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Essay

MY FIRST REAL-LIFE ENCOUNTER with Douglas Coupland was a reluctant one. I was meeting a friend for dinner in London, but first he wanted to go to Blackwell’s Books on the Strand to hear Coupland read from his new novel, Girlfriend in a Coma. The year was 1998.

In 1991, I had read Coupland’s zeitgeisty first novel, Generation X, at the suggestion of an artist friend, GR, the hippest person I knew. GR and I disagreed on the novel’s merit. He thought it was clever and funny; I thought it was pretentious, and I just didn’t get it. But to be honest, I had not tried very hard. Like many nineteen-year-olds, I tended to treat art as something that I either liked or did not like, an object for consumption rather than a conversation that might need to be revisited in order to be understood.

But on that spring London evening in 1998, my friend Brett insisted that we go hear Coupland speak, and afterward, that we wait in the book-signing line. I sighed but gave in, deciding to buy a copy of Microserfs since I had to wait anyway (now with a growling stomach). I had met authors and musicians and other celebrities before, but when the time came for Douglas Coupland to sign my book, there was something quite different about our brief, awkward, and obligatory (on his part) encounter.

Although the details have faded, I have a strong memory of my impression of Coupland as a human being—and how he made me feel like a human being. He asked my name and where I was from, seeming genuinely interested, before signing my book “To Mary from Tennessee.” He was so kind, so eager to connect—the opposite of how I had imagined the author of a novel I had found too trendy for its good. It was obvious that he found great delight in seeing that real people had been impacted by his stories. And his curiosity was clearly not manufactured.

After this encounter, I began to trust Douglas Coupland. For the first time in my young life, I came to see an artist as a person who had something important to say to me. An idea that I had often heard discussed at L’Abri Fellowship (by Ellis Potter and others) became an experiential reality: we need to see art not as a commodity but as a relationship.

Douglas Coupland’s writing focuses on community and relationship: with God, with family and friends, with nature. His novels and stories describe the same relational fragmentation and isolation Eliot depicts in The Waste Land—an inability to connect in a society with no transcendent reference point. But Coupland’s wasteland is glossy and full of convenience, full of shiny, happy people who are anything but. Most of his characters are longing for points of connection, both in their personal stories and a collective communal one. But as the long final story of his 1994 story collection Life After God indicates, this can only occur in the context of an overarching transcendent narrative, one based on relationship rather than platitudes. This is the secret answer to all of the narrator’s longings, a secret that can only be revealed in the midst of brokenness:

Now here is my secret:

I tell you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me to give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me to love, as I seem beyond being able to love.

This focus on relationship and community is also evident in Coupland’s often very transparent nonfiction, such as a blog post about a reading and signing at the London Borders on Charring Cross Road in the late nineties:

At the signing afterward, a group of people who’d collectively come from all over Europe just for this one reading showed up and they were so…kind and so lovely that after they left I had to go over into the back of the store behind a pillar and cry for a minute because across the years I’ve always felt like I was writing into an empty room…and I’ve never felt like I was a part of anything, even after all the good things that have happened since 1991, and then suddenly there were these people… and for a few moments before my psyche healed over and returned me to my usual lonely self, I felt that I’d actually touched some souls in the way I’d always hoped I’d touch souls, like being in love, but also like touching minds and belonging, as if we shared a secret hideaway up in a tree, or a cabin in the sky….We are not born in isolation, but sometimes it feels that way. Imagine going through your whole life and never feeling isolated—that would be heaven—and last night it felt like there at least existed the possibility of going through life without isolation.

In Coupland’s fictional and nonfictional worlds, heaven is the end of the loneliness of the human condition.

