Douglas Coupland: Playing with the Google generation
The novelist defines a new breed, and its world of video gaming, grow ops, Internet obsessions -- and one nasty Ronald McDonald
KEN MACQUEEN | May 08, 2006
This cuts me to the quick; I should be carrying Dubble Bubble at my age? At 44, he's younger than me by a mere six years, but he's hardly the sprightly youth who, back in 1991, shot to fame by defining the disaffection and dimmed expectations of a generation. Anyway, there we are, Generation X and Generation Extra, chewing great wads of gum. We have an ulterior motive: we are creating art.
Down the hall, in what was the gymnasium, is Vancouver School, an installation Coupland created in collaboration with Graham Gillmore, Angela Grossmann, Attila Lukacs and Derek Root -- decades-long friends since their salad days at Vancouver's renowned Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. Their exhibit is a subversive look at the educational experience. The group had free rein to gut a recently closed school, as part of a project for the North Vancouver School District's innovative Artists for Kids program.
The result is a visual climbing wall made of porcelain water fountains, urinals and toilets. Two giant satellites hang from the ceiling: one bristles with tarnished trophies from glory days long gone; the other -- a death star of old slide, film and overhead projectors. Inaudible announcements squawk over a PA system. A malevolent rubber strap hangs in one lighted alcove. Ah, the good old days.
We make for a pile of school desks, a lethal tangle of Formica and painted pipe. We're here to deposit our gum. Already, hundreds of touring children have been encouraged to do likewise. The result is, well, "disgusting," to quote the woman mopping the gym floor at the end of a day of school visits. "I can already tell, it's not very adhesive," says Coupland of his wad of Extra, a gum designed for a generation whose mouths have more bridgework than Burrard Inlet. He tries to mould a starfish onto the side of a desk. The wad resists, Coupland prevails. The result resembles a volcanic green zit, with a minty-fresh aroma.
A day earlier, curious about the impact of Vancouver School on impressionable minds, I'd followed a nonplussed elementary class around the exhibit. "Is this art?" asked the teacher, failing to generate debate among her slack-jawed charges. "What makes it art?" Silence. "Do you think," she said, desperate to stir the pot, "it's really weird?"
Such questions have dogged Coupland all his career and through most of his endeavours: from a start as a boy-wonder magazine writer in the late 1980s, through the authorship of more than a dozen books, and his work as a sculptor, visual artist, furniture designer, futurist, archivist and screenwriter.(His documentary, Souvenir of Canada, hits theatres later this month.)He's into so much that a Maclean's editor begs me to extract from him a self-definition: what is he? Coupland won't be pinned down. "I decided if I'm going to be creative, I'm going to express myself in the physical world in as many possible ways as I can besides just writing," he says. "I have no idea what I do best. I just know if I didn't do it [all] I would be lesser for it."
Add park planner to the resumé. He's just back from Toronto, and the dedication of a future downtown park he helped design: the Terry Fox Miracle Mile. Coupland considers Fox a hero for the ages, one who'll survive as an inspirational force 1,000 years hence. Last year, he marked the 25th anniversary of Fox's run with Terry, a haunting and sentimental tribute book, the royalties going to the Terry Fox Foundation. The book also sprang from the successful battle against cancer by his friend and mentor Malcolm Parry, the gifted Vancouver journalist who first nurtured Coupland's talents in a series of magazines Parry edited in the late 1980s. Parry recalls publishing one of Coupland's early articles for Vancouver Magazine, "a little confection called Generation X." It eventually grew up to be Coupland's seminal first book.
Coupland was a regular visitor during Parry's convalescence. "He was here every third day," Parry recalls fondly. "He'd bring things like car magazines printed in Russian. Like, what the . . . er, thanks very much, Doug," Parry says with a laugh.
"I owe everything to him," Coupland says of Parry. "The thing about living in the 21st century is you can get to fortysomething and not have anyone major in your life die." Parry's illness awakened in Coupland a need for a charitable focus, "something outside myself." For him, it is the one-legged runner, and his inspiring, quixotic quest to raise cancer research funds. Other Fox projects are in the works. Fox is one of the few irony-free zones in Coupland's life. The rest of the world is fair game.
