voice of the slacker generation, saying nice things about hippies and the middle class? Is this the Coupland you thought you knew?

Oh, he can still be flip and ironic. The thing about Coupland is that he's a whole bunch of things: disaffected, affected, navel-gazing, didactic, self-contradictory, pretentious, detached, embarrassingly earnest, and heartwrenchingly sincere. Just like you. And me. And I think that when we think about what we don't like about Coupland, we should think about that quality in ourselves, because it could very well be THAT that we don't like. And maybe it's time to be a little easier on ourselves. Life is short, dude.

*I also love him for his newest book, Terry: Terry Fox and His Marathon of Hope, which I haven't read yet, but don't see how it could fail to be moving and inspiring. As I get older and fall more and more away from my twentysomething tough cookie facade, I find that I like to be moved and inspired.


Alice said...

I'm a big Douglas Coupland fan, although I haven't loved his most recent books as much as his earlier ones.

When I moved to the UK, I limited myself to 10 books, as my luggage was already heavy enough. Microserfs and Girlfriend In A Coma were two of the, and I've re-read them each a thousand times.

I also got Souveniers of Canada from a friend shortly after I moved here, and it's enjoyable when I get a bit homesick.

landismom said...

As an almost stereotypical Gen X-er, I had some resentment of Coupland for his success at the time of Generation X. Now, I just have nostalgia, and it includes him too.

Emma said...

I'm looking for this book everywhere!!