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THE HIT MAN

 

In the 13 years since his phenomenal debut book was leapt upon by social commentators, Douglas Coupland has been busily outgrowing Generation X. Meet an eccentric writer, artist and culture vulture whose latest protagonist, Eleanor Rigby (yes, from the Beatles song), may be his most lifelike yet



ONCE upon a time there was this doctor's son who was born on an army base in Germany but grew up in Blandsville, Nowhereland. Now Vancouver in Canada is actually among the world's better cities but the boy thought his home town was vapid and that real life happened elsewhere. When this boy grew up, he decided to become a designer. Which is where the Douglas Coupland story begins to skew from the norm, although it only ever approached ordinary in his own mind anyway.

But neuroses and self-knowledge maketh the man -- and Coupland has bucket loads of both. These have helped him become a sage of the suburban condition, and a peripatetic traveller in both real time and virtual realities, whose often bleakly wry readings of life, the universe and the whole damned caboodle delight devotees as much as they dismay Mr and Ms Middle America. The shorthand ID for Coupland is Generation X. He's the man who wrote the book whose title became a social catchphrase.

And he reached his particular kind of gurudom via a series of serendipitous breaks. The cheatnotes version? Doug does design course in Vancouver, studies business science in Japan, sends amusing postcards to friends. Local newspaper editor sees postcard, hires Doug to write articles. Through paper, he meets cartoonist Paul Rivoche; together they create a sardonic comic strip they call ... Generation X. New York publishers see comic strip and commission Doug to write a user's guide to Generation X. Instead, he writes a novel, which becomes a publishing sensation -- and the rest is his story, writ large.

Since then, Coupland has uneasily straddled the mainstream and the cultish: in some ways he was a sort of literary Michael Moore in the early 1990s, his cynical edginess and social overview interpreted as representing a generational attitude.
It didn't, although his ire and irony did express what many, of different generations, also thought. But for a long time, to his increasing disgust, he was branded Mr Generation X by commentators desperate to catch up -- so he became a ``lifestyle taxonomist'', an ``anatomist of the sound-bite era'', a rent-a-quote authority on youthful trends. Partly this was his own fault -- he's flirted furiously at times with personality publicity, especially early on, and he still maintains a benign involvement with his clan of net fans and bloggers.

Naturally, there was critical fallout after the stellar sales of his first book: he admits now that his second and third books ``didn't really work'', and that not every book since has hit consistent heights. But most have: since Generation X was published in 1991, he has written nine novels, five books of non-fiction and a dramatic monologue -- then there are his short stories, essays and journalism, art installations, photographic exhibitions and collaborative projects. Few other artists are as productive in twice the time.

This year alone he's published Souvenir of Canada2, the June sequel to his 2002 pictures-and-personal-take exposition of his homeland, and co-ordinated and assembled his Canada House art installation in London earlier in the year and Vancouver from September. He has also been working on his biography of Terry Fox for April 2005 publication, which will mark the 25-year anniversary of a remarkable feat: in 1980 Fox, whose right leg was amputated above the knee after he was diagnosed at 18 with bone cancer, set out to raise money for cancer research by running across Canada at the rate of one marathon a day. He was then 21, and for 143 successive days he ran the 42km distance before his health failed. He died the next year, a Cliff Young-like hero to Canadians in general and Coupland in particular.

In October, Coupland's latest novel, Eleanor Rigby, was released in England (ahead of its release in Australia last month and North America next month) to coincide with the three-performance debut season of his self-penned and presented monologue September 10, 2001, staged as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's New Work Festival at Stratford-on-Avon.

His dual displays were not a singular success. While the Brit crits quite liked his novel (``at heart deeply romantic'' concluded The Sunday Telegraph; ``sometimes profoundly silly ... sometimes just profound'' noted the regional press), they were less sold on his memories of the pre-9/11 decade: ``A solo theatre show is not the best vehicle for his considerable talents,'' was The Evening Standard's kindly spin, while The Spectator accused him of boring ``us into insensibility by wittering, largely inaudibly, through ... unfunny ruminations''.

Charles Spencer in London's The Daily Telegraph went for the jugular: Coupland ``exudes a repellent vanity'', he wrote, ``and you usually haven't got a clue what he's on about. This is actually preferable to the bits you can hear, which drip with smart-arse self-regard.''

Coupland would be deflated by his reception, even if he has demonstrated a Wildean ability to deflect the slingshots of critical outrage. But when we met at his headquarters, he'd been palpably excited about his then-imminent stage appearance, in a ``hush-hush, say no more'' kind of way.

