Canadian polymath Douglas Coupland talks to Russell Baillie about how life in the Information Age has affected his writing and his approach to visual arts.
Serves us right for asking, really. The intergalactic dildos, he says, are something he’s been working on with the London School of Architecture. They’ve been commissioned jointly by Wallpaper* magazine for its Handmade X exhibition at Milan Design Week and a future issue. The exhibition’s theme was “love”. So, next to other designers’ crystal titanium cutlery, impossible furniture and over-engineered luggage, Coupland has a stand of multi-hued 3D-printed objects in neoprene, nylon and ceramic, all speculating on what might arouse undiscovered extraterrestrial anatomies. Batteries not included, presumably.
He’s been approving photos of the finished works across time zones – “so, that’s today’s drama”, he sighs. Later, he’s says, he’s off to the gym and has to get some new publicity pics done, something that slightly depresses the 57-year-old: “You are creating an animation of your own decay every time you put out a press photo.”
Coupland has had to stare thoughtfully into lenses since 1991 when his debut novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, became a bestseller and touchstone of the era. That was the start of a writing career that has since delivered 12 more novels, as well as collections of short stories and essays, biographies (including one of philosopher Marshall McLuhan) and journalism.
His experimental but entertaining early novels such as Generation X, the following year’s Shampoo Planet, the Silicon Valley-set Microserfs (1995) and its eventual, sort-of sequel, jPod (2006) cemented Coupland’s reputation as the zeitgeist-surfing guy capturing life in the Information Age. His later work concentrated more on juggling multiple characters and generations in stories that touched on religion, loneliness and grief.
Coupland’s most recent book is 2016’s Bit Rot, a collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces that was tied to a travelling art exhibition resulting from his 2015 stint as artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. That title was a reference to the fallibility of storage media over time – and it’s a good phrase, he reckons, on how the internet has changed our thinking, or our need to retain facts when they are just a Google search away.
As he says in a poster he created in 2012, inspired by the work of American artist Jenny Holzer, and which has become a recurring slogan: I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain. That’s also the title of one of two sessions he’ll be in at the Auckland Writers Festival.
Talking to Coupland comes with amusing distractions, other than thoughts of what residents of distant planets may keep in their bedside drawers. An attempt at conversing via Google Talk soon makes Coupland sound as if he’s trapped deep in the sub-ocean fibre-optic cable carrying the conversation. But, freshly tethered to his charging iPhone, he’s funny, friendly and clearly a good man to have at a literary festival. Even if he hasn’t published a novel since 2013’s Worst. Person. Ever.
His 2000 return to visual arts, the subject he first studied, seems to have overtaken his writing career. These days, he’s exhibited around the world. His playful public works populate the parks and plazas of Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa. They include everything from Monument to the War of 1812, a memorial depicted as two giant toy soldiers, to Digital Orca, a life-size rendering of the sea mammal looking as if has sprung from 8-bit pixels.
His latest exhibition is Vortex, at the Vancouver Aquarium, where a 50,000 litre pool features several tonnes of plastic debris and a Japanese fishing boat that washed up on the Canadian west coast after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. It’s a work with a more serious intent than sex aids for a galaxy far, far away.
So, you’re coming to a writers’ festival, but clearly you’ll be talking about things other than writing and books.
I never really felt part of the book world, despite the fact I obviously was. But, how often are you alive? Once. I want to enjoy my brain and my body and the world as much as I can. I’ve been doing books for almost 30 years. It felt limiting. It’s a very interesting time in human history to be creative. I wanted to be part of it all.
Those early novels, which first brought you to attention, do they now feel part of a past life?
Well, every novel is specific unto itself and is a total universe. Each one, if I look at the cover or the spine, it’s like perfume. Each one is so highly specific. These days, I drive past a local bookstore and it’s kind of like going past the high school I used to go to a long time ago and there’s a little bit of wistfulness, but really only that.
Are you still writing non-fiction?
I am actually working on one right now and it’s more than embryonic; it’s in its third trimester. But I have a new relationship with books and, well, a lot of people do. After the third drink, people step up and say that their to-read pile is getting higher and dustier. My editor in Toronto, Anne Collins, is a wonderful person and every time I see her I say, “Hi Anne, what is killing books this week?” A few years ago, it was binge viewing. Now there are podcasts that are really eating up book-reading time. At the same time, it’s a golden age of content. There is just so much out there. It’s so good. But, as someone who writes to be read, you don’t want to waste someone’s time. So, can you compress it to something smaller – maybe a T-shirt?
