Douglas Coupland, age 48, is on the verge of tears as he faces a lecture hall full of expectant faces. Moments earlier, the mood was light as the author took questions from the audience at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. “The number one rule about Q&As is that the first question is the best question in the history of the universe,” he says, to giggles and timidly raised hands.
Coupland has fingers in quite a few pies. With a background in visual art, he started writing nearly two decades ago to pay studio fees. Since then, he has released a movie, seen his novel jPod become a TV series on CBC, and designed an urban park in Toronto (on Front Street between Spadina and Bathurst; look for the giant red canoe). “I do what I do. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t,” he says.
In Coupland’s first novel, 1991’s Generation X, a trio of twentysomethings shun mainstream society and head to the California desert to tell each other stories and “make our own lives worthwhile tales in the process.” His latest, Generation A, again features wheels-within-wheels storytelling in a world that’s even more supersaturated with consumerism and technology. In the near future, bees have gone extinct—or so we think, until five people around the world are stung and spin yarns to figure out what’s happening.
Ostensibly at UTSC in late September for a speaker series on leadership, Coupland mostly did what he does best—doling out a generous smattering of anecdotes and one-liners as he talked about his next project, a biography on critic and media theorist Marshall McLuhan—and read from his new book, Generation A.
Then came one doozy of a question: “You have a lot of ecological destruction in your book. Do you think humanity on the whole is a positive force on the earth or a negative force?”
“I grew up in Southern B.C., and it was a real Dark Ages in many ways. When I was in elementary school—” Coupland pauses and blinks, muttering several times, “This is really hard to talk about.” He starts up again: “There was an oil spill in Cole Harbour. And the oil washed onto the side of the beach. We skipped school and we went down there to clear the oil off the beach. It was crude oil, so it came in all these blobs and chunks. And this bird came out covered in oil.”
Though Coupland comes from a hunting family, and has a taxidermist brother who specializes in birds, the sight changed his life. “I just couldn’t look at human beings the same way after that,” he says. “I like to think there’s still hope, we have our highs and lows, but at the very end of the story, there is the tiniest increment on the side of good rather than bad. There’s no excuse anymore. You can’t say ‘we don’t have the technology’ and disengage. That’s where the hope comes from.”
The Varsity: Do you believe in God?
Douglas Coupland: Yes.
TV: Characters in your works have a lot of anxiety about living in a post-God universe, but they’re really into stories. Do you see stories as a parallel to or as a replacement for religion?
DC: I look at stories as one way to recognize patterns in your life, my life, anyone’s life, and make sense of it. The device that made us look at the world as long-form fiction is the novel, which has reigned supreme for 150 years. Books aren’t dead, but they certainly aren’t what they used to be in terms of cultural supremacy.
I’m curious how that’s going to play out. Students today have grown up in a radically different environment than I did and I wonder whether they see their life as a story or as 67,224 friends on their Facebook page.
TV: With that many friends, doesn’t the importance of each become diluted?
DC: That depends on sensibility.
Does there have to be a hierarchy? There might be something democratic and noble about treating people all the same. With a new sensibility, there’s only so much you can do to predict the future and what’s going to happen.
This year we have Twitter, which is a terrible name. I think if they gave it a better name, it would get more respect. It’s a new thing that came around, and kind of fun and silly and dumb. Then the Iranian elections happened, and it’s like “Oh, it has more power than we thought.”
TV: Why are you on Twitter but not Facebook?
DC: Life’s too short. The thing about Facebook, from what I can see, is it takes a lot of work and I don’t have time. What I like about Twitter is, in any given day I’ll have one or two experiences—they’re just moments, that’s all they are, observations. They don’t really have any other home anywhere else in my universe.
Some people use Twitter for different things. Some people use it as a radio station. Phil Gibson, for example, god, he’s got his own news service at this point.
TV: You go sci-fi in Generation A. Are you looking to legitimize this form of storytelling by having it produce physical and tangible transformations?
DC: The only legitimizing force is time. The only way to bestow any level of legitimacy to any book or any art form, is by what endures and what doesn’t.
TV: Do you think your books will endure? There are so many names, brands, and zeitgeist references that it’s almost anthropological. I need footnotes reading them now.
DC: That’s so funny. When I first began writing, I would get the question you just asked, but phrased the other way. People were quite cruel. It was, “Oh, you know, with all the names you throw in and everything, it’s just going to make everything seem dated and old.” And now you’re asking, are names a way of making sure that something’s going to endure?
I don’t know. When I look at the books that endure, it never seems to be the books that try to eternalize themselves by living in an anonymous city and the general undefined present, it seems to be books that are firmly rooted in a time and a place and a culture. In some cases, it’s almost rooted to the week, the headline in the paper.
TV: Your books have been said to define generations. Can you really attribute any personality or characteristics to a generation? Is it anything other than a group of people around the same age?
DC: In the old days you could’ve. I think prior to about 1975, you could ascribe a mass psychographic onto a large cohort of people. I think you can say that baby boomers tend to think alike, they’re kind of like the Borg and it’s kinda scary, but after that it doesn’t make sense anymore.
Now the generation as a concept is utterly irrelevant, especially with a nation of individuals, a micro-generation. And it’s very good that you can’t generalize about people. People are always trying to trick me into doing that, but I won’t do it because I don’t think it’s possible.