Douglas Coupland – Book List

I discovered Douglas Coupland at some point when, as a teenager, I had my nose buried in the stacks of our public library. Thank goodness for libraries!

Coupland’s self-referential, meta-fictional humour, coupled with a sardonic look at the technology industry in JPod, cemented my appreciation for him instantly. I became an avid fan and resolved to read all of his works. I’ve been picking away at his oeuvre ever since. Below are all the books I’ve read and reviewed since 2008 (there are a couple I read prior that I need to re-read). They are presented in alphabetical order.

Reviews

All Families Are Psychotic

by Douglas Coupland

All Families Are Psychotic cover image
ISBN:
9780679311836
Format:
Paperback, 279 pages
Published:
Random House, 2001

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Despite its rather rambling plot, I actually have a soft spot for All Families are Psychotic. It has something to do with the zaniness of the characters being so realistic. And the ending always chokes me up.

As the title implies, the book's about family and the tribulations one's family undergoes as the wheel turns and one generation supplants another. Yet it's also about all the motifs surrounding family: growing up, maturity, dealing with mortality, and realizing how screwed up the world actually is. Douglas Coupland doesn't pull any punches when he depicts the Drummond family, but I won't try to summarize each character with a one-line description. I'd just end up making them sound like stereotypes, and they aren't.

Where All Families Are Psychotic excels, more so than some of Coupland's other books, is sandwiching pithy observations about life in between the actions of the book's characters and the consequences of those actions. The Gum Thief didn't do nearly as well in this respect. Coupland has some very valid observations about life, and by having two generations of adults in this novel, he can explore the shift in attitudes toward life between the 1950s and the 21st century. Janet Drummond, past middle age and wondering what the hell she's done with her life, is finally breaking free of her housewife shell and becoming a person. Her children, on the other hand, are all discovering they're unhappy with who they are right now, that their identities have been subsumed in favour of their roles in society.

Chronic and terminal conditions play a large role in All Families Are Psychotic, as almost every member of the Drummond family has one. Janet and Wade (and later, Wade's stepmother, Nickie) have HIV/AIDS. Ted has liver cancer (although we don't learn that until the very end). Sarah was born without a left hand as a result of Janet's use of thalidomide. Interestingly enough, the third Drummond child, Bryan, lacks any sort of outright condition. This is fitting for Bryan's character, however, since he lacks any sort of life. As Janet observes, Bryan, even as an adult, is still a child.

These chronic conditions help define the Drummonds but don't encapsulate them. The struggle to determine an identity beyond one's medical condition is a huge part of the book, but unlike some "inspirational" literature, Coupland never tries to make it sappy. There's a twist near the end concerning Janet, Wade, and Nickie's HIV status, but this is, after all, a work of fiction. Coupland uses the twist to ask questions we don't always ask ourselves.

All Families Are Psychotic is nothing if character-driven, yet almost all of the characters are actually devices rather than people. Take Florian, for example, a Wizard-type whose money and affluence allows him to do anything he wants. Coupland has a habit of introducing such omnipotent characters into his novels--take Kam Fong or even Douglas Coupland, both from JPod, as an example. He does this for two reasons: firstly, because everyone loves an omnipotent badass; and secondly, because they let him crank up the absurd to eleven.

Coupland sprinkles his novels with absurdity like it's a cherished condiment, and that only improves the tone of his writing: cheekily irreverent, because he's not trying to make your heart bleed or your eyes water (even though this is often the end result). He's trying to shock and amuse, to create an instant catharsis. And that's what I appreciate so much about All Families Are Psychotic: it manages to be deliciously outrageous and incredibly accurate all at the same time.

Eleanor Rigby

by Douglas Coupland

Eleanor Rigby cover image
ISBN:
9780679313380
Format:
Paperback, 249 pages
Published:
Vintage Canada, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I am not Liz Dunn, though I do identify with her. Obviously, I don’t have a twenty-year-old son whom I gave up for adoption. But I can understand her almost ascetic obsession with solitude. I too am a solitary person; I tend to prefer the company of a good book and its characters to the company of good people. Unlike Liz, though, I must confess to having a social life. I have friends, though I may not “hang out” with them as often as most people do. And while some people may question its validity, my online interactions are a large part of my social matrix as well. So I enjoy being alone, but I am not lonely per se.

Loneliness and the often unexpected connections between people echo throughout Douglas Coupland’s works, but they come to the forefront in Eleanor Rigby. Liz has carefully ensconced herself in a bubble, fending off all but the most resilient of her relationships. And even these are routine, predictable affairs: her mother badgers her and tries to interfere with her life; her sister pities her for not wanting the life that her sister has but isn’t happy with; her brother accepts her but is wrapped up in a family and business of his own. The only wildcard in Liz’s life was the child she had while she was still in high school, a child who shows up twenty years later, precipitating a crisis of loneliness in Liz’s life.

One reason I enjoy Coupland’s novels so much is that his characters always feel like people. They talk like people who are close to each other talk, in meandering conversations that branch into multiple topics as each person’s words spark new connections in others’ minds. It’s not at all like the straightforward dialogue of most novels, wherein dialogue is mainly a mechanism for advancing the plot. And it comes with a challenge, because of course fiction isn’t real life, and so one must balance the realistic dialogue with the needs of the story. It’s this ability to strike an equilibrium between the craziness of real life and the need for fiction to be believable that makes Coupland so compelling for me.

This is a stark contrast to Coupland’s plots, which make very little sense and are always coated in a glossy layer of absurdity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Take the relationship between Liz and Jeremy for example. Jeremy’s reappearance in Liz’s life comes with a fatal complication: multiple sclerosis (MS). There is no happily ever after for these two, and Liz must face the fact that their reunion will be short-lived and complicated. I find it interesting that there is never any tension between these two. Liz accepts Jeremy’s reorganization of her life with equanimity. Similarly, Jeremy does no wrong. For a kid who had a rather rough time of it in foster homes, he seems to be largely untroubled. He doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive, doesn’t seem to want to just take advantage of Liz, steal her stuff, and leave. Despite his awful luck in the foster home lottery, he somehow managed to turn out as a decent individual.

