05-06-06 Seleccionado por: karaoke kamikaze
by Euan Ferguson
He's the prolific artist turned bestselling writer who's given us Generation X, the horror of McJobs, and the first intimations of a world rewired by hackers and slackers. Here, circling slowly 500ft above Vancouver, Douglas Coupland tells Euan Ferguson how we each have an internet alter ego, why irony is America's last hope and why he worries about the lonely lives of sea containers
Five hundred and fifty-three feet above the world is a good place from which to see it, especially the rather glorious hundreds of miles of it which are centred around Vancouver: but not, it seems at the very start, the cleverest place to see Douglas Coupland. He is absorbed. Truly absorbed. 'I've never been up here,' he says, quietly. 'It's much higher than I'd realised. God, you can see a lot. God.' Coupled with my own queasiness at the glass elevator which brought me in lurching seconds to this revolving restaurant called the Top of Vancouver; and with the fact that the restaurant is revolving in that just-slow-enough fashion as to make you seriously wonder whether it's you turning or the world around you; and with the author's own admitted mild autism - he twitches and fusses a little, seems inordinately bothered by the menu, fails to meet my eye, swaps seats, fusses a little more - it's some several minutes before I can bring myself to concentrate on him, or he on me, but when he does, at last, the long trip begins to feel worth it.
'Just there,' he points. 'There, there. Look down.' Ulp. But way down there, a half-mile from the end of his finger, is the shabby block where he had his first digs as an art student. And a minute later, as the view slowly changes, the peeling drugs quarter of Vancouver. Then the vista, at large, and he's pointing way out over the ocean, talking of the places he'd half-like to go, singing the near-unqualified praises of the internet for letting him do so by default: 'You can Google up, say, "McMurdo Base" and "party", and you'll find someone's posted digital party shots from Antarctica, and you're almost there, seeing a place you'll never go.'
Another half-revolution and he's pointing to 200 containers waiting on the shore, musing on the sad nature of the ubiquitous container and what miseries it must see. Much of Douglas Coupland's life, and thoughts, can be found in the views from our two slow revolutions over lunch: views of every aspect of this edgy Canadian city, huge plaster polar bears on every street corner to remind you of the seas and wilds beyond: this is where he has lived and intends to continue living the bulk of his life, distanced emotionally and physically from much of the world, yet thus uniquely placed, argue fans and critics, to catch a particularly wry bead on it, especially on the so-called 'slackers' of the fin de siecle, the smart, lazy, ironic, twenty- and thirtysomethings possessed of technological wizardry but lacking much of a moral compass; the geeks who shall inherit the earth.
Coupland, now in his mid-forties, was a serious and fairly successful Vancouver artist; and then, in 1991, he published Generation X. It was an instant bestseller, and the title passed into the language - along with other confections inside it, such as McJobs - and he became something of a cult figure fairly much worldwide. He was labelled (though he loathes the tag) the spokesman for a generation. He still likes to be described as 'a novelist who also works in visual arts and theatre', but it's for his books he is surely known - All Families are Psychotic, Hey Nostradamus!, Girlfriend in a Coma. JPod, his latest, is, he says, something of an updating of and homage to Microserfs, one of his best-liked and most-quoted novels. The tale of a friendly handful of misbegotten Vancouver anti-heroes with feverish brains and mildly autistic personalities, trying to redesign a computer game to suit the mediocrities of marketing, JPod is described as 'Microserfs for the age of Google', and it delivers pretty much that: capturing the mix of technological mastery and unmanageable life crises which so many have become used to 10 years after the dawn of the internet. It's also funny; in places, very much so. There are a myriad geeky in-jokes, the quizzes and ruses and conundrums the pod workers invent to fill down-time: tiny spod tricks such as prising off then switching the 'm' and 'n' on a co-worker's keyboard and watching nayhen emsue; or larger, dark, running gags such as the sub-routine they're secretly inserting to let an evil clown not unrelated to a cheerful spokesman for McDonald's run bloody mayhem through a cloying sweet children's game. There is also, oddly enough, a minor but important character called 'Douglas Coupland': locally famous, manipulative, half-revered but mainly disliked.
