As two of Huck’s favourite authors Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland gear up for a social experiment masquerading as a ‘literary conversation,’ at the New York Public Library, we decided to dig into our archives.
Second up is this granular profile piece on the cult author of Generation X Douglas Coupland whose era-defining works of fiction are known for their pattern-finding synthesis of postmodern religion, digital technocracy, human sexuality, and pop culture.
This interview originally appeared in Huck 41 – The Kim Gordon Issue.
Douglas Coupland is momentarily lost in the basement of a West End London hotel. He throws open a door, revealing chefs in kitchen whites and waiting staff scurrying. “Hotel kitchens always remind me of assassinations,” Coupland says over his shoulder before disappearing around the corner.
Spending time with Coupland is like stepping into one of his novels – a freight train of unexpected occurrences, seemingly random observations, moments of nostalgia and reflections on why things will never be the same again. Ever since his debut novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture Douglas Coupland has been a cultural geiger counter, exploring modern crises of time, identity and the afterlife through fiction, non-fiction and visual art.
Coupland is here to launch his fourteenth novel Worst. Person. Ever. – a romp where he forsakes his usually sensitive characters who try to make sense of life amid overwhelming change. Instead, he focuses on a reality-TV camera man who questions nothing, wantonly pursues his appetites and refuses to learn from karma. Coupland is also preparing for everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything the first major survey exhibition of his work as a visual artist at the Vancouver Art Gallery this summer. Art is Coupland’s first love. He fell into writing to help pay his studio bills and was knocked off course for a decade by an international bestseller.
Coupland’s obsessions with media, technology and human behavior have led to future-gazing requests from the likes of Steven Spielberg, who invited Coupland to join an ad-hoc think tank to imagine what the year 2050 might look like for the movie Minority Report.
His style has a web surfing quality. He breaks up his narratives with definitions of concepts and words that he’s either invented or finds fascinating. As we sit down, I offer a list of definitions from his books and invite him to elaborate on them.
“The process whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story.”
Throughout your books, there’s a recurring idea that telling stories helps keep us sane. Why do you feel people no longer see their lives as a story?
In the twentieth century you had this very grand and romantic notion that, ‘I’m a romantic individual and my life is a story’ with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And a denouement. What’s happened with the internet is suddenly you’re not a romantic individual anymore. You are just one human being unit among 6.5 billion other human being units, which if you’re coming from the old tradition is a bit of a step down. But if you’re herding yaks and living in the middle of nowhere and suddenly you’re online, you’re welcome to the global dinner party conversation. So there’s this great, grand equilibration happening right now where, to be ruthless, unless you have a genuine skill like medicine, or cooking, or something, then you’re just making it through life and you’ve got to be a person unit. Along with this whole trend goes an absence of class structure. I have this slogan, ‘Poverty without the internet would be truly dreadful.’ It’s kind of amazing what people will put up with as long as they have internet access.
“Enormous, life-changing decisions that are delayed until a crisis has been reached. In most cases this is the worst time to be making such decisions.”
What inspired you to go back to visual art?
It was in a weird situation because I got something that I didn’t even want and can’t figure out why anyone would want it. I felt like for the entire 1990s I got pushed into doing one thing and one thing only. It really started to piss me off towards the end. I felt like I was literally going to go insane if I didn’t start to explore other parts of my brain. Fiction takes place in time and art takes place in space and there are hybrid forms like film, which are both. The spatial part of my brain was having a revolution.
Around forty — plus or minus two to three years — you’re going to make two-and-half really stupid decisions. You’re going to hire someone, you’re going to fire someone, you’re going to go gay, straight, bi, you’re going to get divorced, get remarried. You’re going to do two-and-a-half really stupid things. Anybody my age knows exactly what I’m talking about. One of my stupid things was going right back into visual culture. It turned out not to be a stupid thing in the end, but it could well have been.
“What time feels like when you realise that most of your life is being spent working with and around a computer and the internet.”
What advice would you offer to someone in school?
I went prematurely white. I always knew I would, but I didn’t realise it would happen so quickly and that I would look so wise as a result of it. So I give speeches at graduation time and I think the number one question I get from young people is, ‘How do I protect myself against all this change that’s going on? How am I ever going to stay relevant as the next new thing comes along and wipes me out?’
The answer to that is to figure out what you enjoy doing, or what it is you like. Most people don’t do that. I would say maybe eighty-five per cent of the people never learned this, or thought to learn, or their circumstances were never such that they could. Say you like making shoes and they come up with a new laser shoe-making machine, or 3D printing, or mango-flavoured fruit leather. They’re still shoes. And because you like shoes, you’ll just go with the times.
The people who are unhappiest are the people who became dentists to just please their father. That is the single unhappiest group on the planet.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
“Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions, “The medium is the message,” and, “The Global Village,” and for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.”
Your biography of Marshall McLuhan had a big impact on your writing and art – you even designed a line of clothing and ‘Motherboard’ snowboard inspired by his story. What does he resonate so much?
