Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

A Generation X pack rat forfeits his treasures

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland is an accumulator. He gathers objects the way a small boy collects hockey cards.

Over the years, these objects were placed in banker's boxes, which grew like a Lego city in his home studio.

On Thursday, the library at the University of British Columbia announced it had acquired Mr. Coupland's papers, a voluminous and fascinating collection now available to researchers.

Story continues below advertisement

Among the treasures is the first draft of the novel Generation X, the title of which became a catchphrase for those who, like the 48-year-old author, were born in the shadow of self-obsessed baby boomers. The opening page of the draft, written in tidy cursive in blue ink, includes the author's annotations and revisions.

The archive is stored in 122 boxes featuring 30 metres of text and graphic material. It includes 30 objects, 40 audio and videocassettes, and 1,425 photographs, among them a Polaroid snapshot of Terry Fox's artificial leg. (The prolific author's credits include a non-fiction book about Mr. Fox's aborted cross-Canada run.)

The author himself can be seen in another photograph wearing a red plastic hat made popular by the band Devo.

"I was feeling like I was on that TV show Hoarders," Mr. Coupland said Thursday. "The excuses people gave for keeping an old empty Styrofoam cup were the same reasons I was using for holding on to stuff. It was a wake-up moment.

"The moment it was out the door, I felt a thousand pounds lighter."

Most of the material dates from the last 30 years, during which time the author's works went from handwritten drafts to computer files. Some of the collages were posted online in the earliest days of the World Wide Web when the "Internet was like a paved road, just three blocks long."

Researchers will no doubt delight in Mr. Coupland's pack-rat tendencies.

Story continues below advertisement

The Vancouver university considers the donation, for which the author receives an undisclosed tax break, as the "first step in a broad engagement with an important Canadian intellect," president Stephen Toope said in a statement.

Specialists in art, English and communications are expected to make the most use of the archive.

"It is quite a coup for us," said Ralph Stanton, head of rare books and special collections for the university's library. "He's in the Canadian intellectual tradition starting from Harold Innis through to Marshall McLuhan."

As it turns out, the collection includes a letter from Mr. McLuhan's son. (The author wrote a biography of Mr. McLuhan for Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series.)

The library received the archive 18 months ago after several years of gentle entreaties and, finally, serious negotiations.

The material also includes fan mail and gifts; a moist towelette promoting the novel Microserfs; a letter from his mother, Janet, and a postcard from writer Julian Barnes; statements written on a series of Post-It notes; and, such ephemera as menus, ticket stubs and car-maintenance receipts.

Story continues below advertisement

One suspects academics will make greater use of the page clipped from the Star supermarket tabloid that became the seed for the novel Miss Wyoming.

The papers include correspondence with Tom Wolfe, William S. Burroughs and R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe; press clippings from French, Italian and German newspapers; annotated reading copies from his book tours for Jpod, Hey Nostradamus, All Families Are Psychotic and Girlfriend in a Coma; and the unpublished novel 1991, later renamed The Day the Muzak Died.

Mr. Coupland was surprised to learn the archives include his Christmas wish list from 1973. He has not seen it in some time, but suspects it included a request for Lego.

He will continue to hand over his papers and other materials in the years to come.

Mr. Coupland, who is to receive an honorary degree from the university next week, said the difficulty in handing over his stuff is tempered by the knowledge that it will still be available on campus.

"It's not like it's gone forever," he quipped. "I can go look at it if I want."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.