'At the time I just felt it had to be done. It wasn't really an ego thing: I just realised that many of us now exist in a secondary fashion, a meta-fashion, thanks to the internet, and the second you is related to but isn't quite you, so I thought it would be an idea to exploit this. If I put my own name into Google or Yahoo, I will discover that a kind of meta-Doug exists. I exist in there, my name, but it's not me: it's a mix of truths, half-truths, nonsense, misunderstanding, rumour, misinterpretation. But the thing is that Meta-Doug is going to exist for a lot longer than the real one is in this world. Once I'm gone, this other me is going to keep on going on the net, cut and pasted and repeated: in the future we will all exist there, in this flawed afterlife.
'I have to say, JPod was a bon-bon, a treat to myself. A treat to write: a happy, pleasurable write. And writing is, for the moment, the only thing getting me through the days. If I didn't have it I'd go on glue or something: I'd implode and explode at the same time. It's a need. When it goes, it's not so much writer's block, it's more raison d'etre block; I can't much see the point of anything. I lost it for a bit after JPod. I've got it back for a new one I'm working on.'
What was it that he felt, when not writing: what was he worried about? 'Oh, everything. The world. Nature. Grim. Things that are happening. Death. The usual. But, when it comes back, the writing keeps me going, writing every day. I've become a day writer: most people start as night writers, and I used to be, but something happened to my endocrine system. I do miss the 3am writing jags. So the one thing that's holding me together is the next book. But that means that things are technically going very well.
'The thing is, about here, about these people in my books, maybe about me - a lot of it is about here, this part of the world, the feeling we all have. We're getting away with it. We're having ideas, and getting money, and getting the nasty stuff, the toxic manufacturing, all done somewhere else, and by the time the poisoned air comes back across from China or wherever it's been dissipated by the ocean, been cleaned... We're getting away with something, and we know it. So how do you define your relationship with that? How do you define your personality?'
His gamers in JPod define themselves, variously, through largely valid attempts to use humour and trivia to cope with mild degrees of autism. One, Kaitlin, has a lucid take on it all, musing on why so many 'creatives' should be in thrall to 'persistent low-grade autism'. She argues, fairly successfully, in a take repeated here by Coupland in real life, that it is important today to become comfortable with an apparent lack of personality, and that many of the traits we traditionally identify in people - from the babbling idiot, via the class clown, to the 'quiet', then 'aloof', then 'spooky', and then the frothing Unabomber - are simply inhabiting a sliding scale of minor autism, our ways of coping in a confused world with clusters of overlapping brain functions.
Kaitlin and her friends cope, in the end, relatively admirably (albeit through throwing themselves with healthy abandon into the murderous clown sub-routine). I could have sworn, before asking, that Doug (as he likes to be called) had spent long nights on video-games and their programming, so acute are the book's observations on pixellated characters and fantasy language. But the answer is perhaps more revealing.
'I don't play games myself. Never. But I will watch people playing, especially if they're good. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is, of all the games to watch people play, the most fun. It's not like a race; you can take time off to just work for a while as a taxi driver, or visit a hooker. There's something interesting, fascinating actually, about watching someone take time off in a video game to go and visit a hooker. Games I do find interesting,' he says, 'for what they say about us, about what we wish for, about the programming. But let it stop there: don't listen to this rubbish about them actually being good for you, helping with hand-eye co-ordination or whatever. They're games. They prepare you for nothing.
'No, the research was relatively simple because almost all the people I was at art school here with went into film or gaming. It's that kind of place.' Was he, I wondered, acutely conscious of differences in brainpower? His characters, low-grade autistic though they might be, often have to deal with high-grade stupidity from those considered more 'normal'.
'I don't think I see the world in terms of stupid or clever, but in terms of being able to get irony. There's some awful statistic about only 20 per cent of Americans being able to understand irony.' It is, I interrupt, a mammothly misinterpreted word: did he have a definition of what he thought of as irony? 'Oh yes, simple. People confuse it with sarcasm, but far from it. The way I would define irony is this: to have the ability to contain opposing ideas inside your head without going crazy.'
We seem to have moved, with the restaurant, on to another savagely beautiful vista, and straight into the realms of postmodernity: for he's talking about his art-school days, his time in Japan, his own numerous works of art, and their influence. 'In the art-school model, culture wasn't hierarchical. All forms of experience as long as they are genuine are equally valid, went the argument - goes the argument - and can be used to create new forms. So I got that from day one, and it's still with me.'
