Coupland, Douglas 1961-
COUPLAND, Douglas 1961-
PERSONAL: Born December 30, 1961, on a Canadian military base in Baden-Soellingen, Germany; son of Douglas Charles Thomas (a doctor) and C. Janet (Campbell) Coupland. Education: Attended Emily Carr College of Art and Design, Vancouver, Canada, 1984; completed a two-year course in Japanese business science, Hawaii, 1986.
CAREER: Writer, sculptor, and editor. Host of The Search for Generation X (documentary), PBS, 1991.
Shampoo Planet, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Microserfs, ReganBooks (New York, NY), 1995.
Girlfriend in a Coma, ReganBooks (New York, NY), 1998.
Miss Wyoming, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2000.
God Hates Japan, Kadokawana Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 2001.
All Families Are Psychotic, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2001.
Hey, Nostradamus!, Random House Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
(Author of introduction) Slacker (companion to the Richard Linklater movie), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Life after God (short fiction), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Polaroids from the Dead (essays and short fiction), ReganBooks (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Kip Ward) Lara's Book: Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider Phenomenon, Prima Publishers (Rocklin, CA), 1998.
(With others) Disco 2000 (anthology of stories), edited by Sarah Champion, Sceptre (London, England), 1998.
City of Glass: Douglas Coupland's Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2000.
Souvenir of Canada, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2002.
Souvenir of Canada 2, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2004.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including New Republic, New York Times, Wired, and Saturday Night.
SIDELIGHTS: Douglas Coupland has become known as the voice of a generation, despite his frequent denials in interviews. According to Andrew Anthony in the Observer, "He bristles at the idea of being a spokesman for anyone…. To the question of whether he feels like part of a generation, he replies, 'Like I once ever did?'" Nevertheless critics continue to see in him, as does John Fraser in Saturday Night, "the self-wrought oracle of our age," and "the Jack Kerouac of his generation." Coupland earned his reputation with his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which originated the term "Generation X" to refer to those Americans born in the 1960s to early 1970s, defining their aggregate interests, concerns, and problems. About Coupland's status as mouthpiece for Generation X-ers, Fraser added that the author achieved it "with a distinctive style and up-market hustle that still leaves me breathless. Not once, so far as I can tell, did he do a sleazy thing to get where he is. He trudged all the way on his talent alone."
Generation X chronicles the story of three "twenty-something" friends living in Palm Springs, California, and mired in "McJobs"—a term coined by Coupland to indicate jobs with low pay, low dignity, and little future. The book, which London Times contributor Michael Wright described as "part novel, part manifesto," launched its twenty-nine-year-old author straight to the top of the best-seller lists. Coupland is claimed by some to have written the defining document of his generation, "the new Catcher in the Rye," a book about young people "with too many TVs and too few job opportunities," as a Newsweek reviewer commented. In the novel, Andy, Claire, and Dag represent Generation X members and the stories they tell each other in their Palm Springs refuge predict a drab future of "lessness" and an accompanying tedium as the X-ers' fate in life. (One of many neologisms, along with the cartoons and slogans that appear in the book, "lessness" implies the acceptance of lower expectations than those of preceding generations.) "The trio's modern fables of love and death and spacemen and nuclear war sparkle like lumps of quartz amid the granite of their desert life," commented Wright, "each tale offering a small epiphany or moment of spangled optimism amid the prevailing gloom."
Laurel Boone, writing in Books in Canada, found fault with Coupland's story and its annotations. She thought "the cartoons, definitions, slogans, and other ephemera running beside the text in a separate column make shallow comments on the slightly less shallow story." John Williams remarked in the New Statesman that Coupland's novel is "self-conscious as hell," but he still found Generation X "charming" and "a surprisingly endearing read." Describing the book as "funny, colourful and accessible," Wright stated that Coupland's first novel possesses "dizzying sparkle and originality," further lauding it as "a blazing debut."
In Shampoo Planet, published a year after Generation X, Coupland turns his attention to "the Global Teens," the generation following the X-ers who were raised in the age of information and video stimulation. Tyler Johnson, the youthful narrator and younger brother of Generation X's narrator, has what Sophronia Scott Gregory described in Time as "a Smithsonian-class collection of shampoos" (thus the book's title) plus a sister named Daisy—a waif-like, pseudo-hippie sporting blonde dreadlocks—and a twice-divorced mother, Jasmine, a true flower child who seems to Tyler more in need of parenting than he is. "Although the author is almost twice as old as the main characters in Shampoo Planet," observed Victor Dwyer in Maclean's, "he creates in the book a fictional teenage world that is both convincing and highly entertaining."
