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Douglas Coupland's Mid-life Circus

The restless, prolific artist on why guns make him feel safe, how buses impede cars and whether the blogging bubble will burst.

By David Beers 3 Aug 2006 |

David Beers is the Tyee's founding editor. Under his leadership from 2003 to 2014, The Tyee's traffic grew to eclipse a million page views in a month and its team won many prizes including, twice, Canada's Excellence in Journalism Award, and, twice, the North America-wide Edward R. Murrow Award.

He remains committed to the aim that gave rise to The Tyee -- pursuing sustainable models for journalism.

He also co-founded Tyee Solutions Society, a non-profit that seeks philanthropic support for journalism in the public interest, reporting projects made available to be published by other publications as well as The Tyee.

He is an independent consultant to digital publishers on editorial and business structures.

He is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Previous to The Tyee, Beers was Chief Features Editor creating new projects and sections at the Vancouver Sun, and before that was senior editor at Mother Jones magazine and the San Francisco Examiner before the Hearst Corporation merged it with the San Francisco Chronicle. He has written for numerous publications including Harper's, National Geographic and the Globe and Mail, and authored a highly praised memoir of growing up in Silicon Valley, Blue Sky Dream.

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Douglas Coupland leaves a long trail of art.

A dozen years ago, Doug Coupland and I used to drink together on a regular basis. We would sit in the Sylvia Hotel bar with other writers and muse and riff. Of course, no one could keep up with Doug, the guy who had named his generation and provided its glossary of ironicisms. But he was always friendly and easy to laugh, and out of those creative sessions came a 1995 special issue of Vancouver magazine that portrayed Vancouver in 2010 as a private enclave financed by Asia, run by organized crime and kept tourist friendly by QOLAs -- Quality of Life cops. (Maybe not so far-fetched?)

These many years later, having been out of touch most of that time, I decided to send Doug an e-mail and suggest we meet. What prompted me was a newspaper picture showing Coupland nothing like his portrait in Generation X (the lean, dark-mopped brooder lit through Levolor blinds). No, this was someone who looked very much like me. Balding. Grey bearded. Puffy around the eyes. At 45, the author of Generation X had reached middle age, and I wanted to catch up.

Irony aging

"Oh! We haven't talked about the bus strike! Everyone was expecting this chaos and madness and horror. And instead it became the golden age of driving a car in Vancouver. There were no more of these great big ugly cubic boxy things at slow speeds getting in your way. You could just go anywhere. Parking was a dream. I mean businesses were going under but, man, you could sure drive in Vancouver."

As the burgers and fries arrive at our table at the White Spot on Marine Drive in West Vancouver, Doug is sounding like he's skipped middle age altogether and proceeded straight to codger. He misses the car's golden era but says he shuns most newfangled gadgets, doesn't even own a cell phone. Besides, the good old days of start-up tech idealism are over:

"When I wrote Microserfs in 1993 and 1994, you really felt like you were changing the world with technology, and in a good way. Plus if you were on the inside, you were making shitloads of money! But now, you're probably changing the world, probably in a not very good way. The money sucks. And history is not going to remember you as having done anything that merits a subhead on your obituary."

While he's at it, what's the big deal with bloggers? "The same energy that is going into blogs right now is almost identical -- texture, colour, flavour, everything -- to the energy that surrounded CD-ROMs in 1994. Like, 'This is the future of everything.' When of course, no, it's not."

Heck, he'll take a good book any time. "The novel is pretty old fashioned -- what's beyond 'archaic'? But it still boils down to, at night, I'm going to read fiction before going to bed. And there still are great books until some jerk down in Sunnyvale has invented the book killer."

Why, when he was a kid..."Every wall in my family's house was covered in guns. My dad collects guns. And my brother's a taxidermist. And because we never had a basement, in the TV room or living room or dining room there were always animals in various states of reanimation. And so now I got my own place, dammit, I want guns on the wall! Guns make me feel safe."

Doug has mellowed in his once fervent environmentalism, claims contented domesticity with his long-time partner, tends his garden and fights his spreading midriff by spending hours at the gym ("my only structure in life").

When I first e-mailed him, back in May, I complimented him on the smart, provocative Vancouver School art installation he was showing with three noted artists who'd been students with him at Emily Carr. He thanked me but said the collaborative process nearly killed him. "I'm getting too old and Unabomberish for it."

Coupland enterprises

The amusing contradiction in that statement is that the older Doug gets, the farther he extends his creative network, and the more prolific he becomes. Writing a book every 18 months since Generation X has never kept him busy enough, apparently, as he has also designed furniture and crafted art pieces along the way. But now is a time of particularly rich productivity, a level of output that involves teamwork on many fronts.

At the moment he is taking a breather from touring internationally to promote his latest book, jPod, which launched about the time he proposed to design a pop-fun park for Toronto, and a month before his documentary film Souvenir of Canada hit theatres here in B.C., which was happening while audiences at the Cannes festival were viewing Everything's Gone Green, a feature film with a Coupland screenplay due in Canadian movie houses next month. His book Life After God is becoming a play, written by Michael MacLennan, to be staged by Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver in November. By then Doug will have folded up his art exhibit Play It Again at Provincial Art Gallery in St. John's, and be back from London where he's slated to join in on a bit of performance art at the Blow de la Barra gallery. And this Monday, August 7, you can find him at Vancouver International Film Centre's Cinema Salon, where he'll present and explain his affection for Kurosawa's anti-war film Rhapsody in August.