He lives today in a 1960s glass-and-beam bungalow made over into a modernist mecca amid the toney hills of West Vancouver, at the end of a cul-de-sac not far from his parents and the cul-de-sac home in which he and his two brothers were raised. There's obvious irony in his adult home now being a block or two away from the childhood version, given his youthful escape-at-all-costs attitude and world-is-my-backyard inclinations. But having yo-yoed around the globe for nearly two decades, he's realised that place doesn't define -- or limit -- horizons.

His own house, in fact, is a magical mystery tour more rewarding than most art galleries, packed as it is with mostly Doug-designed paintings, pieces and passions -- plus bulging bookcases galore. He grew up on Pop art (``not just an influence,'' he has said, but ``the entire landscape'') and has taken the thinking of his hero Andy Warhol to heart: repetition and reproduction are everywhere, in both praise and parody. It's not that he's obsessive, he clarifies, it's just ``that when you get on a run, you may as well follow it through as far as possible''.

Take the hornets' nests. An ad in the local paper had schoolboys dropping off ``liberated'' nests for their $10 bounty. Then Coupland moved into DIY mode, chewing wads of paper to mould around supporting twigs. Hence the Dollar Bill nest, the Blue Books nest, and so on. This was ``absolute hell on the salivary glands'', he confides, so he and his science-minded brother-in-law worked out how to soak paper in sugar and water to encourage real hornets to use it as raw material. The result of this nature 'n' nurture commingling is an overflow of outsize nests piled on the floor, shelved as displays or hanging from poles or ceilings with a mysterious dignity that snares the imagination.

``Scale is a big problem for me,'' he mentions unnecessarily as we pass a metre-high model of a Louisville bridge, set just across from a plastic chair with 1.5m sweep of seat and the room full of 2m-high plastic bathroom cleaner containers. Nearby is a life-sized plastic toy soldier on the charge, larger-than-life 3-D cartoon characters and a many-shelved display of Japanese toxic material containers, plus books in colour-coded pyramid piles and found objects dangling in mobiles of disconcertion.

It's all to do with looking at the common with uncommon insight, of subverting comfortable concepts of what is disposable junk by using incongruous juxtapositions to make us look again. ``I find most of my material at ordinary hardware shops around the world,'' he mentions as he ushers me outside.

On the slatted deck dividing his multi-hued modernity from the manicured elegance of his Japan-meets-Canada garden, we settle like creaky nabobs amid pillows and tentative conviviality. In the long twilight of this lazy Vancouver summer's afternoon, black and grey squirrels are chittering in the alder copse, a creek burbles beyond a bambooed thicket and stellar jays patrol tree branches like bossy shop stewards on a picket line. ``Well, hey, it's supper time,'' he announces in mock radio MC tones, before co-opting me into shelling peanuts to feed the assorted wildlife.

For us, he's orchestrated a Mediterranean theme, serving up a sequence of aggressive Italian soft drinks, pacifying Italian cakes, seductive Italian wines and, later, sustaining Italianate pizzas (he phone-orders delivery of ``my usual number 19'', which turns out to be vegetarian, and a meat mixture in case his guest is carnivorous ... and then eats little more than the odour of one slice).

In manner, Coupland is urbane if (initially) oddly diffident -- here's someone who preached like a zealot on the life-changing benefits of the then nascent email yet in adolescence liked ``Harolding'', a practice named after the cemetery-haunting hero of cult movie Harold and Maude; who loves to dissect big ideas and his work in minute detail yet makes the subverting of interviews both art form and signature; who refuses to divulge details of his personal relationships or sexual proclivities yet worries aloud that he might become schizophrenic or aurally autistic.

In appearance, he has outgrown the matinee-idol whiz-kid look of his late 20s and the darkly roguish Hemingway-esque beard and bulky jumper persona of his late 30s. Now 42, he looks more at home wearing his forehead higher, his face more boyishly rounded and his belt eased out a notch or two. Even if within a couple of weeks of our meeting he will assume yet another image, growing a donnish if distinguishedly grey beard for his stage show.

His approach to interviews is anecdotal and anarchic. Questions, which he insists with appropriate air punctuation must be phrased with ``proper question marks'' (at heart he's just an old-fashioned boy), are given lip-service before the lips service whatever segue happens along. These riffs are entertaining and irreverent, and their inevitable endgame several minutes later is a querying ``now what were we talking about?'' It becomes a bit like conversing with a television set, with the remote controlled by a teenage son. With ADHD.

``I do prefer email interviews,'' he admits, ``not because it's a control-freak thing but because you get smarter answers -- with the added bonus for the journalist that they are typed out already.'' Besides which, he adds archly, in the electronic age ``all the answers exist already in cyberspace''.