Comparisons to Coupland's first novel were to be expected. Some, like Brian Fawcett's in Books in Canada, noted a certain heaviness in both books. "Like its predecessor," wrote Fawcett, "Shampoo Planet is relentlessly witty and sometimes insistently light-headed without ever quite becoming lighthearted." "Old people will always win," figures Shampoo's narrator; he finds himself in a world experiencing "severe shopping withdrawal and severe goal withdrawal." Still, Tyler remains hopeful about his future. Coupland himself drew attention to this hopefulness as a difference between his two books. He was quoted in Maclean's as saying, "I'm not Pollyannaish, but I'm optimistic about the future. I think Shampoo Planet has an optimism about it that Generation X does not." Dwyer recognized the same distinction: "It is as though the decade that separates him from his latest crop of characters has provided Coupland with a sense of perspective, and levity, that was sometimes lacking in the often bleak, self-absorbed Generation X."
Time contributor Gregory complained that Coupland's narrative in Shampoo Planet lacks motivation, but she praised the author's quirky descriptive passages, noting that "the book thrives with the energetically bizarre." Gregory further observed, "Fascinating characters abound, but unfortunately they have little to do." Michael Redhill offered a different characterization of the novel in his Toronto Globe and Mail review. "Coupland's challenge here was to write about the fascination with surfaces without being superficial himself," he commented. "Generation X was a novel filled with an empathetic rage and sadness. In Shampoo Planet, Coupland's tears run to jeers." Other critics hailed the book's fresh viewpoint and inventiveness. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel "funny, sympathetic, and offhandedly brilliant." Dwyer assessed Coupland as "a maturing author artfully evoking the hopes and dreams of a generation that has good reason to have little of either."
Describing Coupland's 1994 collection of short fiction and essays, Life after God, Joe Chidley asserted in Maclean's that the book "strips away the paraphernalia of an age-group to investigate the origins of its angst. Unfortunately, he also strips away much of its anger and wit. What remains is the ennui." Terry Horton drew a similar conclusion in a Quill & 'Quire review. "Coupland has a knack for beautiful imagery … and each chapter's first page is topped with a lighthearted cartoon," wrote the reviewer. "But, in the end, neither beautiful imagery nor cartoons can sweep away the hopelessness that darkens these tales." Chidley further observed that, "cumulatively, eight stories about the passing of things end up sounding like an extended whine."
Brenda Peterson, reviewing Life after God in the New York Times Book Review, found that Coupland's effort missed the mark. "Though each of these very short tales has its own narrator, the voice never really varies: it drones where it might delve, it skims where it might seduce, it hoards where it might offer sustenance." Peterson concluded, "Mr. Coupland's vision is as perishable and trendy as the brand names that pass here for characters and story lines." New Criterion contributor Jeffrey Bloom explained the collection's shortcomings in the following manner: "Coupland has the eye and the ear of a good reporter, but lacks the vision of a good novelist. He sees the telling detail and hears the revealing bit of dialogue, but he never goes behind or beyond them. The result, Life after God, is rather thin gruel. But as such, it is an excellent guide to the thin spiritual life of the first generation raised without religion."
Coupland's 1995 novel, Microserfs, again explores the lives of the generation of young men and women in their twenties. However, the characters at the center of this novel are not mourning the hopelessness of their McWorld; they are young computer programmers hyperactively engaged in realizing the hopes of Bill Gates and his MicrosoftWorld. New Statesman reviewer Peter Jukes suggested that Coupland has created "perhaps the first great work of cyberrealism. Where others are obsessed by pixels and bits, Coupland's subject is the 'biomass' squeezed between the silicon, the 'carbon-based forms' that still sweat, flake away, love, grieve and fail." He added, "Microserfs is a tough and raucous celebration of our ability to reinvent and remember ourselves. And it paints a vivid picture of the new geek priesthood, sitting like monks in their VDU-lit cells, embellishing the margins with hieroglyphs, keeping our culture alive."
Microserfs' "main characters are all highly observant, introspective, and almost painfully ironic," noted Dan Bortolotti in Books in Canada. "They are, in fact, like most of Coupland's characters: coldly viewing themselves in terms of consumer culture." Daniel, the narrator, and his friends share a house where they pass the few moments they are not working at Microsoft. They eat poorly, sleep rarely, and exercise only their brains. They think and speak in terms of popular culture, defining themselves by their ideal Jeopardy categories. "Microserfs is entertaining," Nadia Halim commented in Canadian Forum. "Coupland's skill at manipulating his pop-culture-reference-laden vocabulary remains as strong as ever. He is capable of producing passages that are funny, provocative and sublime all in the same breath." Even so, Halim found that "Coupland's weaknesses … are also on display here. The book's plot is banal: after a few predictable crises, everyone falls in love and lives happily ever after. The characters all talk the same way."
