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R&R 124 | Generation X

Douglas Coupland
Generation X
Dutch: N/A
First published in: 1991
This edition: Abacus 1996 (1997 reprint)
ISBN: 0-349-10839-0
Genre: fiction
Pages: 211
Cover: N/A

R&R 124 | Generation X

I took this picture about 6 weeks ago. Talk about slacking off! Well, I needed a break from the project for a bit, back to work now 🙂

In a nutshell?

I have been calling myself a Douglas Coupland fan for years, ever since I read my first Coupland: HEY NOSTRADAMUS!
…some fan I am. I read nine other Coupland books before I finally got to the one that catapulted the Canadian author into literary fame. I haven't read GENERATION X up until recently.

I keep an extensive journal to document my thoughts and opinions as I read. "Why the hell did I wait this long?" p. 112 of my notebook asks me. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because I was convinced that I'd already read the best Coupland there is (GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA is one of my all-time favorite novels; ELEANOR RIGBY is my favorite Coupland). I didn't like MICROSERFS as much as I'd anticipated; perhaps I was worried GEN X wouldn't transcend my favorite Couplands, either. (But then it absolutely did.) I didn't want to be disappointed by this one. (And I wasn't.)

GEN X describes, right on the money, the desolation and uselessness felt by the twenty-somethings of the eighties and early nineties, a generation growing up in an unraveling society. Coupland's new generation is weary of their commercial culture, insecure about their own futures. Friends Andy, Dag and Claire have decided to rebel against society and their McJobs by distancing themselves from it in their own way; to entertain (and perhaps, soothe) themselves, they tell each other stories. Escapism is a word that comes to mind.

It's important to note right now that while GEN X does have some kind of general plot (Andy, Dag & Claire), the book is mostly made up of stories. The reader shouldn't expect a fleshed out general storyline. Andy et al. serve more as the common thread, the frame around the stories they tell, the beautiful stories:

"My face went bang, right into my first snowflake ever. It melted in my eye. (…) I saw millions of flakes all white and smelling like ozone, floating downward like the shed skin of angels. (…) To this day I consider my right eye charmed."
– p.107

The above passage is one of my favorites. I just think it's so moving. So un-materialistic. Almost every line is quote-worthy, though. I love Coupland's other books for their stories; I love GEN X for its writing. I realized this when I was only 19 pages in. That's not to say the stories in this book aren't good; they most definitely are.

One of the best stories for me – and this one example is enough to show you the kind of material you'll find in GENERATION X – is Claire's story of Buck the Astronaut who's stuck in 'Texlahoma' (an asteroid orbiting earth, where it's always 1974) with the Monroe family.
He contracts space poisoning and is perpetually asleep save for a few minutes every day; the only way for him to survive is by getting one of the three Monroe daughters to love him first, then help him take off in his spaceship. "There is just one catch" – there is only enough air for one of them. The daughter (who surely loves Buck oh so much) would have to die but Buck insists he can revive her once he's safe…

All stories are unique, surprising and quirky and lovable in their own way. While they are amusing, they do stress the desolation and cynicism of this generation even more. Being trapped in 1974, nuclear disasters… there's not a lot of hope in these tales. But there's plenty of meaning.

Add the chapter titles (Our Parents Had More, Shopping is Not Creating, Adventure without Risk is Disneyland – to name a few) and margin pop-art cartoons, slogans and definitions of terms belonging to Coupland's "accelerated culture", and the picture is complete. I like how Coupland incorporates pop-art into this book, as consumerism and media are important facets (application, inspiration) of pop-art. It's a nice touch.

Andy, Dag and Claire are my age, albeit it twenty years ago, but I can relate to them in many more ways than I'd initially thought. GEN X is more timeless than I thought it would be. Coupland lives in the "now", he usually is more about capturing that moment in time – and while he grasps the current of GEN X, the feeling behind it seems to be something of all times. I'm pleasantly surprised. I was an 8 year-old in Europe at the time of this book's publication. I could relate to it so, so well 20 years later, as a (late-)twenty-something person. There's a lot of material in here that just resonates.

Unlike with MICROSERFS, which I felt was dated, reading it over fifteen years after publication, GEN X still works. A lot is expected of twenty-somethings (career! family! success in every possible way!) and not every Gen-X-er can achieve that, or wants to achieve what the previous generation – parents – expect from them. To some, the values of our parents are increasingly unrealistic in a society that is always on the move and moves faster, exponentially, accelerating.

I can see why GENERATION X would be groundbreaking in 1991. Coupland gave a voice to, not the entire baby-boomer generation, but certainly a large part of it. The part that didn't want to be stuck in a mold of life "as it should be". The part that has been previously ignored.

We still exist. I kinda think we always will.