Similarly, in the real world, Liz’s incident at the Frankfurt airport would have much more serious consequences than a slap on the wrist and a thorough decontamination. In Coupland’s novels, bad things happen, but they always seem so carefully calibrated to some precise degree of badness. This is how I know Coupland, for all his caustic observations of modern society, is an optimist and not a cynic. His endings are happy endings—not for every character, and maybe not even for the main character. People experience loss and sadness and death, but by the end of the book, something has changed for the better. Coupland’s novels are sneaky reminders that it’s never too late for hope, not even after an apocalypse, or peak oil, or the return of one’s twenty-year-old son.

And then we come to the ending, which is, for me, the least satisfactory part of the book. It’s just dumb: Liz flies to Austria to meet someone she barely remembers from her past, and then they fall in love. I’m almost tempted to conjecture that Coupland lost a bet and was forced, as a condition of his loss, to write the ending this way. But I’m sure he had his reasons, not the least of which is the need to rectify Liz’s loneliness, which has returned since Jeremy’s death. Still, I think he could have done better.

Coupland is renowned not only as a writer but as a visual artist as well, and I think this influences his writing to a great extent. That is to say, his books often seem to make more sense when viewed slightly from a distance, as a whole and complete entity, rather than viewing them up close and in a sustained, linear fashion. Paintings, unlike stories, are not meant to be read from left to right, page to page. And actually, I would probably say Coupland’s novels are more like sculpture or an installation piece than any two-dimensional art: different when viewed from different angles, with little jaggy bits sticking out.

Eleanor Rigby the linear narrative is contrived and somewhat disappointing. Eleanor Rigby the work of art is stimulating and moving. It’s the perception of this difference (whether conscious or not), perhaps, that makes it possible to be a fan of Coupland. Because people who pan his books as contrived or curiously constructed are entirely right. This isn’t literature so much as it is visual art translated into the written word. The fact that this appeals to me is ironic, because I work at an art gallery but do not take much time to look at the art.

I suppose this hasn’t been a review of Eleanor Rigby so much as a kind of rumination on my Coupland fandom. Try as I might, I’m finding it hard to pick out specific parts of Eleanor Rigby to praise, despite being able to find a few things I could criticize. I suppose I really enjoyed Jeremy’s newfound interest in selling mattresses. I don’t know if that’s just because it feels so quotidian and Couplandy, or if I secretly yearn for a series of novels that follows a mattress salesman. Mostly, though, I think Eleanor Rigby crystallized some of my conflicting thoughts and attitudes towards Coupland. He’s a better storyteller than he is a writer, but for all their flaws, his stories always seem to have nougats of truth.

Generation A

by Douglas Coupland

Generation A cover image
ISBN:
9780307357724
Format:
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published:
Random House Canada, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I've had Generation A sitting on my shelf since Christmas and feel vaguely guilty that I did not read it sooner. On the other hand, now I've gone and read it in a single day, so I kind of wish I had prolonged the experience. Douglas Coupland is one of those authors whose books are a pleasure to read and experience. He is very aware of the nature of his medium (which, some might say, is also the message), and he likes to play with the structure of his novel and his text. In earlier books, this often resulted in some very bizarre departures (like JPod's pages of random words or digits of pi) from a traditional linear narrative. Recently, Coupland has used stories-within-the story (like in The Gum Thief) to emphasize his points. Although Generation A is somewhat less meta-fictional than previous novels, it nevertheless deals with many of the same motifs.

So bees are extinct, which is a problem, because now any plants that relied on bees for pollination must be hand-pollinated or will also go extinct. The bee extinction is just the first in a chain of crop shortages, and judging from the other tidbits that Coupland throws us, it's not the only part of the environment that has gone haywire. With a single act, Coupland has introduced a striking sense of difference between the real world and the one in which Generation A takes place. This is important for any science fiction novel, and it also reinforces the environmental themes that run through many of Coupland's works. Generation A turns the world sideways just enough for you to look critically at things that do exist, like our growing dependence on mobile communications, our continuously evolving languages, and environmental change.

Generation A is not about a generation so much as it is about the divide (or, to be more nuanced, the continuum) between successive generations. Children today grow up with their brains wired to interact with technology in a way that previous generations never did. More importantly, technology always has a large impact on culture and language. What has the Internet done to the cult of celebrity? How is our increasing dependence on mobile technology affecting language? These are questions that many have already asked and attempted to answer. However, Coupland tackles them from the perspective of storytelling, that attribute so human as to be overlooked. What does storytelling do to our brains, and what does technology's effect on language mean for that?

As with his previous novels, Coupland uses multiple first-person perspectives and stories-within-the-story to give us a candid and frank presentation of his themes. You can criticize his characters for being flat, and you'd be right. Yet that doesn't bother me, because I always see his characters as symbolic, metaphors for certain types of people rather than actual people. Zack is the creative kid who lacks direction; Julien is unchallenged somewhat neglected by his parents; Sam is drifting because she has yet to make a real connection with someone; Diana is the frustrated, middle-aged woman who wishes she could re-invent herself; Harj idealizes a foreign culture because he finds his own society too depressing. Just as the stories-within-the-story are obviously allegories of each character's experiences, despite Serge's stipulation that he didn't want anecdotes, Generation A is a broader allegory for contemporary society.

Sure, Coupland could be more subtle in his approach. But part of his appeal for me is how baldly he states truths about society's latent expectations. Coupland captures what we have internalized about society and expresses it with the wit we wish we had. For example, he says, ""Books turn people into isolated individuals, and once that's happened, the road only grows rockier. Books wire you to want to be Steve McQueen, but the world wants you to be [email protected]" I can't speak for all bibliophiles, but for me, this statement rings true.