These are just some of the themes that led me to devote four years to writing a dissertation on Coupland’s work. And yes, I reread Generation X and realized how wrong I had been in my first, immature, impatient reading. In many ways, the book described my own overreliance on irony and superficial countercultural identity, and the ways in which epiphany can occur only when seeking truth via relationship. The more I read of Coupland’s work, the more I learned about myself, and the more I saw his writing as prophetically exposing the sins and longings of contemporary capitalist North America, a culture that had formed so much of who I was.

During the writing of the dissertation, I met him several more times at readings, as well as at the performance of his 2004 play, September 10, 2001, at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Afterward, around the table at the Dirty Duck pub, he gave me his email address, unasked, offering to answer questions.

Last July, after twelve years of off-and-on correspondence, I found myself driving down his West Vancouver cul-de-sac, looking for a house that did not seem to be there. The small street was crowded with service vehicles and construction workers, but no residents. Coupland later told me that his house was the only one on the street currently occupied; the rest had been bought by Chinese companies or investors who rarely inhabited them. This was a snapshot, he said, of the many ways Vancouver was becoming increasingly “post-community” —an ironic juxtaposition to his writing.

I parked my rental car and made my way into an overgrown forested area. I eventually came upon a clearing where a lush variety of trees surrounded a rich brown mid-century-modern post-and-beam house. The walk was covered with clay pottery, some broken and some whole, that echoed the Japanese minimalist aesthetic of the house itself. I was still wondering whether I had come to the right place (I never could find the street number) when Coupland opened the door and welcomed me in. As he showed me around, I became completely immersed in his aesthetic vision: everything was art.

Although I had studied Coupland’s fiction for fifteen years, and had seen images of his visual art, I had never seen any of it in person. It was delightfully overwhelming. The edges of the living room were lined with contemporary western totems built of rolls of tape, canned food, and globes: ordinary objects had been highlighted, given shape and context, and made into something beautiful. A five-foot disinfectant spray bottle stood next to a wall of windows and a stack of oversized Brillo Pad boxes, a large globe covered in paint sat on a table, and the walls were full of Coupland’s own twenty-first-century version of pop art. The warm interior contained multiple bookcases, and several tabletops were covered with art books and fascinating small objects such as collectible Legos or tiny busts of ordinary Canadians that Coupland had created with a 3D scanner. A framed Never Mind the Bullocks poster leaned against the wall in the bathroom, and a print of James Rosenquist’s F-111 hung on another wall.

It all mattered. Nothing was merely functional or random. It became clear to me that there was no distinction between art and life in Coupland’s world: life was art. But the very modern, glossy, manmade objects within his home were surrounded by the lavish natural world: one large window took up an entire living room wall, allowing us to see the rich vegetation surrounding the house. Every day he feeds peanuts to his many wild “pets”—crows, squirrels, and jays. (This will sound familiar if you’ve read the story “Things that Fly” from Life After God.) He introduced me to his animals, including Crowdles the baby crow and Dewey the Douglas squirrel: “All the animals in my life have names.”

Coupland’s residence was a microcosm of Vancouver itself: breathtaking natural beauty cradling a cosmopolitan yet human interior. We see this tension in much of Coupland’s work, from his large statue of a pixelated orca whale in downtown Vancouver, to the complex relationships that many of his fictional characters have with technology and nature.

In and around Coupland’s home, everything was beautiful, both the natural and the synthetic. He reminded me of a postmodern, urbane Howard Finster, collecting everyday things because he has a vision for their redemption, the potential beauty within them. His recontextualization of ordinary objects is playfully ironic on the surface but endearing and whimsical at heart. The cast-off remnants of modernity are not held up as objects of wasteful despair, but totems of hope.

That day he discussed his love of collecting, admitting that sometimes there is a fine line between that and hoarding. But Coupland hoards for the purpose of finding and constructing patterns. In his fiction, his characters often speak of a desire to “connect the dots” of the “isolated little cool moments” of their lives in order to find something whole. They are always seeking meaning, just as Coupland’s art is searching for meaning, beauty, and connection in simple objects.