The single biggest change for me was the McLuhan biography. I had no idea who he was when I started. Like zero. I’d never read anything he had done before. The thing about him is through this weird absolutely unrepeatable chain, or historical circumstances, he was able to see the internet coming. He knew what it was and why it was. The only thing he didn’t know was the interface. He didn’t know about the laptop or iPad, or desktop metaphor, or anything like that. So he tried to explain it using Greek poetry and nineteenth century pre-modern short stories and he just sounded like a nutcase. But now we look at it and can say he was right and this is probably why he was right. Part of what he was thinking was because his brain was such a pathological nut house that he had no choice but to think what he thought.
“A genre in classical Chinese literature. It roughly translates as ‘notebook’ and can contain anecdotes, quotations, random musings, philological speculations, literary criticism and indeed everything that the author deems worth recording.”
Your latest book sprang from a short story you wrote for Dave Egger’s literary quarterly McSweeney’s. How did the book take shape?
McSweeney’s Issue 31 was all extinct literary forms brought back to life by contemporary writers and McSweeney’s chose the biji for me. Who knows why. It’s not even a ‘Jeopardy’ question it’s so obscure. So we investigated it and it just seemed like a perfect fit for this thing I had in mind. So we went ahead and did it. Because it just splattered out of my subconscious meant there was something important there. When something gets coughed out quickly, it means there’s something really, really good there. So it ended up becoming the book Worst. Person. Ever.
The publisher’s publicist steps interrupts us, saying we’ll have to cut short the interview due to filming Coupland has to do. The three of us scurry into the hotel’s maze of doors and hallways, searching for the library where Huck photographer Greg Funnell is waiting to shoot Coupland’s portrait.
As we go out the door, Coupland suggests we meet for dinner to pick up the list where we left off.
Eight years ago, The Observer flew Coupland to Rome to interview Morrissey. The author is a Smiths fan; he named a novel after the song ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’. But Coupland wrote when they met, Morrissey said, ‘You’re not really going to go through with this, are you?’ Coupland said he knew he couldn’t pull out his tape recorder.
When I meet Coupland in the restaurant, one of the first things he says is, “Don’t even try recording anything in here.” (His advice turns out to be more about the architecture of sound — one of his recent obsessions, than etiquette.)
Over dinner he tells me about: his work habits – he keeps two hours a day sacred for writing; Gold Panda cigarettes – on a recent trip to China he started collecting provincial cigarette brand cartons; and unintended side effects – the shelves of books are actually sound absorbers in libraries. As the waiter clears the plates, I pull out the tape recorder.
“The ability of one agent to create the perception of an object person or event as possessing ‘it’ – for example , not wanting to be ‘it’ in a game of tag – or even the ability of a dog owner to create instant itness when choosing a stick to be thrown for retrieval.”
It is said that Gen X broke in 1991 – your book came out, Nirvana released Nevermind and were touring with Sonic Youth. Did it feel at the time like it was all interconnected?
Part of being alive in 1990 was the sensation that I was living in a world that had lost its ability to generate any meaning. Generation X was supposed to have come out eight months earlier except the Canadian publisher said, ‘Sorry we’re not publishing it. We don’t believe in it.’ Then in the U.S., St. Martin’s Press published it because the junior staff said ‘You have to – or else we’ll mutiny.’ So the book sort of started to take off, but it wasn’t like it happened instantly. Was there any sense of all this coalescing? No. It was all about being in a vacuum, in the desert and it turns out there were other people in their own desert documenting their own thoughts.
“The ability to create and remember sequences is an almost entirely human ability (some crows have been shown to sequence). Dogs, while highly intelligent still cannot form sequences, it’s the reason why the competitors at dog sports shows are led from station to station by handlers instead of completing the course by themselves.”
You describe yourself as a pattern recogniser, can you describe the process of how you spot patterns?
You know what a dog is, you know what a cat is. You can look at a wolf and say that’s obviously a dog and you can look at a bobcat and that’s a cat. It’s not like there’s any traditional dogcat out there. The essence of our intelligence is that we’re hierarchical. We can look at something and figure out what it is very quickly.
When you’re in a train like I was today, your brain doesn’t think it is being inundated by information. It’s smart enough in terms of hierarchical thinking. ‘There’s nothing here that is raising a red flag.’ Then you see a DayGlo orange 1975 Ford Cortina and that stops your brain there because this is some kind of hierarchical intrusion, an anomaly.
Pattern recognition is about having a certain kind of brain to begin with, which I think most journalists, or artists, do and then training it to look between the hierarchical trees in the brain, however it’s arranged. It’s like looking at the structural, symbolic, political and being able to pick things out very quickly. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. If you can, you can do it.
If you’re being bombarded with information, it’s the act of looking for patterns – not necessarily the finding of them – that’s going to give you psychic refuge, a sense of sanctuary. You might not have been born with the most pattern recognising kind of brain, but the fact that you’re trying will protect you from erosive voices, too much information, too many channels of information coming at you. That’s a wonderful thing to know.
Worst. Person. Ever. is out now on William Heinemann. Find out more about the Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland event on the New York Public Library website or read our archive interview with Chuck Palahniuk.