In a nutshell

– Definitely worth a reread (that's as positive as it gets)
– The writing itself is truly stunning
– The stories are unique, surprising, meaningful and quirky.
– Zeitgeist captured, yet timeless: can resonate with today's twenty-somethings

N/A (can't really find any cons. I loved this book.)

R&R 066 | The Gum Thief

Douglas Coupland
The Gum Thief
First published in: 2007
This edition: limited signed edition boxset (The Gum Thief & Glove Pond), Bloomsbury 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7475-9448-2
The Gum Thief cover photo by Getty Images.
Glove Pond cover image: Preparing a Meal by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicié

R&R 066 | The Gum Thief

The reason Douglas Coupland is one of my all-time favourite writers, is that he manages to tell a story about ordinary people, in the most interesting way possible.
The Gum Thief centers around a group of Staples employees and people connected to them. These people are not microserfs. Not women surviving a plane crash, not tech loving metro-sexual shampoo fanatics. Nope. These are Staples employees. They could be selling paperclips to you.

These people are individuals some would consider to be average, boring perhaps. Uninteresting. But when Coupland writes about these people, he touches on something. Perhaps the familiarity. These people, they could be you. They could be me.

The main character here is Roger Thorpe, who is frustrated with his downward spiraling life. A divorced alcoholic and the oldest employee at his branch of Staples, Roger could be said to be suffering from a pretty bad case of a midlife crisis. To make matters worse, Roger's an aspiring and as of yet unsuccessful novelist. The stress that comes with that is just the icing on the cake.

To get through his work days, he keeps a journal about his younger Goth coworker Bethany, mocking her in a way by writing (with freakish accuracy) his own version of Bethany's thoughts and emotions. When Bethany discovers the journal, she's pissed but also intrigued – this guy knows her, somehow – and proceeds to respond to Roger in his journal.

And thus begins the communication between Roger and Bethany (and others at times), for which one rule applies: in 'real life', they don't speak or as much as look at each other. That is the deal.

The Gum Thief reads like an interconnected group web log. It's wonderful to see these two people who (seemingly) have nothing in common, except their dissatisfaction with their jobs, get to know one and other intimately. They are completely frank and open with each other and there's something very disarming about it. (Even though you can't help but know that not having to look each other in the face helps with the openness.) I love that us readers get a look into their lives this way. It's kind of like reality TV, or maybe a written version of The Office. There's a charm to its normalcy.

This is the Coupland I love, and have missed a little.

The Gum Thief is a very human book, mature and uplifting without being unrealistic. There's no overkill on happy moments or blissful endings for all. Figuring things out isn't done instantly, let alone coped with immediately. It's a process. People will continue to make mistakes, and they need to in order to recognize the effect their choices have on their lives and the lives of others.

Another noteworthy aspect to The Gum Thief is that Roger's novel Glove Pond is included in the novel (ohhh meta-fiction!); the novel-in-novel created by Roger (and proofread, commented on, by Bethany) parallels Roger's world and helps him to discover things about himself, and to overcome certain obstacles.

Roger's voice sounds so realistic, like there really is a Roger out there somewhere. You know what, of course there are. And I'm rooting for all of them.

R&R series &copy Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond

R&R 031 | Microserfs

Douglas Coupland
First published in: 1995
This edition: Harper Perennial 2004
Cover design by Lee Motley
Cover photography by Simon Weller

One of our early computers was an MSX (a Microsoft creation). My brother and I played games on it, mostly. The eighties, good times. Somewhere in the nineties, our MSX made room for our first personal computer, or PC. Many more would come, and soon I’d get my own.

I was barely aware of what we were getting ourselves into… how dependent we humans would be on these machines several years later. It’s 2008 now, and I cannot imagine my life without a computer anymore. I am using my computer to type this review, to process the self-portrait I took as part of this review, to listen to music because it helps me when I work, to talk to Wil. And so on, and so forth. Around 1995, I had no idea yet of this future that is the now, where we are practically enslaved to our computers. Technology’s… serfs.

But someone knew. While I was busy being clueless, in 1995 Douglas Coupland got his book Microserfs published, a book from the perspective of one of a group of ex-Microsoft employees, who have left the company to start their own Lego software.

Daniel Underwood’s computer journal (reminiscent of today’s blogs) is quirky, and extremely stereotypical of computer programmers. And consequently, it’s a lot like jPod. (The correct way to put it is: jPod is a lot like Microserfs. But I read jPod first even though it was published 11 years after Microserfs.) Of course jPod and Microserfs are different enough, but the same kind of narrative was used with the same tricks and turns. I knew the drill. There’s a reason jPod is sometimes referred to as Microserfs 2.0.

