You get the feeling Douglas Coupland’s house is a sort of architectural manifestation of his brain: an understated Prairie Style gem that feels bigger and more complex on the inside than its modest exterior suggests, surrounded by the natural beauty of West Vancouver – crammed with art and, in the form of books, ideas.
In the studio around the back and up the stairs, he makes his art – work often obsessed with technology and pop culture. Off the living room, in the nook with the huge window overlooking the creek, he two-finger-types his books.
The latest is Worst. Person. Ever. – a satirical, misanthropic romp through reality television, environmental disaster and apocalyptic possibilities. Once again, Coupland – who has tackled the McJob (Generation X), the dot-com bubble (Microserfs), school shootings (Hey Nostradamus!), video-game culture (JPod), and, long before they became fashionable, the disappearing bees (Generation A) – has asserted himself as a documenter of our times and anticipator of societal threats.
“I’ve always thought that you live in the present, you live in a specific present,” said Coupland, 51, during our talk. “You are writing, present tense, so write in the present as it is. You [might worry that in] a million years it’ll look dated, it’s gonna look strange. No, it becomes a nice little time capsule.”
As Coupland publishes his 14th novel, he has much more on the go: a slew of talks, including a Future Imperfect symposium at the Tate Modern in London, and a new column for London’s Financial Times Magazine. His public art seems to be everywhere in his city of glass. His 2010 biography of Marshall McLuhan is still getting traction. There’s also a TV pilot in the works based on his novel Girlfriend in a Coma. Next year will see a large solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
If he’s overrated, it’s difficult to detect amid the tireless attention – some would say overexposure – he gets. Coupland has a new project! He’s donating his archives! He’s designing clothing! Furniture! An urban park! He’s writing about Terry Fox! He’s making a movie! A TV series! A new installation!
The plugged-in consumer-culture philosopher has created a brand of his own, becoming – and, over the long haul, remaining – a thinky superstar for a distracted era. More than 20 years after he became a pop-culture darling with Generation X, Coupland is still innovating – not simply cranking out words and sculptures, but making a significant contribution with astute observations, especially as they relate to technology, say observers who seem in no way to be suffering from Coupland fatigue.
“I’m in awe of his ability to do all these things at once,” says Ron Burnett, President of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, from which Coupland graduated in 1984. “There’s a deep level of insight that I marvel at.”
As the country’s go-to guy for art, design, and contemporary social commentary, could Coupland be Canada’s Biggest. (Cultural). Brain. Ever?
“Look at how many chairs he’s able to occupy successfully,” says Richard Cavell, an English professor at the University of British Columbia, who teaches Coupland to his students: “He’s a thinker. He’s a novelist. He’s a screenwriter. He’s an artist. He’s a designer. He’s a landscape designer. He’s a sculptor. You know, it’s astounding.”
Words to live by
Coupland is not very interested in talking about how he astounds, how he does it all – or whether he’s stretched too intellectually thin. During an hour-long conversation, that on-the-go brain bounces through a dizzying array of topics: genetically modified foods, swearing, smartphone etiquette, Kodak’s influence on photography, how apocalyptic thinking has been co-opted by organized religion, the landscape of the local newspaper industry, the 25th anniversary of his quitting smoking (this Halloween).