Like so many of his characters, Douglas Coupland is endlessly curious, a seeker. The greatest sin within his fictional universe seems to be the loss of a childlike sense of wonder. In collecting objects that were the everyday furniture of his past life, he works toward a deeper understanding of the ways he has been formed by a culture. And in gathering these things, he gives them shape and form, a narrative.

Only after spending the afternoon of July 5 in Coupland’s home did I understand that I had yet again been wrong about him. I had seen him, as the press so often represents him, as a writer who also makes art. Now I began to see him as an artist who also writes. He sees the world through the eyes of a visual artist, and this informs his writing, his paintings, his installations, and his daily life. Everything is connected.

Coupland’s genuine curiosity about life and other people was obvious during our interview. He asked me just as many questions as I asked him, inquiring about my family, students, hometown, childhood fears, and pop culture loves. Our three-hour discussion often became a delightful and enriching exchange of stories. He seemed genuinely interested in my pop-culture past. It struck me later that his listening to the stories of others is another act of collecting.

His curiosity was most apparent when our conversation turned to theology and the ways modernity and technology have impacted Christians. At one point, I mentioned that his writing is sometimes described as “post-secular”; he was not familiar with the term. As I explained a bit about post-secular theory and the work of theologians such as John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, he ripped pages out of a book on his coffee table (“This is what I do with books now. I really only collect art books”) and took very large notes with a very large black marker. He would order the books I had mentioned after I left, he said.

Curiosity is the saving grace of many of Coupland’s characters. It moves them past the complacence of contemporary suburbia into a sometimes uncomfortable space of seeking. The post-apocalyptic remnant of high-school friends in Girlfriend in a Coma are only truly alive when they begin to ask questions about truth and meaning, no longer pacified by the toys of wealth and luxury. Liz Dunn, the painfully lonely protagonist of 2004’s Eleanor Rigby finds life—and herself—when she begins searching for her lost son, led by disruptive prophetic visions. And Scout, the only named narrator in Life After God, must leave his decaying suburban Eden and venture into a rainforest outside Vancouver where he finally understands that “All I need to do is ask and pray.”

This theme of spiritual seeking was visited and revisited during my afternoon with Coupland. He explained that he is “always working on” things that relate to “faith, belief, or what have you” and that this discussion is often rooted in his discovery that “all conflict on earth seems to be based on the clash between modernity and the eternal.”

Coupland has mentioned this clash (which he elsewhere calls a disconnect between “the afterlife and the future”) in multiple interviews. In a 2003 radio interview with Tom Ashbrook for On Point, he refers to a suspicion of “the modern project,” especially its focus on scientific certainty at the expense of the possibility of religious wonder, a theme that appears in many of his novels, as well as in the play September 10, 2001. Coupland raises the question: “Do we believe in eternity, or do we want to make a better tomorrow through the application of science?” In his 1995 novel Microserfs, techie Dan, a computer worker laboring in the engine room of the modern project, confesses that his completely secular upbringing provided him with no pictures of an afterlife. The possibility of a reality that can’t be controlled, manipulated, and reduced to a formula or experiment is absent in the grand narrative of modernity. In the same interview, Coupland claims that there is “no overlap between the two” structures offered by a vision of eternity and a trust in modernity. When Ashbrook remarks that the protagonists of Hey Nostradamus! chose the narrative supplied by eternity, Coupland simply replies, “There needs to be hope.”

I asked Coupland if he still found modernity and eternity to be mutually exclusive ideas. “That’s everything that I am doing,” he replied. This has been the central focus of both his visual art and writing, and his theories seem to have evolved since the interview with Ashbrook. The only “meeting point where the two sensibilities can coexist…is within art or writing,” he told me. “It’s a new explicit territory.”