We have, of course, Googled each other pre-meeting: it's his research against mine, ``part of the promise and terror of tomorrow'', he smiles, ``the all-Google, all-the-time universe''. Although vid-phones will never make it ``because you'll no longer be able to sit naked cutting your toenails while discussing mutual funds with your broker''.

He then introduces another element of unease to our discussion. It's his voice, he says. ``It's non-magnetic -- we can hear each other well enough now but when you play the tape back later, it'll be `was he there?' My voice just doesn't register.'' (Later I discover some truth in this -- although the non-registering is more to do with his descents into mumbled bass confidentialities or off-the-record sotto voce asides.)

In the interests of professionalism, I doggedly try to formalise the process and it works for a brief while before conversation is hijacked into analyses of scientific nomenclature, or the art of book cover design (at which he, naturally, excels), or Oliver Sacks (``another hero of mine''). As the wine goes down, his conversation fills up with unverifiable but intriguing assertions. He's also an aficionado if not an apostle of the apocalyptic and a connoisseur of conspiracy theories and we share swap-card enthusiasms over frontline disaster stories.

As for his latest book, he mentions casually, ``for better or worse I've done so little press on it so far that I don't have any script prepared, so when I gap out, it's a real gap out ...'' I hope this is merely a ``random thread'', as he calls it when a thought-line peters out -- and which, as the dusk slowly darkens into night, become more and more prevalent. On both sides of the questions.

 

``THE only things you can't fake are competence, creativity and sexual arousal ... or cynically conceived books,'' Coupland said once. Early in his career, though, curmudgeonly critics accused him of just that, of finding a fad and whipping it into a frenzy. He strenuously denied this (even if his booklet essay on animated heroine Lara Croft did raise high-art eyebrows), saying he wrote only about what interested him rather than about what was ``Zeitgeist now'' market-friendly. In his later novels, however, he has moved increasingly into the personal and personable, his narratives bordering on the nearly normal. Voraciously well-read, he is also omnivorously wired in to modern music, cinema, art, computing and commercial culture.

Yet Eleanor Rigby the novel arose from boyhood memories of the Beatles' song played ``on a friend's mother's record player. And the story threw me: `Oh my God, what happened to her?' The lyrics didn't tell you much but in my head I always saw her as an only child of very old parents who didn't have a clue and she was left in a rectory and died without leaving any mark anywhere ... The book's not like that, of course, but it's the mood and the way Liz describes herself.''

Liz is Liz Dunn, his late-30s heroine and most intriguing character yet. A self-isolating if sardonic observer who is solitary to the point of social agoraphobia, she's also intelligent, witty and significantly obese. And her life is a study in apparent nonentity until she is tracked down by a son she adopted out after a (one-and-only) teenage seduction went wrong. The son has MS, has been abused by successive foster parents and is dying. He also has visions, and he shakes, as they say, Liz's universe.

The novel is not as bleak as it sounds. Coupland's literary canvas is always universal and individual, satiric and black-humoured, and Eleanor Rigby is no different. Big themes sit inside comic strip plot twists, passion alongside irreverence, insight besides irony.

The thing with Liz, he confides, ``and she's actually one of the first characters I've created who I can talk about like she's real, she comes from an upbringing in a generally democratic society where no one tells you about the currency of lust or the currency of bodies or of family name. Warhol used to say that people get scored out of 40 based on looks, body, money and fame, that you could be rich and good-looking but if you're not famous or don't have a good body, you won't make it. It's a surprisingly shallow yet surprisingly effective measure to learn ... and Liz, well she's just slipped through all the cracks.''

Her loneliness, I suggest, is exposed with the forensic insights of experience. ``When I was growing up,'' he jumps in before I get to a question mark, ``there was never a Canadian national identification because things were still new here, with a little bit of the pioneer about them. Part of this was a `be young, bronzed and beautiful' attitude -- and I guess parents thought that with all this abundance, surely that hideous thing we call loneliness didn't exist anymore, so we won't tell the kids about it. The culture of that era left young people completely unprepared for what happens when you leave home.''

Coupland himself left earlier than he intended ``because of near-homicidal relations with a brother'' and was depressively lonely until ``it ended quite suddenly at 30, which was probably not just a decimal coincidence. Am I lonely now? No. But until then life was all about feeling formless and alienated, and thinking I was the only one going through this. And of course you only find out later that everyone was going through the same thing at the same time.''

