FEATURE DOUGLAS COUPLAND
Before we are out of the mid-19905, Microserfs author Douglas Coupland has the decade summed up in soundbites. The reluctant spokesman for Generation X tells Eddie Gibb about his latest novel Polaroids From
The Dead — by e-mail, naturally.
n 1991. Douglas Coupland published his
first novel Generation X which captured
the sense of alienation felt by a
generation of kids brought up in America
amid divorce. recession and political
cynicism - everything their parents felt positive about in the 60s had turned into a negative.
Throughout the story about a group of twentysomething friends. Coupland incorporated his own comments on the times in the margins, providing handy deﬁnitions to describe these new attitudes. For instance, ‘safety-netism: the belief that there will always be a financial and emotional safety net to buffer life’s hurts. Usually parents.’ This, in a nutshell. is the origin of grunge. an almost entirely middle-class phenomenon where kids pretend they can’t afford jeans without holes. Then they go home for tea.
Five years on, Coupland is still trying to deny he ever intended becoming a spokesman for a generation. In his last novel Microserfs. he turned his attention to the culture within a large computer software company — Microsoft — where the employees worked as obsessively as the Generation Xers had slacked.
Again. he had nailed a social phenomenon specific to a set of people, but whose lives created ripples for the rest of us. You can’t ignore what happens at Microsoft. but while most profiles focus on Bill Gates, Coupland was smart enough to look further down the organisation to find out what was going on.
As a Canadian born in Europe, Coupland is an outsider when he comments on what’s happening in America, but he is also part of the generation he writes about. Switching between fiction and non-fiction, enables him to make general points or analyse particular events. His latest book, Polaroids From The Dead. does both. It is a work-in-progress about a decade-in-progress - the 90s. The first section, which gives the book its title, is a series of ﬁctional snapshots of fans attending a Grateful Dead concert written before the death of their spiritual leader. Jerry Garcia.
The second chapter is a collection of odds
n’ sods that had been kicking around on Coupland’s Powerbook (he is the archetypal Apple Mac user). The real power of the book is in the final chapter called ‘Brentwood Notebook’ about the LA neighbourhood where O. J. Simpson’s ex-wifc Nicole was murdered in 1994. Some 32 years previously, Marilyn Monroe was also found dead in Brentwood in mysterious circumstances. Coupland‘s extended essay describes a peculiarly Hollywood condition where stars become ‘post-famous'. ‘Post fame is when fame becomes a liability to its possessor,’ he writes. Marilyn was post-famous. So was JFK. And Elvis.
After a round-the-world interview marathon to promote Microserﬂs. Coupland is all talked out and says as a writer he prefers to discuss his work by e-mail. The following are extracts of an exchange which took place over the course of a week.
10 The List l5-28 Nov 1996
0 What gives a ten-year period a distinctive character and why try to determine the current halfway through?
A No matter how hard we try and pretend otherwise. decades do in fact have their own feel and texture. We have ten fingers . . . beyond this
it’s God’s call. I think Polaroids was one way of
saying, ‘Hey! The l99()s have theirown texture. too!’ I was just so sick of people moping about the past. The past sucks. Now is always best.
0 It Polaroids has a 90s theme, it’s also very much about the West Coast, from Vancouver to LA. Is this the part of North America where all the action is?
A Yes. Without equivocation. And yet . according to Newsweek magazine. London is the new hot spot. So these things are rather ﬂuid. As for the West Coast. people who live here tend to think of themselves as belonging to a sort of ‘intellectual Chile’ — Anchorage. Victoria,
Douglas Coupland: reluctant spokesman tor Generatlon X