Working on an upcoming art installation recently reminded him of the experience that initially led him to start exploring the tension between modernity and eternity. The installation was to be a six-stage performance piece in Saint Petersburg, Russia; each stage was set in an automobile assembly plant, and viewers would move along the narrative, from tableau to tableau. While at work, Coupland kept thinking of the summer of 1980, after what he describes as a “disastrous semester at McGill.” That summer, he and nine other Canadians went to work at the Mercedes plant outside of Stuttgart, Germany.

Most of their coworkers were Turkish, and he often heard chanting and saw religious rituals juxtaposed with their daily work, all set in spaces that were like “boxes with moving parts…like a backdrop for a Kraftwerk video—it was the eleventh century disguised as the twentieth. There was such a disconnect there.” One day during Ramadan, he happened upon some workers slaughtering a goat in one of the shower stalls. “I think that is where the switch turned on…where I saw eternity and hypermodernity collide. What do you do with that? Where do you take it? I am hoping this project in Russia is going help me come up with some form of synthesis.”

As our conversation continued, Coupland began talking about the excitement of the pre-internet nineties, when so many technological advances were being made. He asked me to pick up a large book from his coffee table, open it to any page, and “try to figure out what is going on.” I opened the book, saw seemingly random words and images, and was clueless. The book, one of his recent projects, contains forty thousand search terms along with the first images returned by a Google image search. It was a “default handbook of the aesthetic of the internet,” a “random happenstance aesthetic.” He then showed me a companion book he made while he was the 2015 artist-in-residence at the Google Institute in Paris. Search is a collection of a thousand search terms and the top one hundred words that come up for each. Whereas the first book “shows the look and feel of the internet,” the second emphasizes both the “connectedness and disconnectedness of the internet.”

This project is yet another manifestation of Coupland’s fascination with the idea of searching, as well as the relationship between meaning and technology, seeming randomness and pattern recognition. He often speaks of the ways in which our brains have changed because of their dependence on the internet, and how this relates to art, “which takes place in space,” and writing, “which takes place in time.” In fact, he thinks that “post-internet” is a far more accurate and descriptive term than “postmodern” for the contemporary cultural climate. As we deal with an overabundance of information, he said, “it’s hard to carve out quiet or uninterrupted time.” And because of this, we “fetishize continuity,” a theme he sees in recent Academy Award–nominees such as Boyhood and Birdman.

But in the midst of all of this distraction, Coupland believes that “this deeper part of you will always assert itself. With me, it took the form of collecting.” In many of his installations, we see a focus on defining objects of his childhood and his Canadian identity: hockey masks, Kraft dinner boxes, Legos. The centerpiece of his 2014 art show Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is a work titled The Brain, a collection of hundreds of toys, small plastic containers, utensils, and so on, that invite us to immerse ourselves in the mind of the artist.

These objects are all part of Coupland’s search, as are the military portraits with colorful geometric facial obfuscations that hang in his home. He recently spent time looking through the house he grew up in (just several miles from his current residence) for significant photos that had impacted his childhood. His father was a medic in the Canadian air force, and Coupland spent his early life surrounded by military photography. The James Rosenquist print in his living room juxtaposes childhood innocence and military weaponry, perhaps another window through which he is “reinterpreting the house I grew up in.”

Coupland sees this act of reinterpreting the furniture of the past as another sort of pattern recognition. As we talked, he related his search for patterns to the Edgar Allen Poe tale “A Descent into the Maelström,” a story that was also hugely significant in the life of Marshall McLuhan, of whom Coupland has written a biography. In the story, a group of sailors are sucked into a violent whirlpool. Those who hang onto heavy objects ended up drowning, but those who hold onto lighter things stay afloat. Coupland and McLuhan see this as a picture of the way we can stay grounded amidst the flurry of data. Coupland believes that “the only thing that will keep you psychically stable is the act of pattern recognition, and whether or not you find the pattern is beside the point. It’s the act of looking.” Coupland’s writing and visual art call attention to the act of seeking. A novel like Generation X highlights the ways the crafting of stories enables us to gain stability. Art gives shape and form to data and provides a lens through which we can search for patterns.

