Short Book Review – Douglas Coupland’s Generation A

January 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

So, I read another Douglas Coupland book. I feel like he is the definition of mainstream contemporary fiction, as well as kind of my straw man of fanboy fiction, and so, I’ve been catching up with his stuff. Fanboy fiction is not what I want to write my dissertation about, if you know what I mean, but it’s fine to spend an afternoon or two with, so long as I’ve got compelling evening plans ;-).

My first thought on reading the first fifty pages of the novel was, “Okay, so this is basically Lost.” You’ve got five previously unknown-to-each-other people from “all over the world,” and they eventually end up on an island together, bonding by a campfire. You’ve got the hot midwestern guy (Jack), the sexually complex New Zealander (Who I guess is most like Kate?), the WoW-addicted Frenchman (would that there’d been one in Lost! Hurley?), the Tourette’s-afflicted Canadian woman (Rose, I suppose; they share a spiritual tendency), and finally, the distressingly non-white character, and hence suspected terrorist (Sayid).

I get it. It’s a book you’re supposed to read on an airplane. The kind that makes you look around and think how crazy it is that you all love the same internet memes and worry about the same coming ecological catastrophe.

On a personal note, I found it precisely so close to home — indeed, the Sayid character, Harj, spends a significant portion of the book at the Abercrombie HQ right here in Columbus, Ohio, with characters I recognized instantly — I’ve watched Project Runway with those people. I’m always amused to see representations of places I’ve lived in fiction. Partly it’s narcissism, of course; I’m perpetually tickled by the Central Pennsylvania references in Fun Home. Partly, it’s defensiveness — Lincoln, Nebraska is not quite as simple minded as you suggest, Meghan Daum. And a third part of it is my genuine interest in how North American writers conceptualize the places I’ve lived, and the extent to which their conceptions differ from my own impressions. I was charitably impressed that Coupland even realized that there might be a major corporate HQ located in Columbus (well, New Albany), and at least he was forthcoming about the fact that his bare-bones research came from Wikipedia. He offered a few demographic statistics and posited a theory that there wouldn’t be available taxis so far from Manhattan. Of course, in this world, that’s not a problem, because midwesterners are so darn friendly with their ride offers.

Now, I’ve never been to the remote Canadian island where the most metaphorically significant action of the novel takes place. I would guess that the depiction is ridiculous, but, as was the case with Lost, this is justified by the author’s meta-level statements about the depth of disconnection in the Internet Age, particularly for these digitally-reduced characters. These are customer service representatives, subsidy receivers, Sorbonne dropouts turned WoW addicts, who needed to be awakened from their 21st century ennui in order to recover their potential for human emotion. The bee sting accomplishes this in much the same way the Cerulean Blue Warbler serves as Jonathan Franzen’s humanist storytelling anchor in Freedom. For Franzen, the species is in jeopardy; for Coupland, it’s extinct, but can arise if his authorial power wills it.

If I sound bitter, I’m really not. I like the way Coupland and Franzen worry about the state of the novel in the digital age. I like the way they strain themselves to preserve something that seems important, all the while reproducing the worst stereotypes that enable this tendency toward aesthetic decline.

Formally speaking, I particularly like the way that both authors incorporate amateur writing exercises into their novels, in order to address the democratization of fiction writing we are experiencing, as well as to experiment with a multiplicity of voices. In Franzen’s case, the metaphor is more often than not therapeutic, which I like. Having been trained in 70s-style writing pedagogy, which operates on a therapeutic model of personal writing, I am a great believer in the possibilities of self-knowledge to be found in free-form writing. In the case of Coupland, the metaphor is more anxious, more appropriate to information-savvy digital subjects: it’s about writing stories from the trash-heap of popular culture, a la Patton Oswalt’s fears, because you’ve got nothing better to do, and because you want to find out if you still have a creative impulse, underneath all the hoarded bits of trivia.

Speaking of which. Who is the reader who genuinely enjoys Coupland’s Simpsons references? Seriously, who? Because, much as I enjoyed the show as a child, I really can’t imagine it having the mileage Coupland clearly believes it does. This seems to me his shorthand to the mainstream, and I get that, I really do. It’s like when you meet a totally random straight woman/gay dude and try to bond with them about what you watched on Bravo. It’s fine. I like that aspect of popular culture vernacular. But seriously, Doug. You’re writing books. Write them to someone you have something more to say to than that. I mean, I guess I’d rather a junk food Simpsons reference than a totally OOC and out of place Fellini reference (I’m looking at you, Six Feet Under Season One), but, if you’re so worried about the culture of disappearing storytelling, why look there?

The elephant in the room, to me, throughout this book, particularly once I got to the part where each of the characters is writing his own “campfire story,” was fanfic. The first story is fanfic: Zack (the hot guy) writes a story about Superman and Yoda at a bar. It’s bad!fic, of course, but whatever. What Coupland seems to be lamenting is that it is fanfic, that it is “desperately strewn together from refuse” (not actually a quote, but an Oswalt paraphrase). So? He sucks at writing fic. So do many people. It doesn’t mean that storytelling is dying — it means that he hasn’t practiced it often, and, and here’s where I agree with Coupland, it might be good for him to try his hand at it. Why not?

It’s so strange though. The book purports to “experiment with new kinds of storytelling in the digital age,” but it doesn’t actually take advantage of the new kinds of storytelling that have emerged over the last few decades. If you have a major character who’s a WoW addict, that’s an opportunity. Not just an opportunity for a throwaway line about the course he took at the Sorbonne about the monomyth, but rather an actual opportunity to find what lurks beneath a Wikipedia-level understanding of MMORPG narrative universes.

But still, even though I consider myself lucky enough to know how much wonderful storytelling there is in the 21st century, I understand the core question Coupland is asking, although I disagree with him on the particularlity of its instantiation in the digital age. Sure, there’s always a concern that the best story would just be a beautifully-lived life, and that’s what we’re all really after. That’s fine. But you can’t be having the best sex of your life, or seeing the most beautiful ocean view, or producing the most complexly-layered narrative universe at all times. I like the way he tries to ask us to long for this, by suggesting that there’s a particular neurological pleasure to be gained from the production of fiction, akin to the aforementioned pleasures, but really, this is just playing into the idea that we should be maximizing our biological potential at every second, rather than letting the world come to us, over time and in layers, sometimes fictional and sometimes not.

So, I like the way that he and Oswalt and Franzen worry. I admire their sincerity and their concern, and their ambitious drive to imagine a pre-narrative state that would enable new narrative forms. But I think it’s sufficiently misdirected as to merit course correction by those of us who are quite contented to navigate the multiplying forms already making themselves available in contemporary culture, although they appear in surprising guises.

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