Truman Capote dismissed Jack Kerouac's writing as mere "typing." What would he have called Douglas Coupland's? Typesetting, probably. Or maybe art design. Coupland's new book of essays, Polaroids from the Dead, comes in a micro coffee-table size, perfect for subway reading or displaying next to fanned-out back issues of Wired. Its pages of observations appear in large, fussily neat print, interrupted by photos ranging from newspaper shots to calendar art which, printed in black and white, herald a new style: tabloid kitsch. And to top it all off, the whole thing comes wrapped in a satiny dust jacket from which, in a silver gelatin print, Sharon Tate peers out, the picture-perfect retro victim, a symbol of Coupland's cross-generational impulses, and his chic. Tate has been chosen over her contemporary equivalent, Nicole Brown Simpson, the way, while shopping, someone might choose a vintage Nehru jacket over a new blazer.
If I dwell on the book's design, it's because Coupland's writing is all about presentation, his thinking about people and places rarely going beneath the surfaces of dress, manner and speech. In these essays, Doug (that's how he signs himself in the prologue) comes off as a cross between the happy-face computer screen that appears when you switch on a Mac and the arms trying to break through the TV in the movie "Videodrome." His message to his cyber-contemporaries is "reach out and touch somebody's hand." He replaces the stereotype of current youth as disaffected and apathetic with an older cliche: the slackers and hackers who wander through his work are just lost, bewildered darlings, Coupland tells us, as he radiates understanding and solace like St. Francis waiting for the pigeons to perch on his outstretched limbs. Speaking for youth, Coupland heads right for the most flowery sentiments of the '60s. The long opening piece on Deadheads concludes with this pearl: "At the heart of the sixties dream lies a core of truth, a germ that refuses to die, an essence of purity and love that is open to abuse . . . but without which Columbia could not live her own life peacefully."
In other pieces, Coupland toys with an irony so subtle that, like grappa, it evaporates the instant you taste it. A good thing, too, since otherwise we might see how cheap and easy it is. His conclusion to a rumination on the cannibalistic nature of modern celebrity is -- are you sitting down? -- fame and money don't ensure happiness. And if you don't believe that, just check out the author photo of Doug looking pensive and Diesel-ad gorgeous next to his Noguchi lamp and Eames chair. Maybe Coupland is working so fast (five books in five years) because, media savvy as he is, he suspects he's in for a short ride. His real contribution may be as the latest proof that every generation gets the fraud it deserves. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A cult writer for the disaffected (Generation X), Coupland combines manic poetry and scary precision in his dazzling, deft takes on modern life and non-living. Illustrated with 42 b&w photographs, this collection of 24 mini-essays and short fictions (all but three of which ran in Spin, New Republic, etc.) opens with several pieces on a series of Grateful Dead concerts that will mainly interest Deadheads, but it picks up speed as Coupland roams the former East Berlin in 1994; files a bittersweet, sunset-drenched dispatch from the Bahamas; meditates on James Rosenquist's enormous pop painting F-111; visits the nuclear tourist sites of Los Alamos; and spies on yuppies and political consultants in seamy Washington, D.C. In Palo Alto and in his native Vancouver, Coupland celebrates middle-class stability, which he views as a fragile construct that shields us from our animal nature. The "secular nirvana" of Brentwood, Los Angeles, to him seems an inevitable site for the O.J. Simpson/Nicole Brown saga and for Marilyn Monroe's death. Coupland teaches survival of the hippest as the world plunges toward a "new thought-based economy."
Read an Excerpt
The 1960s are Disneyland
"Are we in the 1960s yet?" asks Cheyenne.
"Hippies smell like booger," says Amy.
Rain is falling on Oakland for the first time in five years. The drought is over. Scott, Amy, Todd and Cheyenne sit hamstered inside Scott's stepmother's steamy-windowed Lexus, parked atop Spyglass Road, surveying the moistening, months-old remains of the Oakland Hills fire storm--hills once bursting with sequoias, Nile lilies, sago palms and mansions, now all incinerated into a fine oyster-gray dust the color of recycled paper.
"I mean, if the Soviets really wanted to roast the Bay Area," says Todd, "they didn't need a bomb. A hibachi and a few drunk teenagers would have been way cheaper."