One thing that struck me as new to Generation A was an emphasis on empathy as a defining trait of humanity. Reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, Coupland often portrays characters who display a lack of empathy (especially for animals) as less authentic human beings than those who do. In particular, Diana is still distraught over an episode she witnessed where a man killed a dog with his car, and the minister of her church refuses to condemn it because the dog lacks a soul, so "it's not a sin." Several of her stories focus on the consequences of a lack of empathy.

And really, what is storytelling but a search for empathy? Stories are our attempts to communicate who we are, to show others our perspective on the world. Although they can also be meant to entertain, they fulfil this function only by dint of being comprehensible, consisting of a shared language and enough shared experiences—enough empathy—to create common ground.

I'm ignoring the environmental themes, mostly because they're the same as they were in Coupland's other novels, and the literary and cultural aspects of Generation A are far more interesting. Although I stand by my advice not to take the book too literally, the ending disappointed me. It was abrupt and unsatisfactory, leaving me with too many loose ends after a very tense climax. Speaking of which, Serge might just have the record for quickest character evolution from annoying keeper to principal antagonist to clichéd evil overlord. As much as I enjoyed the themes behind the work, Generation A as a narrative leaves a lot to be desired.

This is a story about stories and experiences, set against the backdrop of a planet where humanity might just have lost sight of the fact that we aren't the Most Important Species Ever. Through the interactions of his five main characters and the somewhat entertaining stories they construct, Coupland exposes some of the interesting changes occurring in our society right now as a generation raised on computers and the Internet begins to take over the reins from the generation that invented and propagated that technology. We are always moving forward and can only look backward in attempts to judge what we have gained (and what we've lost). But in order to make such judgements, Coupland reminds us, first we need to get a handle on what we have right now.

Girlfriend in a Coma

by Douglas Coupland

Girlfriend in a Coma cover image
ISBN:
9780060987329
Format:
Trade Paperback, 288 pages
Published:
Regan, 1997

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Douglas Coupland has the ability to always write about the same thing, yet always end up with something different. As a writer, he is able to talk about life by coming at it sideways through larger-than-life characters in insane situations.

Coupland sets much of the story during the end of the world, but it's not about the end of the world so much as it's about the characters. His impressive voice allows you to immerse yourself and get to know each of the characters. They are all round, three dimensional people who undergo great changes, both prior to the world's end and after it. Coupland doesn't mind invoking the paranormal here, but that doesn't turn this into a paranormal romance. The characters at its core are ordinary. Their lives suck.

Girlfriend in a Coma starts off strange--then gets stranger, culminating in the end of the world. The moral of the story is clear: never stop questioning. Don't accept the world for the way it is. Challenge the status quo and seek to change it. This is a worthy message. As usual, Coupland communicates it in style.

On another level, the book is a character study of a man, his daughter, and his girlfriend. When Karen McNeil slips into a coma at seventeen, the doctors reveal that she's pregnant, and her boyfriend Richard decides to raise the baby. Karen wakes up seventeen years later--which means that she and her daughter are the same mental age. The family awkwardness that ensues is hilarious and heartbreaking

JPod

by Douglas Coupland

JPod cover image
ISBN:
9780679314257
Format:
Hardcover, 528 pages
Published:
Vintage Canada, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The book got me at the first lines:
"Oh God. I feel like I'm a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."

This was my first exposure to Douglas Coupland, and JPod remains my favourite of his novels. As a geek and a technocrat, I loved a look at the world of software development through Coupland's eyes. What's more, he broke the fourth wall, but he did it in style! He wrote himself into the novel, gave himself a major part, and then turned the book into a meta-referential story.

Each of the characters is so crazy you'd think that they were pulled from an obscure book of stock characters from the '60s. The main character, Ethan, is the sort of guy with whom most people can identify: trying to do good, but feeling the pressure of expectations from a somewhat off-kilter mother, a father going through a mid-life crisis, a brother, his coworkers ... oh, and did he mention he knows a Chinese mob boss? Kam Fong is awesome.

JPod is one of the wittiest character studies I've ever seen. It's both funny and endearing. Even if you don't understand how computers or video games work, you will still enjoy this story for the relationships of the characters and the situations they experience.

If you're trying to sell this to someone, try this: "It's like Dilbert, in book form."

Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent

by Douglas Coupland

Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent cover image
ISBN:
9780956569288
Format:
Paperback, 208 pages
Published:
Visual Editions, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

“The year is 1871. You are French and you are about to fondle a kitten.” Douglas Coupland has a talent for opening lines that are both funny and contextual. Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent opens with a whimsical story about a Frenchman going to work for the engineering company that eventually contributes some “corporate DNA” to one of the largest telecommunications company on Earth. As the technical first sentence of this book (in its introduction) asserts, you probably haven’t heard of Alcatel-Lucent. I hadn’t. Yet they own Bell Labs and are reponsible for servicing and innovating massive swathes of that thing we call the Internet. (If you are reading these words, chances are you are using the Internet to do so, unless you’re a transhuman picking through the wreckage of a library of the post-apocalyptic future devoted to print archives of what was once called the World Wide Web.)

If you want to have a book written about the Internet’s physical presence and how this has changed us as a species, you really can’t do much better than Douglas Coupland. I know him best as a novelist, and one who writes about the current impact of technology on our lives. But he’s also a non-fiction writer. And a visual artist. And a designer. This versatility makes him particularly suited to a book like this, which is part interviews, part description, and part meditation on Alcatel-Lucent and the Internet they helped to build.

Before I talk about Coupland’s writing, let’s talk about the book itself. The Visual Editions version of Kitten Clone is gorgeous. This is one of those books where the physical object is itself a work of art. It’s 25x18.5 cm of high-quality, smooth paper. The photo with “Inside Alcatel-Lucent” written on it that you see in the cover image is a kind of tiny dustjacket (a dust-wrap?) that folds out from either side of the inside cover, so you can use it as a bookmark, or just set it aside entirely when reading.

