Saturday, May 27, 2006

Type Cast 18

Douglas Coupland baffles me.

Oh, I don’t mean the actual person Douglas Coupland, whom I’ve never met, nor do I mean the assorted works of novelist/artist Douglas Coupland, many of which I’ve read and seen and enjoyed.

What I’m talking about, to be perfectly Coupland-esque, is the brand called Douglas Coupland, the multimedia whirlwind that produces everything from institutional art exhibitions to coffee table books to public parks, and, of course, those zeitgeist-catching novels that kick-started the whole enterprise. And here’s the baffling part - how does such a successful brand garner so little respect in Canada’s (admittedly limited and very cranky) media and arts circles?

Everyone I know (and I travel in terribly smart sets) has read at least one Douglas Coupland novel, but few will admit it. Most curators in my acquaintance would love to get a Douglas Coupland art show booked into their humble spaces, because his name alone packs ‘em in – but they won’t say so publicly, or at least not until the deal is done.

Despite boffo sales (and even the occasional positive, but always begrudgingly so, review), Douglas Coupland has never won a large Canadian literary prize, not even for his more mature and less snarky novels, such as Hey Nostradamus!(about a school shooting) or Miss Wyoming (a sexy update of Joan Didion’s classic Play It As It Lays) - novels that have not only far outsold most of the Big Important Books we give prizes to, but also novels which actually attempted to speak of the times we live in, as opposed to, say, 19th century Nova Scotia or the bomb-scarred fields of the First World War. What gives?

This is where Coupland’s transition to a brand comes in. Douglas Coupland the artist has been so successful that his individual works are no longer perceived as singular creations within an artist’s history, but as indistinguishable and interchangeable products in a branded line. A new Coupland novel (or art exhibit, but I’ll leave that problem to an art critic) is rarely assessed on its own merits, as a stand-alone cultural object, but as part of the designated output of a kind of one man corporation – as if he were simply making the latest variations on a sneaker or a ball cap.

Granted, a novelist will return to similar themes over his or her career, and writers do develop a recognizable style, but when one reads assessments by critics of Coupland’s novels today one gets the sense that the reviewer has not read a Coupland novel since the publication of Generation X, Coupland’s first and career-defining novel (and a book that, because it became so closely identified with, and vilified by, the post-Boomer generation, arguably started the whole Coupland brand problem).

Never mind that over the years Coupland has matured into a first rate novelist and observer of the contemporary scene - our Tom Wolfe, minus the Southern-fried misanthropy – some people will not allow Coupland’s reputation to grow with his writing.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Coupland is Canadian and Canadians mistrust success stories. In our studied, anti-populist literary culture, anybody who sells that many books must be a fraud, a low-brow huckster. Furthermore, Coupland has committed a cardinal sin in English Canadian arts – he’s become good at more than one thing.

English Canadian arts circles consider it uppity and crass when artists stray from their humble clay-throwing pits and dare to write poetry, or - gods of tenure forbid! - throw the whole notion of “mastery” and monkish devotion to one discipline into question. No wonder Coupland lives in cheery Vancouver, where the worst thing that can happen is a shop clerk might neglect to wish you, like, a super spiritual day.

Even the characters in Coupland’s latest novel, jPod, get in on the bashing. “Oh, God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel”, says one character in the novel’s opening chapter. “That asshole.”, says another. “Who does he think he is?”

Who indeed? Might I suggest he is, in fact, the most important novelist of his generation?

Coupland is not a master stylist, nor is he overly concerned with the poetics of prose. His stories are often meandering, mirroring the lost, disaffected urbanites he portrays, and he does sometimes appear to be reaching for large messages that his fiction can’t quite carry (there’s that grudging tone I mentioned earlier).

But what separates Coupland from the majority of Canadian fiction writers, and makes his work so important, is his keen desire to experiment with how popular fiction is constructed, even how it looks on the page. Coupland bucks against realist, linear narratives - the dominant and domineering mode of Canadian fiction - and yet he still manages to reach huge audiences. Naturally, this drives the lit establishment insane with jealous rage.

But those of us who want Canadian fiction to become as adventurous as Canadian art or film owe Coupland a debt for blowing the dust off our literary mantelpiece, because Coupland is a great popularizer of experimental fiction. He’s so good at selling non-traditional, art-damaged novels to audiences raised on the plain speaking of Morley Callaghan and Margaret Laurence that there is now a vast (and potentially reachable) audience of experimental fiction readers – i.e. his readers - who otherwise don’t know Robbe-Grillet from Julia Roberts.

To wit, jPod is classic Coupland.

The novel’s multiple narratives fold in on themselves in loopy tangles. Drug and technology-addicted players slide in and out of focus like targets in a video game. The story, such as it is, revolves around the dead end lives of a pack of youngish people working for a soulless game design company – people driven to self destruction by the circular, snake-eating-its-own-tail knowledge that their creativity is directly contributing to the demise of their own culture. The novel is repeatedly interrupted by long chains of numbers and computer code, Chinese script, anagrams and dingbats, nonsensical Asian-recast English, and inane chat room conversations. There’s even a Douglas Coupland character, who turns out to be a malevolent bastard high on his own fame and money. The Birth House this ain’t.

Decades from now, students will read Coupland’s novels to learn about millennial culture and its anxieties the way students today read Dickens to better understand the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. Children will sit at Coupland’s knee, wiping their surgically altered noses with recycled pages of Giller winners, fully amazed by stories of the good old days of laptops and ecstasy, wi-fi and affordable west coast housing - tales from the last good years before everything went to hell.