This search for patterns is universal, yet Coupland’s fiction provides us with meticulously accurate snapshots of particular time periods. Generation X defined the term in popular usage and became a hipster handbook for slackers everywhere; Microserfs explored the interior worlds of Silicon Valley employees, predicting the ways in which a post-internet culture would impact our spiritual lives. Coupland has a gift for depicting idiosyncratic subcultures. He intentionally focuses on the details of a certain period, not on “self-consciously eternal things.” And yet the eternal comes through.

As we spoke about “universal impulses,” he brought up China. “Just imagine what one billion people looks like,” he said. “The Chinese state is trying to squelch any sense of seeking. Where does that impulse go? How is it rechanneled? The answer is that it is not. That place is like a time bomb waiting to go off.” I told him about some of my conversations with Chinese flat mates in the UK, friends who had only just begun to consider the possibility of the existence of God after visiting my church. One young woman told me that she would lie awake for hours contemplating the possibilities of an unseen reality. Coupland was fascinated, and likewise fascinated to hear about Chinese Christians who return to their home country and attend underground churches. The idea of an enforced ban on seeking deeply troubled Coupland, whose own search defines both himself and his art.

At this point, he led me to his computer and excitedly asked if I had been following his “I Am Vincent” competition.  In order to find the best Van Gogh lookalike to pose for a large bronze sculpture, Coupland was offering a prize of five thousand Euros. Each contestant was to send a photo of himself in his best Van Gogh pose, and the winner would be flown to Vancouver to have his head scanned. “It’s so much fun! I thought we would get twelve entries, but we have over a thousand.” After sitting at his computer looking at some of the photos (“Which ones do you like?”), we went to visit his studio, directly across the driveway from his house.

Throughout the visit, we laughed and told stories about shared interests, including our addiction to reality television. I expressed a bit of shame over how easily I could get sucked into shows like Project Runway (“Everyone’s favorite, Uncle Tim!”) and America’s Next Top Model, but he quickly told me, “I think it’s good for you.” Coupland is a Survivor devotee; he has not missed an episode in all thirty-two seasons and is excited that next season will feature a battle between Generation X and Millennials: “I am so in. Jeff Probst, invite me for dinner, please!” He sees a direct causality between the arrival of reality television, especially MTV’s The Real World (1992), and a shift in worldview. In fact, he says, reality television “became the worldview”—so much so that a reality TV star is now the American president. “Don’t underestimate pop culture. The medium does become the message inevitably.”

These conversations highlight another tension central to Coupland’s work: a love of popular culture and a wariness of the ways it changes our brains and notions of community. I brought up David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” in which he makes a connection between our love of television and our flirtation with irony not just as a tool but as an entire worldview. Coupland’s relationship to irony is similar to Wallace’s: “Irony is like surrealism—you can play with it every so often if you want. But as your unified point of view? No, I don’t think that will work at all.” It appears that for Coupland, irony can be useful in exposing hypocrisy and commodified façades of happiness—but an overdose (what he calls “knee-jerk irony” in Generation X) only hinders our capacity to search.

After a quick trip to the kitchen (“I’m the worst host ever! Do you want a Perrier or something? Oh no…I’m out of Perrier.”), we came back to the living room, Diet Cokes in hand, and returned to the subject of faith. When I told him that his writing had a deep impact on my students at a small, evangelical liberal arts college in the deep South, he responded, “I love that.” And when I told him I thought his critiques of cultural Christianity are actually very biblical, and that they very much resonated with my students, his eyes crinkled. “Really?” he exclaimed. He seemed genuinely shocked.

One of his most theological works, Hey Nostradamus! tells the story of a Columbine-like school shooting. Its first narrator, Cheryl, is an earnest Christian convert who senses the dehumanizing hypocrisy of many of her youth-group friends: “There can be an archness, a meanness in the lives of the saved, an intolerance that can color their view of the weak and the lost. It can make them hard when they ought to be listening, judgmental when they ought to be contrite.” Cheryl sounds surprisingly like Francis Schaeffer: “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.”