Olivia Arthur’s photographs are a poignant companion to Coupland’s text. She is the photographer he has been waiting for his entire life: I would buy re-issues of his novels with her photographs accompanying the prose. The photos portray the complexity and detritus that accumulates in an organization as old and reborn as many times as Alcatel-Lucent. Seemingly disorganized forests of wire disappear into connectors on the wall. An unidentified employee crouches over something that looks like a microwave oven on a worktable. Someone standing in the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, which looks pretty sweet. Maybe my favourite photos are a pair, on recto and then the verso page respecitvely, of an older man in front of a chalkboard covered in equations. Essentially, what makes Arthur’s photography so powerful is how it reminds us of the inherent physical complexity of the Internet. We easily get used to the ephemeral and omnipresent nature of our net connection, and the smooth intangible qualities of software and apps; sometimes we forget the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of marine fibre-optic and all the infrastructure on land that actually makes the Internet work. And when we do remember, it’s tempting for us to imagine gleaming towers of ivory, gunmetal grey, and smooth black data centres full of racks of happy servers. Real life is much messier. Even more than Coupland’s prose, Arthur’s photographs attest to this.

As far as the book itself goes, I was actually hoping for a little more. Coupland visits a few different hubs of Alcatel-Lucent activity: Bell Labs in New Jersey; the headquarters in Paris, France; and offices and factories in China. He interviews some of the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and businesspeople who are working to invent new technologies, improve existing ones, and make money off the Internet. Along the way he hammers out a couple of recurring points.

Firstly, and related to what I said above about Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland talks about how the people at “Alca-Loo”, as it is apparently called, have this perception of themselves as plumbers of the Internet. He feels they underestimate their importance or impact. At the very least, he feels we average people should be more aware of what Alca-Loo and companies like it do, and I would agree. Few people are aware of how fragile our global network actually is compared to how much we do with it. There is little doubt that we have come to depend on the Internet in an amazingly short time compared to other major inventions, such as printing, or even the steam engine. If all our Internet connections went down tomorrow, most of us might survive, but it wouldn’t be a pretty apocalypse….

The Internet has changed us as a species. I read Kitten Clone just prior to the start of Desert Bus for Hope 8, a livestreaming charity marathon. If you haven’t experienced Desert Bus, then you won’t understand—but you can check out its website, or maybe watch some archived footage, to see the incredible craziness and fun that these people have while raising money for children. The only analog equivalent would be a television donation drive done by telephone—but, as usual, the Internet has taken such an idea and transformed into a barely recognizable twenty-first century equivalent with cats, and GIFs, and an interactivity television and telephones couldn’t hope to provide.

The Internet has changed us as a species. This is Coupland’s second theme, and it might seem obvious, but it’s an idea that bears unpacking. His interviewees always stress that the demand for data, for bandwidth, for connectedness, came as a huge surprise to the engineers and designers of the Internet. The Web and related infrastructure took off in a way that the people who first built it couldn’t anticipate. That’s an interesting tidbit that isn’t immediately obvious even to people who acknowledge the Internet’s impact. Coupland mentions some of the tantalizing, cutting-edge science being done to advance the infrastructure of the Internet and computing.

So, finally, Coupland touches on the curious equilibrium that exists between pure research and the need to find applications for technology. He mentions how Bell Labs, back when it was owned by AT&T, operated as a government-sanctioned monopoly, because the rollout of a national telephone grid was “too valuable to be left to the free-market research and development system.”

Let me reiterate that for a moment, because I think it’s difficult for people my age, who are watching the net neutrality debates in American media, to understand the significance of the above. The US government, back in the day, protected AT&T from competition and funded pure research into telecommunications.

Nowadays the Republican party—who are, technically speaking, now “the government” are actively working to undermine any attempts to ensure that everyone in the country is connected to high-speed Internet.

What the hell happened, America?

There are many reasons to lament the rise of transnational corporations. Coupland mentions Alca-Loo’s patents often but doesn’t talk about the dark side of technology and software patents. Yet there is a palpable sense of relief in this book about the fact that, as a multinational headquartered in France, Alcatel-Lucent is somewhat cushioned from the craziness happening in American tech regulation right now. Both Coupland and Arthur manage to communicate the spontaneous miracle that is the Internet and how its incredibly rapid evolution is … well, fragile.

Coupland makes a few remarks I have to disagree with. As his introduction to meeting Bell Labs’ Chief Scientist, he says:

Yes, that’s right: Alice… a woman. Does that shock you? A woman in such a position of high authority? Just kidding. The tech world’s not like that. It’s all about brains and is pretty much entirely gender-blind; if you can cut the mustard, you’re in. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s nice to think that Coupland’s anecdotal Lady Scientist can obliterate sexism in tech, but as The Agenda recently discussed, it exists. The tech world is not gender-blind, and it’s wishful ignorance at best or outrightly disingenous at worst to suggest that it is.

Later, Coupland says that according to Shawn Brennan, a “customer support engineer” at the Kanata office:

… whether someone is kept on is based purely on their contribution, reinforcing my perception that the tech universe is as close to a pure capitalist intellectual meritocracy as our species has ever created.

Hahahahaha … I snorted when I read this passage, and I still can’t help but laugh derisively a little. I’m not even sure where to start dissecting the levels of wrongness here. The idea that the tech industry is a meritocracy is just another myth promoted by successful people within the industry who do not want to acknowledge the privilege and success that helped them. As with any other industry, women and people of colour face a larger barrier to success and funding. It’s dangerous to ignore this and promote myths like the meritocracy.

I’m disappointed that in an otherwise beautiful and meditative book Coupland falls back on his male privilege rather than more critically examining this aspect of the tech industry. Then again, Kitten Clone isn’t about the tech industry so much as it is specifically about Alcatel-Lucent, and maybe the expectation was that he would say nice things.

