Coupland's newest: ally against time

June 23, 1996|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

"Polaroids from the Dead" by Douglas Coupland. ReganBooks. 199 pages. $18.

Douglas Coupland's short stories, essays and occasional pieces, newly collected in "Polaroids from the Dead," are heartbreakingly intimate meditations on irresistible early- to mid-Nineties subjects - the youngest fans of the Grateful Dead; "Post Fame" celebrity culture; the Simpson murders; the suicide of Kurt Cobain; post-wall Berlin; twentysomething D.C. - mixed with persuasively detailed travel pieces and full-page movie stills, celebrity shots, pop- and natural landscapes. In this book, as he did in last year's "Microserfs," Coupland shows off his two greatest strengths: zeitgeist-watching, of course, but also a sense of evoking place and mood that is clearly in the thrilling, hothouse tradition of Proust and Baudelaire.

Coupland's trend-spotting and pop-culture name-making talents have been celebrated since his first sort-of novel, "Generation X," and in this new collection there are some ringers to rival the earlier coined "McJobs."

Here he turns "ATM" into a verb with spiritual implications, defines "Post Fame" as "the intersection of human biology with information overload," and labels the "McDead." Fun stuff, this lingo and these definitions, but what makes "Polaroids from the Dead" a true keeper is the talismanic evocation of past days, moods and memories. In direct, accessible scenes, Coupland takes us with him on his search for lost time - specifically, the youth he lost for good somewhere in the early 1990s.

His scene-setting prose is dead-on, whether he's comparing cemeteries - "Mexico's dazzling, almost optically painful marzipan crypt confections convey a they-are-still alive rapport with the departed ... [while] Ireland's mournful, lichen-encrusted Celtic crosses, snaggletoothed over tufts of unscythed bracken, speak of loneliness" - or taking the point of view of a 25-year-old drifter, alone at a Dead concert, who is sure that in the eyes of teen-age deadheads he is as frightening a sight as "those gristled leathery bachelors and stewardesses he sees in the gyms and airport bars" or bringing Brentwood, Calif., to life as "a soap opera terrarium of post-humanized objects of desire pantherishly unleashed into the boudoir."

Two pieces that take place in Coupland's hometown, Vancouver, are the autobiographical soul of the collection. The first is an appreciation of a bridge "so potent and glorious that its existence in your mind becomes the actual architecture of your mind." It's followed immediately by "The German Reporter," in which the author meets the "younger ghost" of himself and makes peace with the inevitable, ever-quickening loss of time. He shares with the German reporter, and the reader, his sweet-natured theory "that we instinctively wave to people on trains because trains are a metaphor for being alive: countless souls, trapped together, hurtling across the landscape, with a destination somewhere in the unseeable distance."

Coupland makes memory his ally against time. Though one of his characters decides that "one day you wake up ... and memories overpower all else in your life, forever making the present moment seem sad," what "Polaroids from the Dead" actually celebrates is just the opposite: the power of the individual, in the face of mass-produced everything, to put together a life story from the songs, faces, landscapes and objects that fill his dreamlife.

Ben Neihart published his first novel, "Hey Joe," this year, after completing a masters program in writing at Johns Hopkins and in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He contributes to literary magazines, including the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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