Douglas Coupland: A Prophet Without Honour

If your first work is one that bursts onto the scene, defines a moment or an era or a generation and then passes in some way into the lexicon even of those who haven’t read it, then you’re always going to be judged by that particular standard. That may not be fair, but it’s how things are. If you make a strong first impression, that impression will always be the context for subsequent judgements.

Douglas Coupland is, in that sense, cursed. His first novel, Generation X, popularised a term which became the moniker for a generation, defining for many what the then emerging term ‘post-modern’ looked and sounded like. Subsequent books like Life After God and Microserfs charted the impact of McJobs on employee and consumer, expressed a simultaneous spiritual searching and isolation, and developed a style of writing that spun memorable images and turns of phrase from an increasingly throwaway culture. A perceived downturn in creativity and cultural impact was always likely – and so, sometime after the (for me) near-perfection of Girlfriend In A Coma, things seemed to tail off. His books were less talked about, patronised by a forever coldly distant literary establishment and generally not given much attention. My personal feeling is that this was a little unfair – none of the more recent books may have been great, but take a look at the body of work as a whole and it stands comparison with most. It’s still a mystery to me why Coupland seems to remain without awards. Is it snobbery? Is it the so-called elite’s fear of being proved wrong all these years?

So to discover that his latest was to be titled Generation A caused concern. The title smacks of a sequel to a vastly superior original in a desperate bid to get much-needed attention for an inferior work. Need I worry? Scarcely. It’s not just his best since Girlfriend In A Coma; it may just be his best, period. It’s as if the last 6 novels have been distilled perfectly into this one, at once trumping them and yet also making perfect sense of them; showing them to be undiscovered minor jewels ready to shine in the adjacent glory of a far bigger rock.

The territory is typical Coupland; we have the story of 5 unrelated characters a few years in the future. We discover a world where no bees have been seen for years and the effects of this are subtly, beautifully and gently revealed. What unites the 5 is that, quite out of the blue, they are each stung by a bee. They become instantaneous celebrities, research objects, and … Well, to explain the rest without undue spoilers is probably impossible. But it is brilliant, beautiful and poignant.
I was once told by a colleague at the conservative seminary where I trained for ordained Christian ministry that Coupland’s novels are about ‘people taking drugs and doing whatever they please’. He hadn’t read any of them, of course. Generation A is the definitive and devastating response to such ignorance. It speaks to thoughtless consumption and attendant environmental crisis without a hint of hectoring. It takes post-modernity’s trumpeted death of the big, over-arching story to describe our lives and retorts that the road to humanity’s survival lies in the telling and re-telling of stories. This, Generation A concludes, must be done in relationship and in community – that’s where commonality is discovered, difference celebrated and progress enabled. Fight the death of narrative, he says, with narrative itself. That’s a challenge to churches and Christians (and, I’m sure other faith communities, but I can only speak with knowledge of the church) as much as it is to those locked behind suburban front doors, watching ‘reality’ TV shows, chatting on Facebook and wondering why they don’t know their neighbours.

Generation A portrays humanity’s internal warfare of selfishness and generosity as eloquently as many sermons on Paul’s epistles. It comments on conspiracy theories, suspicion of corporate identities, the prevalence of mental illness, mood-altering drugs and the fearful pursuit of scientific progress at all costs – all without forgetting to entertain, intrigue and make a few jokes. It is, ultimately, what I’ve always loved about Coupland without ever being quite able to prove until now: a definitive example of speaking prophetically to a culture you remain within; citing its dangers, distanced only just enough from its infections but also in love with and understanding of it.

Coupland never claims Christianity, but many Christians – especially those of us who claim prophetic insight or evangelistic zeal or concern for culture – should sit at his feet and learn. Generation A builds on Coupland’s earlier work to function as ever more pure salt and an increasingly brighter light for a culture he can’t bear to see die but that he fears lurches towards self-destruction. It’s bold, funny, daring, shocking and gripping. It should be essential for church leaders, study-group leaders, social-workers, politicians, scientific researchers….anyone who purports to care. It never will be, of course, but it should. Therein lies the very essence of this, Coupland’s latest tragedy; that is, though, in the way of so many of his characters, also his latest and greatest triumph.

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The Social Network

In some ways, this film is a perfect storm. A ‘name’ director who will attract both a more alternative market (courtesy previous films like Fight Club & Seven) as well as the more conservative (Benjamin Button); a script -writer who induces fanatical loyalty courtesy of The West Wing; and, of course, a subject matter in Facebook which is a part of the life millions. If this wasn’t going to be a smart, intelligent, entertaining hit, then nothing else will be.

It is all of that. How good is it? It’s good enough to make a story about socially inept people sitting at a computer screen fast paced and insightful into the human condition. Of course, we don’t know how accurate it all is. What we do have, though, is a story of those society would call the deserving rich – the old money Harvard graduates with an Olympic rowing future – being gazumped by the nerds and the morally dubious. There’s no real attempt to make anybody that likable; the film starts with the creation of Facebook’s 1st generation – David Zuckerberg is cruelly (he thinks) dumped, and creates a website for rating physical appearance of women students against each other. This has been called misogynist. It may be – but it’s soon left behind. What it is, really, is a young man who has no idea how what he does affects others. The man we’re shown here has no sense of how he interacts with others and what people are really saying; it’s a kind of emotional autism – he’s simply unaware.

This barrels on throughout the story; a man who seems slightly detached from everything around him, as if he really is seeing through a glass darkly, hearing through cotton wool. So this a kind of Shakespearean reinterpretation of history to lay a grid on a story – the grid of how we build tools and structures to help us cope with our own inadequacies. We do this so well, with such art and self-deception that we’re almost completely unaware of what we’re doing. Of course, you can add an extra layer of irony when you consider how we now use our Facebook status updates and the like to present to the world how we want to appear to others.

Few people – perhaps only Sorkin – could make such an unlikable people such entertaining company. And make you think also. Good work.