There are plenty of reasons for one to read or buy this book. As I’ve said a few times, it’s just really, really good looking. It is a perfect book for the coffee table, so even if you can’t read (how are you reading this?) you can still look at the photos and show it off to your friends. If, like me, you are interested in the workings of the Internet, this book has shares an inside look at aspects of a company that is heavily involved in the Internet. And it’s laced with Coupland’s characteristic bold yet heavy weirdness.

I enjoyed Kitten Clone, even if it didn’t deliver quite the jolt I was hoping for or the perspective I wanted to see. It’s descriptive rather than interrogative; it’s thoughtful but not necessarily full of fresh new insights. Above all else, it combines the visual and the verbal to help chronicle a point in time in the history of our species where we are changing our society at a global, rapid scale. And who knows where that will lead us?

Life After God

by Douglas Coupland

Life After God cover image
ISBN:
9780671874346
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 361 pages
Published:
Simon & Schuster Pocket Book, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I almost began this review with, “not your typical Coupland”, but I hesitated. I’m not sure there is a typical Douglas Coupland book. Oh, sure, Coupland—perhaps more than many authors—treats with the same themes, tropes, and even characters time and again. His bailiwick is that angst that seems to live on the flipside of every generation’s zeitgeist. And he examines this angst with zeal and creativity, using such settings as post-apocalyptic coma recovery, a school shooting, and (my personal favourite) metafictional software development. Coupland’s stories are striking often because they are fantastic yet carefully restrained.

One commonality among his stories, however, is a strong narrator or narrators. Coupland’s stories are, among other things, about telling stories, and each novel is a personal missive from one or more people. Each one has a unique voice, a set of interesting problems unique to their position and place in life, and a way of looking at the contemporary world that makes the reader stop and question things that might other slip beneath our notice. If they always seem to return to the same topics—life, aging, relationships, death … well, that’s because those are topics that we humans tend to fixate on. So, when I read a Douglas Coupland book, I try to keep in mind that it will be similar yet also very different from any of his other stories. Coupland’s oeuvre is a garden, not a single tree. Moreover, I’m looking for two things: hilarious or somehow profound quotable passages, and a keen use of character to look at culture in a slightly bizarre way.

All that said … this is not your typical Coupland.

Firstly, Life After God is a collection of short stories. I am convinced I had read this previously, but I had no recollection that this wasn’t a novel, so now I’m wondering. I suppose that, in dim lighting and if one is very tired, these stories are similar enough in theme and setting to seem as one narrative. But they aren’t. Rather than deliver a novel-length exploration of the generation that is “growing up without God”, Coupland takes several similar voices in slightly different circumstances. (The format of this particular edition, which is pocket sized, lends itself well to the format of the book!)

Secondly, there is a lot less sassy or smart dialogue in this book than I’m used to from Coupland. The stories read more like diary entries, heavy on the introspection, with the spectre of the unreliable narrator hanging over every conversation. Each entry is short, which makes the book easy to read in chunks. But aside from one or two keen observations, I have to admit that nothing really jumped out at me and affected me as much as some of his other works. Simply put, the writing in Life After God doesn’t impress me as much.

I was surprised to discover that I am reacting differently to his work now. My life has changed a lot in the past six months—I’ve moved to another country, started my first “career” job, and essentially adjusted to fending for myself and being an adult. Growing up sucks—and now I kind of understand Coupland’s angst a little more. As a teenager and a young adult, I appreciated his writing for its zaniness (this is also why I loved the CBC television adaptation of jPod). Now that I have entered the professional world, I am beginning to comprehend the exhaustion that Coupland’s characters display here. It’s not that life (after God) is meaningless; we just spend so much time trying to figure out the answer to this nagging sense of, “what now?” As one of the characters in this book comments, it’s as if he’s constantly waiting for his life to begin, only to wake up one day and find it has passed him by.

I suppose I could spend time analyzing how the broader reach of secularism has affected culture, but I don’t want to take Coupland too literally here. “Life after God” is more generally alluding to changes not just in what we believe but the way we believe. To say that ours is the first generation “to grow up without religion” is a little hyperbolic. But even those who did grow up with religion (myself included) haven’t necessarily received it in the same way. The myths and promises of the stable nuclear family have faded away. The environmentalist movement, the Vietnam War, the AIDS scare of the 1980s … all of these transformed the way we looked at the later half of the twentieth century, peeling away the layers of varnished optimism that were the product of winning World War II. Life After God is a series of stories about people struggling to find belief, to figure out what this life is all about, at a time where there aren’t that many signposts. And while, depending on the community, religion might occasionally offer some answers, more often it seems to be reactionary rather than not.

The stories here are far more fascinating as a whole than they ever would be apart. I’m not ready to call Life After God one of Coupland’s best works. It strikes me more as a companion document, worth reading for a Coupland completionist like myself, but not somewhere for new readers to start. For those of us who are young enough to be “figuring it out” for the first time (as opposed to the middle-aged or elderly readers, who are figuring things out for the third or fourth times), I think there are echoes here of our own nascent thoughts. This is about the stories we make up to explain the beliefs we don’t have—and to fill the holes left behind by, if not a lack of God, then at least a very vague instruction manual.

Player One: What Is to Become of Us

by Douglas Coupland

Player One: What Is to Become of Us cover image
ISBN:
9780887849725
Format:
Trade Paperback, 246 pages
Published:
House of Anansi Press, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Recently I stole the soapbox in another person's review of Shampoo Planet to pontificate about my personal reader's theory of Douglas Coupland. JPod was the first Coupland novel I read, and it is also my favourite. We all react to Coupland differently—i.e., JPod is my favourite, but some of my friends hate JPod with a passion and love Girlfriend in a Coma or Eleanor Rigby. Despite the fact that Coupland always deals with the same themes, his variations are subtle and diverse enough to create those kinds of reactions. And so, for me, JPod created in my mind the Platonic form of the "perfect Coupland novel", and every other experience I have with Douglas Coupland is like a junkie attempting to replicate the first perfect hit: I need something as good as JPod.