Is your post-internet brain reading much?
I used to read three books a month; now I am down to about one and a half. One of the joys of getting older is re-reading because it’s never the same book you thought it was, and since you last read it, hopefully, you are a little bit wiser and you pick up all the things you missed along the way. And that becomes your, like, Fahrenheit 451 book, that you almost internalise completely, and I think we have all got those.
Mine would be Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, or The White Album by Joan Didion, or probably Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
In your books, you wrote about the future. Now that it’s here, what do you think of it?
It’s quite nice, actually. I mean, I came of age in the 1970s and everything in the future was the year 2000. It was never too far into the 21st century and there was supposed to be no water, no air, no oil, no civility. It was just supposed to be a complete dystopian mess. It’s actually not that bad. Empirically, if you look at crime statistics or you know nutrition statistics, you can actually make a case that things have never been better.
But, we have this food-pellet dispensary called the internet, which tricks us into thinking that things are maybe not as good as they might otherwise feel. I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. Things are actually pretty good, but then you think of … Brexit and it’s, “Oh, God”. But, if you look at the long view, things are actually pretty good. It’s definitely way better than I ever thought it would be.
Your work Vortex, though, is saying something about the state of the planet.
Yeah. I’ve been working with plastics since 1980, when I started art school. I collect consumer plastics – specifically, Japanese stuff from the 1990s. And, at the same time, I go up north to this place called Haida Gwaii, which used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands. I go there a few times a year and it’s the end of the line. It is the most epic piece of nature you can get in British Columbia, which is saying a lot. So, I was staying there, just beachcombing and one of the plastic bottles that I was collecting from Japan washed up, literally at my feet. It was one of those wake-up moments. That was 2016, and by then the tsunami stuff had been washing up on the coast there in various ways depending on the currents, but it felt like a highly, highly personal delivery from the gods and so, suddenly, there I am at the age of 55, making artwork with single-use plastics. Sometimes it just erupts out of you. Sometimes it’s pretty academic and dusty, but sometimes it just erupts from your chest.
With more than a dozen novels, plus other writing, artworks that have featured in exhibitions around the world and many public projects – not to mention alien sex toys – do you ever step back and think, “Wow, I’ve done all this stuff”?
No. What I’m doing now is what I was doing when I was 20, really, at art school. I had my 3D studio. I did the school newspaper, had jobs doing paste-up and layout back before Macs and everything and it just feels as if it’s a continuation of what I’ve always been doing.
I mean, there are four different squares in the equation. There’s fiction, which is whatever comes out of you, and there’s non-fiction, which is tethered to some aspect of reality, whether it’s fibre-optic cables or making spaghetti or whatever. Then you get the visual version of that, which is the art that I do for myself. And then there’s public art, which is sort of the non-fiction version of art – it’s tethered to a site or a specific history and that becomes part of its expression. Being tethered to it makes it non-fictional.
How you do deal with the public art that in some cases is an expression of a collective idea?
Well, think about writing. It’s really lonely. It’s so lonely. And, after about 10 years, I thought, a) you used to do all these things, start doing them again, and, b) as one gets older, it’s hard to meet new people. Doing public work, you meet tons of new people. I get to work with new materials; I get to work in aluminium; I get to work with steel; I get to work with bronze; I get to work with this kind of resin or whatever. I love that aspect of it.
I went through a big breakup two and a half years ago, and I won’t go into it, but I came out of it single for the first time in almost 20 years. I have good friends and family so I’m not hurting that way, but I needed to do something that was collaborative, involving other people, aside from what I was already doing visually.
The many honours you have collected seem to suggest you have become an elder statesman of Canadian literature and arts. That must be nice …
It’s kind of strange, to be honest. It’s like, my beard is not even grey, it’s white. But in my head, I feel 33 and a half. But the rest are, “Oh Doug, he’s turning into an éminence grise.” Wait, no … it’s just hair. I am actually really young in my head.
Had Generation X not taken off, where would you be now?
When I wrote that book, I thought, “God, there are maybe 11 people on the entire planet who might even understand what this is.” I just felt as if I was putting out something that might otherwise be lost and maybe someone will find it one day.
In that parallel universe where the stars didn’t align, I can almost guarantee I would be writing for magazines or I would just be doing visual work. In the end, I probably would have come around to the realisation that the third year of art school was one of the best years of my life – recreate that just with more zeroes at the end. That’s kind of it.
Douglas Coupland is at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 17 and May 19.
This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.