In 'Life After God,' writer Coupland eschews his 'Generation X' irony

March 02, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

Douglas Coupland -- the 32-year-old Canadian author who both cultivated and disavowed the role of spokesman for his generation -- says he's stopped smirking.

Mr. Coupland burst on the scene in 1991 with "Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture," dubbed a "Preppy Handbook" for smarmy twentysomethings.

Kicking off a press tour in Washington, D.C., last week, Mr. Coupland explains that his new book, "Life After God," differs from his previous work in recognizing that smirky irony is not enough.

"Which a lot of people seem to be getting mad at me for," he says. "Irony's just a tool, like metaphor or alliteration or something -- it's not an end to itself."

But he says it took a crisis to bring him around. "I was depressed when I wrote the book, I make no bones about it," he says, reclining in his hotel room between an interview on WHFS-FM and a reception at the Canadian embassy.

"I don't want to get my personal life into this. Nobody I know has to be in this. I will say that in times of crisis, no one turns to a [smart aleck] for consolation." His troubles showed him the importance of reflection and the search for transcendence.

"Life After God" -- a series of humorous stories about disoriented characters searching for meaning -- is tempered with a sense of mourning and vulnerability new to Mr. Coupland's work and looks at the erosion of religion from contemporary life. When irony doesn't work, he says, we look for transcendence to assuage the loss. And many young people are poorly equipped.

"It was seen as progressive, quote-unquote," to raise your kids without religion, he says.

"You're left with people like me, who have no orthodox resources, and it hit me."

This recognition has thrown him back to fundamental, age-old questions. "Why do we sleep eight hours a night? Why do we pretend we're not animals? Why does time seem so screwy recently? I don't know if anybody will ever answer these questions, but evidence of thinking about them is really important."

Even those of us without religion have the ability to reflect, to search for the transcendent. "But that 2000-year-old stuff, it just doesn't connect. I certainly wish it could -- it would make my life a lot easier."

And while he won't talk about his recent loss -- and he's tired of talking about "Generation X" -- he will discuss a host of other subjects, often unasked.

His recent trip to Las Vegas: "I thought it would be snotty, ironic fun, and it ended up being fun fun." Travel: "I'm not very good at time zones, that's why I can't go to Europe." His hotel, the Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue: "Marriott owns Pizza Hut, so you open your toilet lid and a little sign asks you if you've remembered to order a pizza."

The rift between generations: "The Boomers are like, can't you guys stop talking about 'The Brady Bunch'? Well, only if you stop talking about Woodstock."

And one of his favorite subjects, Patricia Hearst: "When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in 1974, it was like Marcia Brady was kidnapped. That's true child-of-the-'70s stuff -- it's a real demarcation point -- do you care about Patty Hearst or not."

Wryly quotable

Garrulous, talkative, quick-witted and slightly self-impressed, Mr. Coupland laughs loudly at his own jokes in a way that seems more gregarious than narcissistic. He knows he has a reputation as the most quotable young writer alive, a young man whose quips and pet phrases are reprinted in the New York Times and The New Republic. He speaks in a deadpan tone and wry style that makes him seem an older, Canadian-accented David Letterman.

And while he sees that there's more to life than irony, there are reasons why his generation is so enamored with it. Irony unites the young, serves as a common language, generational glue, for those separated by vast stretches of geography, he says.

"The '80s certainly made people ironic, and it's only going to get more so. Irony is armor" -- there to protect people from disappointment and overblown expectations, he says.

"It's an inevitable part of life hereafter, until cockroaches rule the Earth or whatever."

But when we experience loss, snide humor and ironic detachment don't do the trick. His new book was an exercise in reduction, he says, in which he cut out not only irony but other signature mannerisms. "I tried to get rid of all the glitz and shebang and trademarks."

"Life After God" has received mixed-to-good advance press. Will Blythe writes in the March Esquire that while much of Mr. Coupland's previous output has been "the irritating noodlings of the terminally clever teen-age sociologist," his new book is meatier stuff. "The story is suffused with a mystery and regret unique in Coupland's work," he says, calling the novel "Coupland's most accomplished work to date." Other cultural

observers have been less kind.

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