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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - Insects

I guess my big issue with the book world is that only rarely does anybody address the physicality of books, as if to do so is somehow an insult to “words,” which is kind of corny, and seems almost willfully self-blinding. The extreme is in France, where most covers are blank with just the title and author’s name, which is actually not a bad idea, like school uniforms, but then what next — all books set in the same font at the same size? A war between the pro italics and the anti italics camp? I think you can go too far.

In 1996 there was a global paper shortage, and even Rupert Murdoch had to fly to Finland to ensure paper supplies for his publishing divisions. In second-hand book stores you can sometimes recognize the 1996 and 1997 books because they’ve turned yellow from the high acid content of the paper.

Thinking about this yellowness got me to thinking about pulp which got me to thinking about how precious we are about books. Books are central to the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. At least for now. Smart people have argued that we’re going to look back on paper (and the book) as intermediate technologies, stops on the road to the all-digital universe. This seems wacky right now, but in 1,000 years it won’t seem wacky at all. One way or another, books will cease to exist. They’ll either be supplanted or humanity will become extinct or — well, whatever scenario you envisage.

So back to pulp. Back to paper. My cousin in Ontario is an entomologist, and so I think about insects more than I might think about them otherwise. I got to thinking about how wasps and hornets make paper, too, and paper is, in its own way, just as vital to the survival of their species as it is for us. What if you could trick wasps into using human paper to make their own paper? What if you took a stack of Finnegan’s Wakes and pulped them with hot water and corn syrup and left the whole thing in a pasture and let wasps come and gather the cellulose to make nests? What if you added pigment to the chopped up paper, and tricked the wasps into making nests in designer pastel shades — in candy stripes or tie-dyed patterns?

I had lofty plans to try this but geography and scheduling prevented it — for the time being. We simply don’t have many wasps or hornets where I live in Vancouver. But in the meantime I did a few things. I began looking for nests, found exactly one, and then put an ad in the local shopper paper reading, “Wasp and hornet nests required for science project. Will pay $10 apiece.” (BTW, one lesson I’ve learned in life is that there’s very little you can solicit to buy in a shopper paper that can’t quickly be explained by saying it’s needed for an art or science project.) I was able to buy three dinky little nests this way, so I then visited (where else?) eBay, where I was able to buy some huge nests for $20, mostly from Texas and Florida.

Nests are beautiful objects — the inner combs in Koolhaasian layers, the striations of pulp that resemble avant garde Japanese fabrics. You can easily meditate on one for hours. (BTW, here’s another thing about nests: they can really stink after being in a shipping box for two weeks. Each day we learn something new.)

So after my nest meditations I took copies of my own novels and began pulping them myself, chew by chew, a slow, laborious process. Have you ever chewed a book? I doubt it. The first thing you need to know is that doing so really trashes your saliva ducts, and it takes about a week to get through one average-size book. The second thing to remember is to drink lots of water and spit regularly or your teeth will turn gray. Usually I’d chew while watching “Law & Order.” (I’m an addict.)

“Generation X,” paper and magnolia branch, 2004.
“Generation X,” detail.

To look at my own complete wasp nests raises odd issues in my head and, I hope, in the minds of observers. Is our bunkered mentality about the sanctity of books more genetic than cultural? Are we no different than wasps defending against intruders when we force students to read Henry James or Nadine Gordimer? What would wasps make of books? How do wasps think of their role within evolutionary time? Do wasps have any sense of culture? Why does it feel so strange to see a book removed from our own sense of history and culture and inserted into a non-cultural slot where art or music or any other art form don’t exist?

“Girlfriend in a Coma,” paper and vine maple branch, 2004.
“Royalties,” one dollar bills and witch hazel branch, 2004.

This past month has been a pleasure. It’s helped me clarify in my mind my experience with society and how books have shaped it. It’s made me clearer about my call to anyone involved in teaching or within institutions to try to broaden their thinking about what books are or can be. Since 1991 I’ve witnessed the triumph of the superstore, the near death of the independent bookseller, the rise of Amazon, the rise of the Internet, the comings and goings of the e-book and the rise of the P.D.A. Books are not under siege, but they are evolving and mutating. The more this process disturbs you, the more necessary it might be to try and engage with these changes. Right or wrong, they are inevitable, and the choice for anybody is whether they want to be able to live fully within the future, or whether they want to become a recluse and vanish into the past. The only way to go is forward. It’s all there is.

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - Things I’ve Learned from Touring

• It’s not a good idea to hold readings on Academy Awards night.

• You can never have too many earplugs in your bags.

• People who phone in to listener phone-in shows are invariably nuts, but the show’s producers always say, “No, we always get really nice, smart callers on our show,” and are so shocked when only whack-jobs call.

• People will walk up to you with an X-ray of their skull and say, “I don’t have a brain. See? Here’s my evidence.” And it turns out they really don’t have one. It happens, apparently … instead of brains they have a thin tissue lining their skull’s interior that is, it would seem, all one really needs to get along in the world.

• Try to memorize your interviewer’s name. Don’t write it down on a sheet of paper and refer to it. I did this once at an AM radio station in Ottawa during an early morning interview (which I shouldn’t have done in the first place), and the interviewer was so insulted that he’s made a career out of telling people about that one dumb interview in 1991, still, nearly a decade and a half later. Remember: one interview you don’t even remember can become the pivotal anecdote in a stranger’s life.