Player One comes close. As a story it doesn't endear itself like JPod. Yet its short length conceals a profound message, Coupland's attempt to answer the novel's subtitle: What is to become of us? Coupland delivers the novel in real-time over the course of five hour-long lectures that collectively form the 2010 Massey Lectures. You can't listen to them for free, unfortunately, but you can purchase the series on iTunes or CD if you care to listen to Coupland read the story aloud. I stuck with the printed version, but I kept in mind the novel's intended purpose. As I read, I imagined it would be like to hear those words projected in a dark theatre as a shared experience with hundreds of other people, or to hear them over the radio. (There is something profoundly connective about radio that even the Internet doesn't match.) This added an atmosphere to the entire experience of reading this book.

The OED's first recorded use of zeitgeist is from 1848, but this must be a mistake, because I feel like that word must have been invented to describe what Coupland is doing. He is chronicling the zeitgeist of our generations, this strange transition between the industrialized twentieth century to the post-industrial information society of the twenty-first century. And I really can't do his books justice in trying to go into more detail here, because I feel like deconstructing his work would just destroy the magic.

As anyone who has read more than one Coupland novel can attest, comparing Coupland Book X with Coupland Book Y is difficult because of how much Coupland reuses his motifs and themes. Still, I have to say it: Player One has a lot in common with his previous novel, Generation A. I liked Generation A but didn't love it, and now I want to go back and read it again to see if I missed anything. Both novels have several protagonists, with the narrator alternating among their limited perspectives. Both novels put the protagonists together in an isolated place and have them share stories and form bonds. Both are set in a somewhat apocalyptic world—Generation A more "post-apocalyptic" than Player One's decidedly apocalyptic setting. Finally, both involve a study empathy as part of a larger exploration of what it means to be human. This is the question that recurs throughout Player One: what separates humans from animals, from everything else in the cosmos? What makes us unique as a species—are we unique? Or are we merely just another expression of life—is the universe programmed to generate life over and over in a near-infinite variety of combinations?

If we want to analyze the characters in this book, we can do so in terms of how they empathize. Rachel is easy: she doesn't. Her various medical classifications mean she lacks the ability to express or interpret emotions, irony, humour, etc. She can't appreciate art. Her reason for going to the airport hotel lounge where our five characters end up is typical Coupland absurdism. Rachel is probably the character we would identify as the most "different" of the four, because of her medical condition. Sometimes though, she feels like she's the most human.

Luke and Rick are very similar because, as they themselves observe, their jobs both involve listening to people's confessions. Luke was a pastor, until he stole the church's renovation fund and skipped town the same afternoon that he lost his faith. Rick is a recovering alcoholic tending bar. Priests and bartenders alike listen to things people don't feel comfortable confiding in ordinary conversations: bars are a home to a tension between anonymity and intimacy that must be very welcoming at times.

Karen empathizes with everyone: her fifteen-year-old "she's going through a goth phase" daughter, Casey; the kid with the iPhone who takes a photo of her on the airplane; Warren, the man she flew out to meet in the bar after meeting him online; and then when the price of oil skyrockets and the world ends for a day or so, she empathizes with everyone in the bar. She even empathizes with the sniper who kills Warren and whom they eventually tie up inside the bar. I really like Rachel, but if I had to pick a favourite character I might choose Karen. Coupland gives her two excellent lines:

I think if people had real courage, they'd wear their Halloween costume every day of the year. At the very least, you'd make a lot more friends more quickly. Like, 'Hey, I like togas, too!' Or, 'Star Trek? I'm in.' Your costume would be a means of filtering down to the people you'd probably like the most.

I love this because that's exactly what we do online, and it's why I find it so much easier to be social online than I do offline. When interacting offline, it is very difficult to share information with other people. Until we start talking, clothing and body language are about the only indications of who we are and what we like, hence Karen's idea that we should all wear our Halloween costumes. On the Web, however, the "profile" is king. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or my own website, when someone visits my profile, he or she can learn immediately whether we share similar interests. It's a very effective filtering mechanism.

Karen also asks her Internet date Warren whether he feels like his life is a story and then mentions that she thinks "the story part" or her life "is over".

Karen has noticed that young people no longer seem to care if their lives are stories. Not Casey, and not that little pervert on the flight earlier that afternoon. He'd probably no more view his life as a story than he would view his life as that of a sea cucumber. He and Casey inhabit a world of screen grabs, website hits, and precisely tabulated numbers of friends and enemies.

I think my life is a bit like a story, but Coupland has still hit upon truth here. When critics label my generation "apathetic" or "lazier" compared to previous generations, they are judging us using obsolete criteria. Anyone who grows up using the Internet actually learns differently from people who came before; our brains are wired differently. This has happened before: urbanization changed the way people think as children grew up in the suburbs instead of on a farm. Now it's happening again. Knowledge is no longer linear, no longer acquired by rote, and yes, we generally don't retain facts the same way that older people do, just as people in the twentieth century couldn't hold a candle peasants from the twelfth century (pre-literate oral memory for the win!). We don't memorize; we contextualize. Our lives are not linear; they are circular, elliptical, hyperbolic, and hypertextual. We are turning the Web from interconnected repositories of knowledge into an extension of our own minds.

And this is why I think that one of the reasons Coupland's more recent novels, such as JPod and even Generation A, resonate with me more than his older works. He has started to include the Internet and the Web in his meditations upon humanity. I spent my adolescence online. It is now a part of me and of my experiences in a very intimate way—after all, I'm using it now to convey these thoughts to anyone who happens to read them. Plenty of writers have meditated upon the effects of the Web on humans and human consciousness, and posthumanism is old hat in the science fiction community. Yet few do it the way Coupland does … Coupland studies these changes in a way that is almost spiritual. He is interested in how this technology alters us as beings and as a society of individuals.