As Coupland settles into mid-life, he's discovered that his mountainside home in West Vancouver -- with its creek, gardens and a decorative pond that's a regular stop for the North Shore's roaming tribe of black bears -- is increasingly tough to leave for extended periods. It's been, then, both a revelation and a relief to realize that all the essential ingredients of a classic Coupland novel -- cutting-edge societal trends, mega-doses of irony and steaming wellsprings of weirdness -- are here in abundance in the ol' hometown.
Vancouver was a vehicle for an exploration of loneliness in Eleanor Rigby, his ninth novel, released in late 2004. A year earlier, the cafeteria of North Vancouver's long-defunct Delbrook Senior Secondary School was the site of a fictional Columbine-style massacre(and an exploration of spirituality)in Hey Nostradamus!, perhaps his most acclaimed, though hardly his most famous, work. Now comes JPod, a flat-out fun play on the video-gaming industry.
JPod tills familiar ground: the cubicle-farm existence of a brittle and brilliant group of techies toiling in the hot, hot, hot knowledge industry of the day. A decade ago, in his Microserfs, it was the cult-like world of Bill Gates's Microsoft and the slippery slope of Silicon Valley tech start-ups. This time, the disaffected young'uns create, recreate and sabotage an endlessly morphing video game. The inmates of JPod, thrown together by bureaucratic logic at its purest -- their surnames begin with "J" -- work at a soulless corporate campus in suburban Burnaby. Much of the pod's creative energy goes into hiding a subplot in the gaming code that involves a homicidal Ronald McDonald bent on a vengeful blood-fest. The gaming giant sounds suspiciously like the very real, and very rich Electronic Arts Canada, which employs 1,800 people in Canada, most of them at EA's sprawling Burnaby campus. But, stresses Coupland, wisely fearing an immortal army of video-game lawyers, "EA is never mentioned explicitly in the book."
JPod is much anticipated by gamers. I get myself invited on a tour of EA's Burnaby site, on the strength of my holding an advance copy of the novel.("Whoa," was the capsule review of one EA staffer, "it's way out there.")So, too, is EA. It's a strange and wondrous place, with outdoor beach volleyball and basketball courts, an artificial turf soccer field, a gourmet cafeteria, and, yes, vast acreages of computer pods stuffed with frighteningly young people. I note two adjoining meeting rooms labelled "Ego" and "Alter-ego." Coupland would approve.
JPod reflects a world much changed since the early days of Microsoft. Now there is obsessive Googling, for instance, the use of the mega-search engine which Coupland predicts will define this decade. In JPod it's a cubicle escape hatch into the narcotic allure of useless information. "God must feel that way all the time," he writes of the all-knowing Google. "I think people in the year 2020 are going to be nostalgic for the sensation of feeling clueless." Meantime, gaming has grown from Tetris and Klondike Solitaire, the two vintage games Coupland favours. It's now a $30-billion-a-year global industry -- ripe for satire.
Vancouver, rife with techies, moviemakers and artists, is a logical place to tell the tale. All Coupland had to do was sit with friends and acquaintances in the business and let them talk. The downside of reality, but the upside of fiction, is that the actual creation of games can be, he says, "surrealistically boring."
This ennui provides time and inclination for other Vancouver-centric plot elements. The father of Ethan Jarlewski -- JPod's hapless, Couplandesque narrator -- is an aspiring actor, lusting for an elusive speaking role. His mother runs a thriving marijuana grow op. The book barely clears the introduction before Mom electrocutes a biker with designs on her herbal revenue stream. Reality isn't much different. Weeks ago, a $1-million West Vancouver house blew up not far from Coupland's home and that of his nearby parents. "Grow op," Coupland explained to his real-life mother. "She says, 'What do you mean?' So we get in the car and I go op, op, op. It was almost like playing spot-the-Volkswagen when you were a kid," he says. "Oh," his mother said, "that's why we don't get trick-or-treaters anymore."
Two elements of the book are guaranteed to drive unsympathetic reviewers to distraction. One is Coupland's fixation with numbers. He lists, for instance, the first 500,000 digits of pi, into which he inserted one wrong number, should you care to find it. This runs from pages 383 to 430, of a 517-page book.(At the risk of spoiling the suspense, the 500,000th digit is 7. Unless, of course, that's the incorrect one. Oh, the fiend!)He also lists the 8,363 prime numbers between 10,000 and 100,000. This runs 18 pages and shows, if nothing else, that Random House is a very understanding publisher. The other plot line certain to draw cries of "hubris" is a conniving jerk of a character by the name of . . . Douglas Coupland.