Microserfs’ blog-like form and other features are noteable. My edition for example contained a few purposely ripped pages. Miscroserfs also contains the letter by Patty Hearst from when she was kidnapped. And the kind of trademark random phrases and words; representations of the computer’s subconscious (if it could have one).

Microserfs reads slowly, prolonged due to the lack of much plot activity, and I can see why that would bother some other readers.

But – little plot, that’s kind of the point. The book isn’t supposed to be action packed with rollercoaster rides and other adventures. It’s supposed to be about a group of dysfunctional people who have no life other than their work, no other passions besides being geeks. Not that they don’t want excitement or change (Daniel has a crush on Karla for example), but they’re lax about it, comfortable in their safe techno-bubble. Coupland offers you a look into their world and perhaps also a look into our own (in 1995 considered) future.

So as much as I do see that the plot isn’t the main thing here, I do prefer Coupland’s heavier works, where his characters are going through, or have gone through, something really intense, life-altering. A high school shooting (Hey Nostradamus!). Without warning, a loved one enters a comatose state (Girlfriend in a Coma). A young man appears out of nowhere, claiming to be your son (Eleanor Rigby).

I do think Coupland intended for his microserfs to be these easygoing characters, but at some point I kind of felled dragged into that boring serf life. (…to which I have to confess, I think that is quite an interesting evocation and it leaves me wondering whether or not this was part of his intent…? Coupland does leave me wondering about a lot of things.)

Coupland’s book, especially for its time, is clever and almost prophetic. Microserfs naturally means to offer insight in the lives of those in the forthcoming digital technology era, and that’s definitely accomplished here. But as I’m using my Microsoft computer to type this, I find my curiosity and fascination to have reached their expiration dates long ago. An amusing and clever book, but – and I’m sure having read jPod earlier is part of the reason – Microserfs is a book I personally feel is one I’ve read 13 years too late.


R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008

R&R 020 | Polaroids from the Dead

Douglas Coupland
Polaroids from the Dead
[ Dutch translation, unfortunately ]
First published in 1996
This edition: rainbow pockets, 1997
247 pages
Flickr post

"Polaroids from the Dead" is a collection (in three sections) of essays and short fictional stories, in which Douglas Coupland examines the 90's zeitgeist and the Northern American culture at the time. The 40+ black and white archival images included throughout the book add to the feeling of watching a documentary.

I always felt Coupland to be a very outspoken writer. Several of his fiction works have offered critique and viewpoints of a varied amount of cultural subjects today: from modern technology to dysfunctional families to 9/11 to religion. I was curious to read his views in a different way, through (wat mostly is) non-fiction, in "Polaroids of the Dead".

I will address each section seperately, below.

The first section introduces us to a number of characters, all from different backgrounds, with different jobs and histories, who have one thing in common: they are attending the Grateful Dead concert. Their unique stories together create a wonderful atmospheric experience of how it feels to be part of a concert, or even a festival. I felt Coupland, using mostly words, captured the essence of what music, and sharing music, can mean to people.

The second part covers pieces about the places or historical events that have in some way made an impact on Coupland, and he wants to share that with his readers. A favourite piece of mine has to be "Lion's Gate Bridge". Coupland writes about this Vancouver bridge in a personal and heartfelt way, and it is odd to think how an essay about a bridge can achieve this autobiographical effect. But it does.
A piece I found to be particularly well written is the first part of "Postcards from the Bahama's", where a day is consciously experienced as if this is all the time you have, this day defining your whole life.

The third and final part of the book is a lengthier essay on LA's Brentwood, which is mostly known for being the place where Marilyn Monroe was found dead. Brentwood's legacy. Some sections of Coupland's observations have interested me, and even though Coupland is clearly very critical in his writing, the subject that is Brentwood leaves me kind of cold.

So, to go back to the book as a whole…

It doesn't seem fair to give one rating to a book which possesses a wide range of essays each with a different level of interestingness – depending on your personal taste. But generally, I wasn't disappointed with this non-fiction side of Coupland.

Some essays were not quite for me, but all together this bundle was thought-provoking (always a pleasure for an opinionated person such as myself). I ended up discussing some of the material with Wil while we were on the road. Reading this has also helped me to better understand where Coupland comes from in his views on our ever evolving (or de-volving?) society. I'm certainly curious to read some of his other bundles, such as "City of Glass" – which is about Vancouver and includes "Lion's Gate Bridge".

[I should add in a side-note that I read a meager Dutch translation, which was accidental as I thought I would be receiving the English version from the first owner of the book. Knowing Coupland has a way with words, I felt while reading that I wasn't optimally able to enjoy this book, missing out on a lot what Coupland was probably trying to get across. I do want to read this one again, but in English.]

(4 seems a bit too high of a rating for this, while 3 is too low)

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