Nationality: Canadian. Born: Baden-Soellingen, Germany, 30 December 1961. Education: Attended Emily Carr College of Art and Design, Vancouver, Canada; 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. Lives in Vancouver.
Shampoo Planet. New York, Pocket Books, 1992.
Microserfs. New York, ReganBooks, 1995.
Girlfriend in a Coma. New York, ReganBooks, 1998.
Miss Wyoming. New York, Pantheon, 1999.
Life after God. New York, Pocket Books, 1994.
Polaroids from the Dead (essays and short fiction). New York, ReganBooks, 1996.
Lara's Book: Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider Phenomenon (with KipWard). Rocklin, California, Prima Publishers, 1998.* * *
Douglas Coupland emerged in the 1990s as a novelist who seemed to capture the voice of a generation—the generation whose members were in their twenties by the last decade of the twentieth century and whose lives were rootless and marginal, caught between a desire to embrace and an urge to escape from the enticements of career success and consumer culture. Coupland's first book, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, concerns Andy, Dag, and Claire, who live in Palm Springs, California, on the periphery of an affluent consumer culture, working at what Coupland calls "McJobs"—jobs with low pay, low status, low dignity, and no future. Each of the trio tell stories, some supposedly true, others obviously fictional, which all turn upon insecurity, dissatisfaction, exhaustion, and breakdown—the failure of youth, class, sex, and the future. Coupland wrote Generation X in a lively, up-to-the-minute style, incorporating or coining slang terms which were conveniently defined for the reader—for example, "emotional ketchup burst" means the sudden explosion of pent-up feelings—and the book was printed in bold typography with cartoon-style illustrations, rather like a graphic novel. Generation X immediately established Coupland as a writer to watch, but it was, in itself, an episodic, inconsequential, and possibly ephemeral work.
Coupland's second book, Shampoo Planet, was a more substantial novel. This time the story is told by 20-year-old Canadian Tyler Johnson who has returned to his home in a rundown Canadian town after a trip to Europe. With insight and good humor, the novel explores the complicated relationship between Tyler, whose memories began with Ronald Reagan and a little later encompassed the death of John Lennon, and his divorced ex-hippie mother, a 1960s survivor who was young in the era before the invention of conditioner, when people only used shampoo to wash their hair—shampoo and related hair products are the key symbol of postmodernity in the novel. Tyler's relationship with his girlfriend Anne-Louise is disrupted when a former girlfriend arrives from Paris, and he lights out to Los Angeles before finally returning for a reconciliation. The style of the novel combines much dropping of imaginary brand names with metaphysical reflections, for example on the nature of time. Although more focused than Generation X, Shampoo Planet remains rather ramshackle in its structure, and its postmodern surface does not conceal its conventional themes—the relationships between parents and grown-up children, and the complications of young love.
In 1994 Coupland published a collection of stories, Life After God, in which a variety of first person narrators, drifting around Canadian suburbia or setting out on the great roads of the U.S.A., try to find a purpose in their directionless postmodern lives. Here, Coupland was mining what had become a familiar vein, and critics began to wonder if he had anything new to say. With his third novel, however, he brought off a brilliant stroke by targeting the best-known phenomenon of the 1990s, the giant computer corporation Microsoft, and dissecting its corporate culture with graceful wit. Microserfs is set among the young programmers of the corporation who dwell in an intensely competitive, profit-driven world and have no real private life or profound relationships. Once more the story is told in the first person, this time by 26-year-old Daniel, who is writing a journal late at night, trying to make sense of his existence—increasingly, the protagonists of Coupland's novels become preoccupied with the quest for meaning in their lives. Daniel and a group of other microserfs desert the corporation to form their own software company, Oop!, but run into financial and other difficulties. As in Shampoo Planet, relations between parents and their young adult children are an important theme, and we are reminded that, in the postmodern world, job insecurity applies across the generations; there is an especially poignant portrait of the distress of Daniel's fifty-something father after he has been sacked by IBM. The novel consists largely of short paragraphs, rather in the manner of e-mail, combined with a range of typographical devices and an occasional excursion into binary code.
Coupland followed up a collection of short fiction and nonfiction pieces, Polaroids from the Dead, with the novel Girlfriend in a Coma. Ostensibly narrated by Jared, a ghost, it employs Coupland's favorite device of focusing on a group of friends, but this time their lives are haunted not so much by the dead Jared as by the inert presence of Karen, who fell into a coma in 1979 after taking Valium and a vodka cocktail at a party, and, though giving birth unconsciously to a baby, remained oblivious to the world for the next 17 years. The novel charts the fortunes of her friends through those years, and we find ourselves, to some extent, in familiar Coupland territory—travel, drink, drugs, money, drifting, disaffection. But the silent, enduring presence of Karen, which we are never allowed to forget, serves as a measure of seriousness by which to evaluate their lives. Then, like Rip Van Winkle, Karen wakes up, and the novel explores her responses to the world of the late 1990s, a world in which, she feels, all conviction seems to have been lost. Girlfriend in a Coma is written in a quieter, more serious style than Coupland's previous work, and has a complex narrative structure that enables him to achieve a deeper perspective on the last decade of the 20th century.
Coupland's latest novel, Miss Wyoming, is a more romantic work, which gives vent to a streak of sentimentality that has underlain his earlier fiction. In Los Angeles, John, a 37-year-old burnt-out star of action movies, meets Susan, an ex-television celebrity, whom he thinks he has seen in a near-death vision while in hospital—though in fact he saw her on a repeat of her TV show. He is promptly entranced with her, but she at once disappears, and he sets off on a quest across America for her with a group of oddball friends. The story skillfully combines the story of John's quest with flashbacks from his and Susan's past lives—both of them have tried to find a new meaning in their existence. It is evident in Miss Wyoming that Coupland's capacity to handle a sophisticated narrative has increased and that he is getting older: more insistently than in his previous work, the novel poses questions of the meaning and purpose of life.
There can be no doubt of Coupland's significant contribution to the fiction of the 1990s, his capacity to catch the tones and attitudes of a disaffected postmodern generation in a degraded consumer culture. But his earlier fiction, though very enjoyable, had evident weaknesses: it was episodic and its characterization was often perfunctory. Girlfriend in a Coma and Miss Wyoming, however, move beyond this to offer a more complex narrative technique, richer characterization, and an exploration of more serious concerns, and it will be interesting to see how far he develops these features of his fiction in the 21st century.
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