Consequently, JPod's characters talk and play near-endlessly over aspects of Star Trek, The Simpsons, remembered Eighties snacks, former Little House on the Prairie stars who have done TV films on bedwetting, and the like - it could all be more than a little irritating, but for the sharp humour - but I am surprised to learn that, when it comes to the act of writing, Coupland admits to no influences: no other voices. I had been convinced he must have spent time reading John Irving, so infused is this latest with bizarre accidents, lesbian communes and unlikely redemptions, but he says he hasn't read a word. Similarly one could expect him to have appreciated at least some of Douglas Adams, given their shared use of cutting-edge technology to make larger points about the human condition, but he says, baldly, 'couldn't get into him. Didn't get it at all.
'The reason I write is because I have lain awake, worried about unemployment, or having unemployment dreams: I'm suddenly back in that apartment down there, no job, lots of worries. And I don't think that will leave me: I hope it won't, ever, because it is the one thing which gets me through. And also the notion of stopping, giving up: the notion of disengagement is repugnant. There's this newspaper in Florida where they take out all the bad news. That means you subscribe to something which says, simply: that's it, all over.'
He appears mildly confused, however, when I ask about trajectory: what his work, and its arc, says, if anything, about his thoughts on a changing world, and its politics. 'Politics? Well. I have to say... four months ago I was at the doctor's, getting a check-up, and I said, "Doc, I've suddenly realised I don't have a political party." And he said, "Don't worry about it, you're like most people, a generic swing voter." I think I should maybe get a T-shirt printed saying that.'
It was about then, as the restaurant inched back round towards our view of the containers, that I realise we haven't spoken about one person, one real person. I don't mind his self-imposed silence on his personal life - he refuses to say whether he lives alone or with someone, or give any hint as to what manner of person it might be, although he refuses this time in a kind and mildly apologetic manner. And the views of nature, and his discourses on them, on his searches up-coast for flotsam and jetsam which he can turn into art, are fascinating. And we have had a long discussion about typefaces. And he expanded on one grand idea in JPod, which is for every school and home to one day have his globe, a DGlobe, 'by using a spherical liquid crystal screen programmed with proprietary 3-D cartographic algorithms', which can show, in 60 seconds or two hours or whatever you want, the movement of tectonic plates, the last and next Ice Age, the world in your front room. 'Isn't it a great idea? I want it to happen - dammit, I really want that globe to happen: and if or when someone does make it, they'll clean up.'
And he became animated - it wasn't just the coffee, though he drinks it all day - animated and full of ideas, on seeing the containers for a second time, the ones packed on to trains and ready to roll, extolling their colour and beauty and the sense of unknowingness they must feel as they were shuttled off for another adventure, and when I meekly pointed out the contradiction with his earlier view of the stationary ones, he paused, and smiled, and said, simply, 'Yes. Thank you, irony.' But everything, all the subjects he had spoken of, had been inanimate: perhaps unsurprisingly, for a man who has to ask his doctor for advice on whether he should have a political party, there wasn't much fierce engagement with people or the idea of them. I pointed down at a few of them, milling about an old square those hundreds of feet below, and wondered: could he see a trajectory there? Of time? Of politics? If he imagined the square a hundred years ago, what would he imagine? Colour or sepia? Happy people or sad? Generally richer or poorer? And he became, finally, passionate. Only not about people.
'The past? I don't want to see the past. I want to see the future. I need to see 100 years into the future. I get very jealous of the future, because I know I'm not going to be around. The future - what, of this view, will there be? Will it all be charred stumps? Or more of the same but, say, no trees? Or more trees but something else new, for good, or to worry about? What's it going to be? Time is going so fucking fast. After 40, it just... hell, I'm not going to see it, see that future, and that angers me. Frankly, it angers me.'
We take the heart-stopping elevator down, and take our courteous - no, friendly - leave of each other. Within seconds this rabidly bright man is out of sight, dodging carefully between people, strangely rabbit-like for his height, on his way to the gym. I look back, can't see him. I look up, shielding my eyes, look high to the tower, growing giddy a little from my angle and the scudding skies and perhaps the first cigarette for two hours, and wonder for a micro-second whether the real Douglas Coupland did just dash off for a prosaic fitness session or if I have, somehow, left Meta-Doug way up there, sitting for one last revolution of the restaurant, hoping he can somehow use his - well I won't say his charm, exactly, but at least his dispassionate, deft, witty, chronicler's powers to slow the restaurant, or slow the world outside, so that it takes not 60 minutes before the same rough view comes round again, but one whole hundred years.
· Douglas Coupland's new novel, Jpod, is published in June. He has also written a movie, Everything's Gone Green, which showed at last week's Cannes film festival, and will be appearing at book readings in the UK in June. For more information, visit or .
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