That's right, the author wrote himself into the book, though hardly in a flattering light. "I looked into Coupland's cold eyes," says Ethan. "It was like looking into wells filled with drowned toddlers." JPoders take runs at Coupland's pretentious, time-worn insights. A reference to Generation X becomes a conversation-stopping faux pas. "Everyone looked awkward, as if Angela Lansbury's aging collie dog had noiselessly passed wind."
Coupland, the real Coupland, calls him "the anti-Doug." He's there in part because Coupland wrote JPod concurrently with Terry. Fox, he says, "used up all the better parts of my soul. There was all this evil left over, which I had to park somewhere." The anti-Doug is also his response to his love-hate relationship with Google, and his own Google-self.
Previous to the interview, I'd typed "Douglas Coupland" into Google. The search engine pulled up a staggering 1.2 million references. He shudders at what floats out there. "I never look myself up. It's just the scariest thing in the universe." My thoughts on Google offer him no comfort. Say in every interview you offer just one new truth or insight, I tell him. Imagine the cumulative impact in Googleville -- over time you are stripped bare. Conversely, knowing his fixation with Lego, imagine the incautious researcher, I say. He builds a Coupland from all the info blocks out there: red blocks of truth, blue blocks of supposition and yellow blocks of lies. Like any Lego man, it looks only vaguely human.
He nods in agreement. "My Google existence is probably larger than a lot of people's," he says. "But in 10 years, we're all going to have this thing behind us: the agglomeration of half-truths, hearsay, bloggie uselessness, accuracy, inaccuracy, lies and, you know, vituperation. It's not you, and it is you. And it's going to live long after you do, and everyone is going to have to negotiate their relationship with it."
There are stories out there, for instance, of Coupland living in a house with no furniture, while others have him rearranging his furniture every week. "The classic is that there was this weird rumour forever that I collected meteorites," he says. "I got so tired of hearing about it, but then I thought, like, wow, what a great thing to collect. So now I collect them."
Last year, after consistently guarding his private life and sexual orientation from interviewers, he came out as gay in a profile in The Advocate, a U.S.-based gay and lesbian newsmagazine. Why the change of heart, knowing as he did there was no stuffing that genie back in the bottle? "I don't know," he says, "it's just another part of my life, and, I mean, it just sort of defuses a situation that actually didn't need to be there in the first place." Glimpsing at yourself on Google, he says, knowledgeably for a guy who professes not to do so, is like viewing your obituary, as defined by others. "It makes me put more pressure on myself to, dammit, be more me. You're racing against yourself. It's a mess."
He suspects young Googlers have no expectation of privacy, having known nothing but the infinite well of the Internet. "I'll probably never get used to it." he says. "I just kind of unwittingly ended up in the frontal assault of that. I can't change it so I've just got to live with it. I don't even know," he says after a pause, "if I'm opaque or transparent."
I don't have the heart to tell him, but in the name of research, I've put a "Google Alert" on his name. This means Google emails me with any fresh reference to "Douglas Coupland" in print or broadcast outlets worldwide. It is, I admit, a creepy bit of Internet stalking. But, hey, it's the times we live in. Besides, the most recent email is a hoot.
It seems -- as reported in the Irish Independent -- that McDonald's in Britain is fighting back against "McJob," a term Coupland coined way back in Generation X. McJob now rates a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary as an "unstimulating low-paid job with few prospects." McDonald's, belatedly, is papering 1,200 British outlets with posters stressing its positive employment policies. The tag line is: "Not bad for a McJob." Imagine the response when the fast-food brain trust cracks a copy of JPod and discovers what Coupland has done to their signature clown. Perhaps another poster campaign is in order: "Ronald McDonald: not bad for a psycho."
Which kind of brings one back to the teacher and her vexing questions about what is art in Coupland's world, and what is merely weird. Maybe it's as simple as this: a clever phrase, a telling image, a lowly wad of gum; art is what sticks.
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