Such reservations notwithstanding, reviewers like New York magazine's John Homans pointed out that Coupland is "a journalist … and Microserfs is a giant, frightening collage, a novel of half-baked ideas about change and technology and obsolescence." Rick Perlstein touched on this quality of the novel and its author's role as a chronicler of social change. He wrote in Nation, "Coupland here is mining urgent territory—a new social realism for the dawn of Postindustry and its unholy trinity of data, downsizing and Darwinism. He's investigating a curious sociological quirk of our age: What happens when the very cultural imagination of a society, nay, the very cultural imagination of a planet, is chartered by an elite of preternaturally gifted computer geeks who play with Nerf toys?"
Coupland's 2000 novel Miss Wyoming revolves around Susan Colgate. Crowned Miss Wyoming as a teen, Susan rebels against her mother, Marilyn, by refusing the crown. She then makes her way to Hollywood where she has a brief acting career on a television sitcom. After a series of further adventures, including surviving a plane crash, Susan disappears and is sought after by a group including her suitor John Johnson, disappointed that Susan has gone missing before their second date.
"A little edge or satire might have made it more interesting," claimed Marc A. Kloszewski in Library Journal, adding "but this is lightweight fun that will find some receptive readers." Though a Publishers Weekly critic found the plot twists to be satisfying, the critic also stated: "Since Generation X, Coupland has been read more for his trend-setting insights than his novelistic dexterity. [Here] he loses even that edge by jumping on the already tired beauty-pageant-bashing bandwagon." A Mother Jones critic, however, argued that Miss Wyoming "presents a refreshingly earnest theme: The shells we create by discarding outdated identities allow 'newer and more wonderful' selves to emerge." Andrew Clark in Maclean's was more laudatory, comparing Coupland to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Miss Wyoming to The Great Gatsby. Coupland himself described Miss Wyoming and the following novel, All Families Are Psychotic, as "'experiments' that did not quite work," for Observer writer Andrew Anthony.
Miss Wyoming was followed by the novels All Families Are Psychotic in 2001, Hey, Nostradamus! in 2003, and a first nonfiction work, City of Glass: Douglas Coupland's Vancouver, in 2000. City of Glass, according to a review by Heather Mallick in Toronto Globe and Mail, is a tribute to the entire city of Vancouver: "When people say they like a city, they use its name as a shorthand for the part they like. People say New York, but they mean Manhattan. They say Paris, but they don't mean its suburbs. But Coupland goes everywhere in Vancouver, likes it all, and has mapped it literally and imaginatively. This is urban heresy."
All Families Are Psychotic, described as "a disorientating cacophony of conflicting voices and ricocheting sub-plots" by Guardian critic Alfred Hickling, follows the intricate relationships of the Drummond family who are converging on Florida to see their one-armed sister off on a flight into space. Marcel D'Agneau in a hackwriters review begins by readying himself to part ways with Coupland over the book but then follows 9/11 and several disastrous contortions within his own family, and All Families begins to seem more realistic. "One week of family trauma, hysteria and pain. I came back to 'all families are psychotic' and what a week before was improbable magic realism set in a tawdry Florida backdrop with a classic modern North American family in self destruct and it all seemed well … normal." However, D'Agneau still did not find the book riveting or different enough from the two novels that preceded it to satisfy him: "All Families Are Psychotic isn't a bad book, it isn't a great book, it is just more of the same and maybe it is my fault for being so familiar with his work I now demand something fresh."
Hey, Nostradamus! was described by Guardian's Hickling as "a major shift in Coupland's style." Hickling added, "He has toned down all the arch, ironic posturing and compulsive slew of pop-cultural references, allowing a newly meditative, moral tone to emerge." This 2003 novel is Coupland's look at the lengthy and bitter aftermath of a Columbine High School-type massacre. The Observer's Anthony, in an interview-style review, revealed that Coupland was drawn to contemplate what had happened at Columbine "in December 2001 after a 'nightmarish forty-city tour that began on 10 September.' He talks about the 'collective sorrow' he witnessed and I gather that it was this experience, the fall-out from 11 September, that made him look again at Columbine."
The school that provides the setting for the tragedy is in Vancouver, not in the U.S., but the characters (Coupland focuses on the victims, not the perpetrators) experience similar problems of alienation and dysfunction both before and after the killing. A young student, Cheryl, secretly married and pregnant, is the last victim and the first narrator. She speaks from an ambiguous limbo between earth and the beyond, from a place detached enough that she can meditate and comment on what has happened, and the resulting calmness of description makes for a harrowing beginning to the book. At the point of her death in her seventeen-year-old husband's arms, he takes over the narrative, and the story continues with his inability to escape the trauma until his ultimate disappearance. The depressing realities Coupland confronts have labeled him "increasingly morbid," but Anthony commented, "He's been described as an 'optimist obsessed with apocalypse,' but one might just as easily conclude he's a pessimist preoccupied with redemption."