Coupland, who grew up in the secular suburbs of West Vancouver, explained that he learned the term “legalism” for the first time when writing this novel. The book is a poignant exploration of the damage done by legalism and the redemption possible through grace. Like Flannery O’Connor in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Coupland highlights the dramatic conversion of hypocrite, Reg, a religious person who must encounter loss and violence in order to finally extend and receive grace.

As we talked about the novel, he told me more about his childhood: “Where and when you grew up determines so much of who you become. The things that scared you between age nine and thirteen are the things you spend the rest of your life unraveling.” Once Coupland’s father “went civilian,” he bought a plane and a farm in the nearby Fraser River Valley; the family would often encounter groups of Mennonites who lived in the area. “Those were my only images of piety. We were raised in the suburbs, which is as nondenominational as it gets. I did not feel contempt for their beliefs, but I wondered, why would you want to talk about that? So when I began thinking about characters with a relationship to religion and transcendence, these were the pictures I had in my head.”

And from those pictures, he created Reg, a mean-spirited bigot whose legalism hardens him to the point of complete isolation. Cheryl, the very human, very earnest convert, is modeled on a dear high school friend, a Christian who eventually married a youth pastor. He mentions that many Vancouverites have told him that his book “helped them to escape the valley,” meaning to leave their Mennonite communities. Fraser Valley, he says, went directly from being a very traditional rural community to being to a “postmodern, post-internet, post-community shopping matrix. And I mourn that. Something very valuable was lost when that happened—going from 1958 to 2004 and missing everything in between.” He reflected, then added, “But they still had the needs and impulses that they had before. Where does it go? I don’t want it to turn into China. I wonder if they permanently extinguish the will to search. That does spook me.”

Hearing Coupland’s continual references to “the search” as the most defining human impulse in life and art, I could not help but think of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Like Percy’s conflicted Binx Bolling, many of Coupland’s seekers are initially “sunk in the everydayness of…life,” mesmerized by surrogate remedies for living, not even recognizing that their deepest need is to search. For Percy, the search is the key to any movement towards wholeness, and as Binx explains, “To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” In Coupland’s world, living is creating—and creating is the result of searching. In his fiction and in his art, the search begins with the ability to attend to the immanent beauty of both manmade and natural objects—and in the recognition that the need to search comes from a broken creature’s desire to be whole.

This desire for wholeness is also the central focus of Life After God; Scout understands that to search is to be alive, to be “part of a story for the first time.” Observing the way his friends’ addictions to suburban comfort, drugs, alcohol, sex, and even fundamentalist religion cause them to hide from their deeper selves, he decides to leave the city’s distractions and camp out in a remote rainforest. For the first time, the movement of the search slows down, and he is still enough to “ask and pray.” At this point, he strips off all of his clothing and bathes in a painfully cold mountain stream, a contrast to the artificially warmed and chlorinated pool of his suburban youth. His false complacency turns into an ability to truly see that “I need God.” And this confession leads to an awareness of the incredible beauty around him, to the sounds of “clapping hands” from the trees and water, a symphony of life.

This moving and evocative ending has long reminded me of Isaiah 55, an “invitation to the thirsty,” to “come to the waters” where they will hear the trees of the field clapping their hands in praise of the Lord. I waited until Coupland was walking me to the door to ask him if the connection was deliberate. No, he said. He didn’t recall the verses. I pulled a page out of my bag to show to him. He read portions aloud. “That’s lovely,” he said. “This is just a coincidence.” As we looked over more of the passage, he added, “Oh, thank you. I love the Bible when it’s good.” Then a sheepish grin spread across his face. “Wait, that came out wrong.” We looked at each other and laughed.


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