Indeed, Player One is a microcosmic study of individualism in the digital age. What does it mean to be an individual when there are so many of us? What does it mean to be an individual if we are all connected?

And we're all waiting for It now, aren't we? Good old 'It'—the It who rains, the It we mean when we ask what time is It? I suppose It is the arrival of the Sentience. The arrival of the metamind that is us and yet much more than us. It is the Sentience that will eclipse us, that will encourage us, and shame us and indulge us. It is out there waiting. I'm certainly waiting—it's why I'm here, talking to you before I enter the New Normal, too.

I think it's possible and tempting to interpret Coupland's writing as prophetic at times, like in the passage above. Yet I am always wary of applying "prophetic" to people's words, because we are terrible at predicting the future. Rather, I think Coupland is merely describing and interpreting present-day trends. This is where he sees us going from where we are right now—not our inevitable future but the already-changing and shifting present. Because he's right that we are waiting. Some of us are literally waiting for the Singularity, or its religious equivalent, the Rapture. (I used to think I might be one of the former, but now I am not so sure.) Others are just waiting to see what is going to happen in a world of almost 7 billion people. This is what should happen:

Here's to all of us reaching out our hands to other people everywhere, reaching out to pull them from the icebergs on which they stand frozen, to pull them through the burning hoops of fire that frighten them, to help them climb over the brick walls that block their paths. Let us reach out to shock and captivate people into new ways of thinking.

With four characters in five hours, Douglas Coupland succinctly gets at what makes us human—part of what makes us human. We are different from other forms of life because we have the capacity for self-preservation not on the level of the individual or the pack but of the species entire. This has driven us to develop the tools to direct our own evolution, to direct the development of our consciousness, our minds, and our bodies. And it is making us increasingly connected, because as the world grows more crowded, how could we become anything else?

At times the extent to which Player One extrapolates this idea of inter-connectedness approaches Lovelockian proportions. Various characters float or espouse a Gaia-like hypothesis about the Earth or the universe. You don't have to agree with every idea in Player One—and I think, from the way he characterizes them on occasion as "woo woo" or "New Agey", that Coupland is not serious about them either. He includes them, rather, because they are essential to the subjects being discussed, and in order to challenge and provoke thought. I'm glad I don't agree with everything in this book, because it means I'm not praising it simply because it reflects what my pre-existing beliefs and opinions about life, humanity, and technology.

My edition of Player One clocks in at 246 pages. The last 31 of these pages are "Future Legend". Many of the terms described therein will be familiar: invariant memory (Platonic forms), memesphere ("the realm of culturally tangible ideas"); or, they will feel familiar even if we didn't have the vocabulary to articulate them so succinctly, e.g., "karaokeal amnesia" ("most people don't know the complete lyrics of almost any song, particularly the ones they hold most dear"). It's possible to read this glossary from start to finish, but it would be a chore (trust me, I tried). The book is over at this point, and this is an appendix, Coupland's demonstration that we have stretched our vocabulary to its limit and must invent more terms to describe the shift happening in our own lifetimes.

Last year I took a course called Philosophy & the Internet (online, obviously). In the second week we read a blog post by Clay Shirky: "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable", in which Shirky points to the Internet as the death knell of print newspapers and argues that this is evidence we are in the midst of a revolution. Discussion sprang up over whether we agreed with this assertion. I was very vocal in my support of Shirky and this idea that we are experiencing a revolution. Even if I weren't, however, I think Player One would have convinced me. In five hours in an airport hotel lounge, Douglas Coupland could totally do that. What's even more amazing is the sense of unbridled optimism he manages to bundle along with his argument. Player One happens during a crisis of global proportions, and at the novel's end the world is not as it was; oil remains expensive and rationed, but people somehow adjust—they always do, is Coupland's message. The end of the world proves to be the dawning of a new world, and like the old world, the new one is a mixture of the good and the bad, of happiness and suffering, of crazy families and criminals and mothers and priests. Despite the fact that there's a sniper on the roof, a body outside the door, and a chemical explosion poisoning the air around the lounge, Coupland manages to persuade us that it's all going to work out fine. Somehow, against all odds, these people are going to make it out alive, and life will go on.

I needed that. Sometimes the panoply of information that reaches me is overwhelming. We are nearly 7-billion strong on this planet, but problems always seem to scale better than their solutions. Don't get me wrong: there are no assurances in this book that we will ascend, as a species, to a better place. There is still every chance that we will collectively stumble, faceplant, and give way to the next big evolutionary thing. But I feel like with Player One, Douglas Coupland is saying, "Not today." There is a very good chance we will, as a species screw up—but there's always a chance we won't. It's a very infectious sort of optimism, the same kind of optimism that's the reason I love Doctor Who so much. ("Let's get in a big blue box and see what's out there! Let's poke it with a stick! Let's be so very human!")

It's also an optimism that has to steep, which is why I am glad I write reviews. Initially Player One left me with a warm but vaguely befuddled feeling—typical "Coupland, man, he's weird". So I sat down to write about how I liked Player One, but…. And then, as I sometimes do when writing reviews, I discovered that there isn't a "but". At every turn, despite my most valiant efforts, it eluded me. That is a powerful thing for any book to do.

Worst. Person. Ever.

by Douglas Coupland

Worst. Person. Ever. cover image
ISBN:
9780434019908
Format:
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published:
William Heinemann, 2013

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book is a work of art.

I say this knowing that Douglas Coupland is as much an artist as he is a writer. It shows in his novels. His works very deliberately play with the same themes and variations across the decades. Having read, and enjoyed, the majority of his novels, it’s hard not to see all the recurring character types, set pieces, and plot elements. Microserfs and JPod riff on the cognitive dissonance of the software industry, while Generation A , Girlfriend in a Coma , and Player One toss unlikely groups of people together to ride out visions of apocalypse. Now, with Worst. Person. Ever., Coupland takes aim at this familiar territory, setting out once again to shock and awe.