Welcome to Douglas Coupland's full-blown mid-life circus. And that's just the output for public admission.

To satisfy his craving for guns on the wall of his home, he has acquired what he calls "the weapons of Vietnam, like AK-47s and stuff, because that's what I remember from my childhood." He is working with a small team of expert craftspeople to paint the guns in hot colours of pearlescent auto paint, drape them in "these sort of Bob Mackie silk evening gowns" and place the ensembles in glass-panelled cabinets. Another project in the works is secret for now, but let's just say Doug is hiring more talented pros to help him solve certain issues that come into play when combining plastics, fabrics and legumes.

In his middle age, Coupland finds himself with the all the capital and contacts he needs to execute whichever vision rushes next into his mind. Like Bill Reid or the master artists of renaissance Florence, Coupland oversees artistic productions stamped with his brand. He has become his own small industry of sensibility.

A closer analogy might be Andy Warhol, a hero for Doug. Like Warhol, Doug moves easily among mediums, rejigging some as he goes, treating none as sacred, intersecting always with the popular obsessions of the moment. He says he remembers his first glimpse of pop art. He was eight, seeing Warhol's famous Campbell's Tomato Soup can in an encyclopedia. "That was the first time I had looked at words and seen words as aesthetic entities or art objects."

Today, you can trace that childhood moment to the strange, wasp nest-like creations Coupland fashions from his own books, pages "hand chewed" (as the caption reads) by the author and moulded into hollow vessels. You can also find text as visual art throughout jPod, including pages 246 though 263, given over to the display of 8,364 five-digit numbers, all them prime except one.

'I have a soul!'

Critics have accurately described jPod as an echo of Microserfs, as it revisits life among young and restless techies labouring for the megacorp, this time the Electronic Arts complex in Burnaby. But even for Coupland, this novel is a bitter joke, portraying modern life as a ceaseless struggle to navigate scams perpetrated on the blithe. He regularly interrupts the narrative with a Nigerian financial scam e-mail here, a penis enlargement pitch there. And, this being vintage Coupland, his characters' defense is to surround their vulnerably authentic selves with a thick shell of hyper-cerebral irony.

"Why can't you just be happy as a shallow cartoon glyph of a human like everyone else here?" one co-worker demands of another.

"You don't understand -- I'm me -- I have a soul!"

If that passage and a lot of the book do seem too much like the first, as some reviewers say, the wily Douglas Coupland anticipated his critics by creating a character named Douglas Coupland. He's one cold bastard in the book, indicating the author possesses an ability to laugh at oneself that comes in handy when fending off mid-life crisis. Let's face it. Without the ability to self-parody, you're gonna end up wearing a hair weave or something.

Most interesting to me about jPod is the way Coupland uses B.C.'s Lower Mainland as his own private movie lot. Indeed, he portrays society here as one big simulation laboratory. The father is a cheap movie actor, the mother a suburban grow-op queen, the brother a snakehead and condo seller, and the main character, of course, makes video games.

"jPod, it's about the technical disposability of your co-workers, but it's also your amoral engagement with your culture," Doug says. "In Vancouver we're all kind of complicit in what goes on here. We're not innocent. I think Vancouver is a lot like Carmen Soprano that way. You actually never heard her talk to Tony directly and ask: 'What do you do every day?'"

That sounds familiar to my ears. It's what he and I used to discuss years ago, the ingenious way in which Vancouver taps wealth from some of the world's ugliest veins, while becoming more healthy and pretty every day.

"So much of what I do these days stems out of those wonderful drink sessions we used to have at the Sylvia, discussing Vancouver and what defines the place," Doug says. "I think my life would have been so much different if we hadn't done that."

It's true that in the past 10 years, Coupland has swung much of his focus away from the U.S. and back to his Vancouver roots (City of Glass) and to his country's mythology (Souvenir of Canada, which yielded an art installation, two books and a film, and the book Terry, his homage to Terry Fox). Maybe someone should hang a plaque in the Sylvia's bar: "Here, on the beer-soaked napkins, Douglas Coupland worked out his second act."

Looking back at those Sylvia meet-ups, Doug and I weren't just trying to figure out Vancouver. I think we were also trying to figure out each other, gauging speed and trajectory. Doug was the local boy suddenly orbiting the planet at a bright, burning, ever accelerating rate, and maybe he wanted to pull free of this place for good. Me? I was the new immigrant. Maybe I could fit in.

Now here we are, two more duffers with Triple O sauce on our chins, having given in to the charms of this place. We are middle-aged, settled.

"Oh. By the way," Doug says, downing a fry and signalling for another beer. "Since we last spoke, Google now runs the world."

Too true. It's good to catch up.

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.  [Tyee]