Hickling pointed out that the cacophony of voices in the two earlier novels is replaced by a clear division between four narrators: Cheryl; her husband, Jason; Heather, the woman who later tries to help him heal; and Reg, Jason's father, "a granite-hard religious fanatic who tortures his family with his twisted strain of spiritual sadism." And Anthony confirmed that the voices of the characters in this novel are more clearly their own, not just a reflection of the author's: "One criticism that might be made of Coupland's work is that there isn't enough delineation between his characters' voices. They often blend into one voice, that of Coupland himself. Notwithstanding some minor lapses, that is not a complaint that could be leveled at Hey, Nostradamus!"
Answering Anthony's questions about why he chose to focus on the victims of the shooting rather than the killers, Coupland responded, "To my mind, that was all people talked about. I'm very much a fan of J. G. Ballard, where you have people in this fantastically quotidian situation that goes suddenly wrong, and how people deal with that. Killers get too much press already."
Coupland has been lauded by some as an accurate and keen observer, the voice of his generation, and a seer; by others, he has been faulted as a gloomsayer who only scratches surfaces. Yet, according to Jay McInerney in the New York Times Book Review, "Douglas Coupland continues to register the buzz of his generation with a fidelity that should shame most professional Zeitgeist chasers."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 85, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Booklist, February 1, 1998, p. 876; October 15, 1999, p. 417.
Books in Canada, September, 1991, pp. 50-51; April, 1992, p. 13; October, 1992; September, 1995, p. 30.
Byte, October, 1995, p. 49.
Canadian Forum, January, 1993, p. 41; June, 1994, p. 44; December, 1995, p. 50.
Christian Century, October 5, 1994, p. 905.
Esquire, March, 1994, pp. 170-171.
Fortune, September 18, 1995, p. 235.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 5, 1992, p. C8; October 14, 2000; October 28, 2000.
Guardian, September 8, 2001; September 13, 2003.
Library Journal, May 1, 1998, p. 136; October 1, 1999, p. 132.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 6, 2003.
Maclean's, August 24, 1992, p. 60; April 25, 1994, p. 62; June 26, 1995, p. 54; April 20, 1998, p. 61; January 17, 2000, p. 60.
Mother Jones, January, 2000, p. 88.
Nation, June 26, 1995, p. 934.
New Criterion, April, 1994, pp. 79-80.
New Statesman, May 29, 1992, p. 40; July 29, 1994, p. 39; November 10, 1995, p. 37.
Newsweek, January 27, 1992, p. 58; June 19, 1995, p. 12.
New York, June 5, 1995, p. 50.
New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1994, p. 13; June 11, 1995, p. 54.
Observer (London, England), August 7, 1994, p. 22; August 24, 2003.
Paragraph, fall, 1994, pp. 32-33.
People, October 14, 1991, pp. 105-106; April 25, 1994, pp. 31-32; July 10, 1995, p. 30; April 13, 1998, p. 31.
Progressive, January, 1994, p. 42.
Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1991, p. 77; June 15, 1992, p. 82; December 20, 1993, p. 48; May 13, 1996, p. 66; February 1, 1998, p. 127; April 6, 1998, p. 34; October 11, 1999, p. 51.
Quill & Quire, February, 1994, p. 24; June, 1994, p. 38; May, 1995, p. 7; July, 1995, p. 51; May, 1996, p. 1.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 2003.
Saturday Night, March, 1994, pp. 8-9.
Time, October 19, 1992, p. 78; January 17, 2000, p. 93.
Times (London, England), June 4, 1992, p. 6.
Times Literary Supplement, February 19, 1993, p. 23; August 5, 1994, p. 18; November 10, 1995, p. 22.
Toronto Sun, November 23, 1995.
USA Today, March 7, 1994, p. D1.
Vanity Fair, March, 1994, pp. 92, 94.
Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1992, p. 25.
Washington Post, August 3, 2003, p. BW07.
Douglas Coupland Home Page, http://www.coupland.com/ (March 8, 2004).
hackwriters, http://www.hackwriters.com/ (2001).
Spike Magazine, http://www.spikemagazine.com/ (1997), Chris Mitchell, interview with Coupland.
Write Stuff, http://www.altx.com/ (1994), Alexander Laurence, interview with Coupland.
Douglas Coupland: Close Personal Friend, TV profile, 1995.*