That’s what I mean when I call Worst. Person. Ever. a work of art: it is an offensive and perhaps shocking book, but deliberately so. As the title and cover copy promise, Raymond Gunt is a terrible person. And the profanity! It’s not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill profanity of F-bombs and the like; no, Coupland delivers crude imagery on the order of “the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz”. (That’s from the second page, by the way. He’s up front about what this book is like.) Thanks a lot, Coupland.

So for me, reading Worst. Person. Ever. was like staring at those types of photos or paintings that you know are trying to provoke you. I spent six years working at an art gallery—which provides me with exactly nothing in the way of qualification or expertise to discuss art. But I saw a good many exhibitions come and go along the way, and while visual art does not push my buttons the way literature does, I have some sense of how and why artists use visual media to provoke the audience. For these artists, art must go beyond the aesthetic, must be about more than form and function and beauty. Art can offend to educate and to inculcate a desire to question and learn.

Some people just won’t get it. They’ll look at the donkey jizz kebab of page two (and really, page two only goes downhill from there—the words “leathery cumdump” also make an appearance), and if that doesn’t make them hit the eject button, then the coke-tinged, profanity-laced conversation between Raymond and his ex-wife, Fiona, that comprises the remainder of the chapter would definitely set them running. These are the people who see offensive art only for its offensive qualities and don’t stop to question why it’s trying to be offensive. Worst. Person. Ever. is not for them.

The journey of Raymond Gunt is an incredibly unlikely, even nonsensical one. It involves twists of fate and reversals that would please the playwrights of the sixteenth century, and the sudden introduction or redaction of characters at a speed that would make soap opera writers’ heads spin. Raymond makes it to ground zero of an atomic bomb detonation, which very nearly touches off another one of Coupland’s apocalypses. When he makes it back to "civilization"—an island in Kiribati where they are filming a reality TV show—he finds himself stuck in a drama that should be a reality TV show.

The situations in which Coupland’s characters find themselves are almost always implausible, no matter the novel. His writing is always on the precipice of the surreal. It’s in this liminal space that Coupland excels at mirroring and critiquing contemporary culture. Replete with pop culture references, his novels are always steeped in the present.

This is problematic from a posterity point of view. Topical novels always run the risk of burning brightly in their era before fading swiftly. I’m not sure we should be so quick to judge, however, simply because there are plenty of now-classic books that were probably considered (or still are considered) topical for their times and that have their own, albeit more subtle, types of pop culture reference. Reading a book from a previous era will always be, in some ways, an exercise in cultural anthropology. In this sense, I don’t think Coupland is much worse off than another writer. Worst. Person. Ever. also ameliorates the situation through periodic asides that explain, in the form of asides that mimic the most sardonic of Wikipedia articles. These certainly helped me, since some of the references date to before I was born.

Coupland seems interested in probing the transition zone between fake and genuine in our culture. What makes people “fake” to one another rather than genuine? Are we ever really genuine, or do we always put on some kind of act to get what we want, whether it’s sex, a job, or simply a piece of red plastic?

Raymond is particularly critical of the disposable and processed artifacts of our culture. With faux-British snobbery, he and Neal pan the preservative-laden food they find in American airports. They don’t actually eat a healthy meal for most of the novel, subsisting mainly on packages of macadamia nuts (to which Raymond is violently allergic). Similarly, Raymond laments the seemingly-arbitrary rules imposed by travel and federal authorities with regards to alcohol consumption—rules that never seem to bother or inconvenience others, just him.

Neal, on the other hand, never seems inconvenienced by anything. Plucked from a life on the streets by Raymond to be his personal assistant (read: slave), Neal soon proves to be irresistible to women and far more successful than Raymond. Unlike our cameraman protagonist, Neal is unassuming and equanimous. He takes life as it comes, and it seems that “going with the flow” leaves him happier and better-adjusted than Raymond, who is more like a cat—unwilling to do anything that someone else wants it to do, even if it would like that thing.

Witnessing the story unfold is rather like watching a cartoon through a series of increasingly funky funhouse mirrors. It starts off innocently enough, with Raymond landing the job on the reality TV show. Before the halfway point, whether he and Neal will ever get to Kiribati starts looking like a dubious proposition.

You would think that, with his penchant for poking at pop culture, Coupland would ride the reality TV trope hard. He only indulges once or twice, though. There’s a memorable scene where Fiona and Neal choose replacement cast members for the show based on their attractiveness and ability to fulfil stereotypical roles; and there’s a parody of the sadistic qualities of these shows in the form of a contest to eat plates of live, wriggling insects. For the most part, however, Coupland avoids the low-hanging fruit of satirizing reality television in favour of satirizing reality itself (which is, let’s face it, disappointingly unrealistic most of the time).

Although I laughed out loud at a few points throughout the book, I wouldn’t say that Worst. Person. Ever. is hilarious in the same vein that I found JPod. Then again, neither is most of Coupland’s work. There’s a solemnity to some of his absurdism that reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut than Douglas Adams. These authors, too, wrote books that I would consider deliberately offensive, albeit not quite to the crude extent that Coupland presents here. Then again, they weren’t living in the time of the MTV Video Music Awards, of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus. It’s not necessarily harder to be offensive these days, but the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower.

This isn’t the meditative masterpiece that I consider Player One, which I’m teaching to my sixth form students this year, to be. It isn’t as emotionally touching as Eleanor Rigby or Girlfriend in a Coma. It is, however, characteristically Coupland. You can like it or you can hate it (it is, as Coupland comments on reality TV itself, binary); it is not fair to say, however, that it’s just “more of the same”. Coupland is an author who manages to play with the same ideas over and over yet always reinvent himself along the way. Worst. Person. Ever. is the latest iteration, brave and bold and in-your-face and not necessarily to everyone’s liking. So kudos to him for not playing it safe, and for giving me an entertaining weekend read.