"Whose picture is that on the acid?" calls Cheyenne from the rear seat, mopping up a gin spill from her Okie dress and Goodwill cardigan.
"Fuck on, Scott."
"It's Bart Simpson," says Amy, the in-car substance authority. "Eighty mikes. And avoid the peace-sign blotter circulating around now because it's totally washout."
A half-hour previously the four friends had liaisoned in Walnut Creek at the Broadway Plaza Mall, their tribe-defining shopping nucleus. Now, serenaded by a My Dad Is Dead CD, they cruise into Oakland via the Highway 24 tunnel through the Berkeley Hills, all four eager to be punctual for Deadhead-parking lot action at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Nutty pre-concert fun starts at four o'clock.
Todd spots a melted satellite dish down the hill. "Imagine BMX'ing in this shit. Or using ATVs. Better buy Mom some more scratch-'n'-wins."
"Wasn't she a hippie?" asksCheyenne.
"Booger-booger-booger," chants Amy. "A sixties chick."
"The 1960s . . ." Todd begins. He considers that era as distant and meaningful to his own life as that of the Civil War or the Flintstones--faint images of beehive hairdos, the moon walk, fat guys with bad haircuts yelling at helicopters. "I don't like the 1960s," Todd decides. "I'd rather be here. Now."
Amy chews apricot leather and scans the cities below, down the gray slopes: Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Berkeley--and San Francisco across the Bay--birthplaces of the transuranium elements, flower power, nouvelle cuisine and the Intel microchip. Amy sees these cities now slick with water and cottoned in a fine Pacific mist the ash color of burned houses. She remembers the day last October when the hills ignited--she inventories her mental images of exploding eucalyptus trees, Siamese cats sizzling inside garages-turned-kilns, sparrows burning their claws landing on the stove-element-hot husks of Jeeps, frightened citizens escaping from walls of flame only to drive down the wrong road into fire storms and molten deaths.
And now the hills are cool and damp.
Amy sees a road sign out the window, but the painted letters have burned off. A few minutes ago driving uphill she saw a sign saying, this was once someone's home. go away. Well, she thinks, at least at a Dead concert you can forget for a few hours that the world is going to go bang. You pay your money and you hop on the ride: Fun costumes, tunes as seen on MTV, and afterward you can return to the present.
A cop pounds the window.
"Whoa!" A startled Scott lowers the glass. Apparently the Lexus is parked in a potential mud-slide zone; they must drive on. And so they do--down past the now-rusted melted stoves and heating tanks of the ex-mansions, down onto Highway 24, which connects to the once-quake-pancaked Interstate 880 Nimitz Freeway, then toward the Coliseum parking lot, licking their Bart Simpson acid and dodging jackknifed big rigs and liquid oxygen spills along the way, Scott amusing his friends with tales of his hypothetical career working in the used-car lots of Antarctica.
"In the 1960s they had Merry Pranksters," says Cheyenne. "What do we have now?"
"Wacky funsters," answers Scott.
"Look!" says Amy, rolling down her window amid the entranceway gridlock of VW microbuses. "A Tricia Nixon dress--that's so cool."
"History is cool," says Todd, nodding.
Scott, Amy, Todd and Cheyenne near the concert. Already the scorched hill behind them has been forgotten, along with the other news of the day--minor temblors in Watsonville and Loma Prieta and controversy over the storage of vasectomized nuclear weapons up-Bay in Richmond. But a smattering of the imagery they have seen today will stick. Their way of looking at the world, continuing a process that began fifteen years ago back in day care, will become even more fortressed.
Scott thinks, as he inches toward the lot, that if he, Amy, Todd and Cheyenne killed enough old people, or if enough old people were killed, or if enough old people were simply to die, or if the system imploded and the four of them were somehow magically able to afford to build houses of their own, he would design a house for the real world. His roof would be shingled with slate, not tinderbox cedar, his yard would be free of flammable trees-of-death, his water would be stored in vast dark black tanks buried deep beneath the soil, and his walls, though stuccoed in bright and amusing colors like bubble-gum, lemon or swimming-pool blue, would be lined with steel.