If he were in charge of the high school curriculum today, he says in allegro tones, ``I'd have classes dealing with this, Loneliness 101. Loneliness is among the most disruptive ... well, it has a terrible social cost.'' Two things militate against it being treated with due seriousness, he accelerates. ``It just isn't a problem in society's eyes, as if it doesn't exist. And then the moment you yourself stop being lonely, you forget what it was like to be that way. So there's this whole continuum out there,'' he gestures sweepingly to the fairy lights of the distant CBD, ``on whatever drugs and antidepressants, trying to medicate their way out of loneliness. I'm a firm believer in medication but I don't think it works that way.''

But surely loneliness is an essential part of humanness? ``It's the cruellest of emotions in that it's so destructive of hope. I think joy and happiness and elation are little poppies that bloom for just a few days,'' he answers with a Zen air, ``then you're back to lichen and stone again. Here we are, in a good part of history in a good part of the planet in a good part of the economy, and everyone's so lonely it's scary.''

I know people like Liz, he tells me, leaning over confidentially, ``who are fantastically, galactically, aurora borealis-ly lonely''. And their loneliness is different from depression? I ask, remembering the question mark. ``I've had two major depressive times in my life, one in '84, another in '96 when I was prescribed this antidepressant which the first time I took it made me want to kill myself ... it just seemed the logical thing to do. When it wore off, I thought `well OK, I'm never taking that drug again', but suddenly I understood that suicidal impulse, which unless you've experienced it is always academic.''

Depression, he clarifies, is ``like being homesick in the worst way, except you're already home. But loneliness, well that's a sense that everyone else has a life and you have none. You don't want to seem like a loser but you dread the evenings around 6pm -- the worst time of day -- when everyone else is in their kitchens with the TV on and the dog's saying `take me for a walk' -- and you're not there. And you feel you never will be.''

Let's talk about obesity, I change direction, and social perceptions of body image. Your Ms Dunn is always talking about how fat she is ... ``She is, and that was part of the challenge. Any book you've ever read, whether high literature or sci-fi or whatever, you still populate it in your mind with people who look like Mel Gibson or Jodi Foster or whoever ... I thought, OK, what if I make my character makeover-proof and truly fat.'' Much like a large part, I say, of the North American population you see every day in the streets ...

``The introduction of corn syrup into the American diet in the early '80s has a lot to answer for,'' he laughs.

Yet a fat hero is welcome in the present cultural conditioning ...``My book is not Chick Lit, it just happens to be about a woman who happens to be fat -- and real.'' And who happens to have a bizarre mixture of self-defences and fears ...

``Oh you have to have that, don't you? But she's not over the top -- if I'd based her totally on people I know, she'd have been much weirder. The same with Jeremy [her son] -- his experiences with foster parents were disastrous but they were so vanilla compared to some that people go through.''

 Coupland  then moves into show-and-tell mode, rushing off to dig out three favourite coffee table books, including the gaudy otherworld-ness of Timothy Hursley's Brothels of Nevada, and his collection of 9/11 newspapers. ``I was in Toronto for this book thing when SARS broke out,'' he mentions, ``and as soon as the reports appeared, the North American Oncology Conference, which had virtually booked out the hotel I was at, just baled. I was suddenly, like, the only guest left. My entire life I'd been waiting for this to happen -- I couldn't believe I was at the global epicentre of an international drama ... I was like, `Yes! Finally! I may perish but at least I'm at the heart of it.'

And then an Arctic front came down from James Bay and it was minus 20C, and the weather and news just kept getting bleaker.'' And you stayed on because of it ... ``I did, I did,'' he laughs sheepishly. ``I stayed eight days and a part of me was kinda pissed off it didn't go further, actually.'' You know how J. G. Ballard is obsessed with the empty swimming pool? he asks. ``Well I'm obsessed with the empty hotel.

“For 9/11 I was in Madison, Wisconsin, after flying in the day before from New York. I got trapped in Madison for four days before I could escape to LA where I was staying at The l'hermitage -- that's what they call it, I kid you not. It had been booked out for the Emmys but then the Emmys were cancelled. And the hotel was completely empty. Except for Salman Rushdie and Claudia Schiffer. And me. It was fantastic, playing backgammon with Claudia -- traffic was minimal, crime was down, there were no flights from LAX, no helicopters overhead. The LA Times said the city hadn't been that quiet since 1910.

``It was only later that I worked out I mightn't have been as safe as I thought at the time -- you know, radical Muslims have got this terrorist war thing going on and who's the No.1 target of radical Muslim fundamentalists? Oh, he's in my building. Good move, Doug!''

 
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian,  4 December 2004. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
 
 


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