• Germans refuse to stand in line for anything, and if you tell them to line up at, say, a book signing, they start taunting you and calling you a fascist. This is true. Ask any author who’s ever read there.

• Europeans ask the rudest questions, with bad punctuation and grammar (“Douglas, what do you think if I say to you, that you be the failure of the universe?”) When you tell them they’re being rude, they play dumb.

• The factory that made Tums mints in St. Louis was kitty-corner from the world’s biggest, Barton-Finkiest hotel with half-mile-long hallways, and it also sold Red Skelton clown paintings in the lobby.

German Language Tour Diary from 2001

Hamburg Day One

I went to feed the ducks and birds on the Alster lake just off the Kennedybrücke. None of them came, but when I took a Polaroid, the flashbulb attracted them as if it were bread. I used to think that the future was California, but now I think the future is Germany.

Lots of press and not much time to walk around.

European book tours are so odd because they happen so many years after you write THE END on a manuscript. In one sense your book is so totally in the past that you find yourself going crazy having to discuss it. But then at the same time you have a distance that can also more clearly illuminate the motive behind the work. North American critics always assume fiction is thinly veiled biography. Europeans don’t do this. Americans ask, “What does this book tell us about the REAL Douglas Coupland?” In Europe they ask, “What does this book tell us about the world?” Either way, I am so sick of discussing myself, and I truly believe that answering too many questions over and over damages the soul.

I can see myself beginning to be obsessed with European TV towers. I wonder if Bernt and Hilla Becher have done a morphological study of them. Hamburg’s TV Tower has a bungee-jumping gangplank. If it weren’t so cold out, I’d be jumping in a flash. I love heights. Totems TV towers embody most everything about the 20th century that became archaic barely a year into the 21st. Little teeny cell towers won out in the end. I got into a discussion with a reporter about the future of Moscow’s Ostankino tower, and how, after its huge fire, it’s a useless piece of junk — yet at the same time, if it were torn down, the psychic damage to the Russians would be greater than if it were left alone. So it’s a Modernist ruin.

In Hamburg, they did one of those groovy/cool/hipster nightclub readings that everyone thinks is so hip, but they’re not, because everyone’s plastered and going to the bathroom all the time. They were doing construction on the other side of the stage walls — hammers and drills — and it was so bad it was good. I used to get stressed out when this kind of thing happened. Now I’m tranquil.

Hamburg Day Two

The letters Y and Z are reversed on German keyboards in relation to those in North America. Z is simply a more popular letter here. Still trying to find the @ symbol on the keyboard.

I found this great store that sells archival copies of German magazines from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and I went berserk on a buying spree. It’s so hard to find this kind of stuff in Canada, and the Germans are almost as bad as the Japanese when it comes to preserving their mid-20th century Pop legacy. I also found this street that sold mid-20th-century items, but it was closed, and then I realized I was the only person on the street neither selling nor buying drugs. It was a really cracky neighborhood.

Had an art opening at the Schauspielhaus and a good crowd showed up. This TV reporter asked me if I thought it was a bad thing that people were standing in front of the art, making it harder to see. The Germans are so Sprockets.


The Rhine is flooding, and all I can think of is that time back in the 1970’s when a Swiss Sandoz factory burned down and they said the Rhine would be dead for the next 10 years. Is it still dead? Do fish live in the Rhine? I notice that the birds kind of avoid it, but maybe they’re picky cosmopolitan birds.

The sound system in the reading at the Museum Ludwig was so good, I got paranoid and wondered if it could read my mind as well as my voice.

I met Nick Hornby in the hotel lobby. His flight was canceled and so he had to kill the afternoon at the hotel, which is the most boring thing that can happen to you on a tour, so I commiserated. His new book is coming out in May. I think its title is, “How to Be Good.” His publisher told him he’ll sell thousands of copies unintentionally to people who’ll think it’s a self-help book, especially in the U.S. We then tried to think up names for novels that would sell thousands of copies based purely on the name. My best idea was, “Lose Weight Fast With Pictures of Kittens.”

Speaking of weight loss, I’m melting away the pounds on the Book Tour Diet, which is basically never getting enough to eat because interviews run long or there are too many people at the table making you talk, so that you can’t eat. Or back at the hotel in Hamburg, where the food was so absurdly overwrought and fancy, when all I wanted was a schnitzel. Anna from the publishing company says that any restaurant in Germany can whip up a schnitzel if you ask. I am going to hold her to this promise.

Found the world’s worst Internet café here. It had Russian computer equipment (whoa!). It was like 1992.


I finally found out how to make an @ symbol on German computers.

There is a convention of people from the Copeland MEBM company at the hotel — different spelling from my name, but when the publisher ordered coffee to the press interview room, they accidentally ordered 400 coffees to the ballroom.

It was snowing, so it felt like last year.

I walked down to Checkpoint Charlie around the corner and started to cry because it made me remember how badly the Cold War messed me up, and I remember my parents’ faces when the Wall came down. They have beautiful Thomas Struth photos there … one of an East German border guard on one side, and an American guard on the other.

Did a lot of press, and the reading at the Roter Salon went well. It was an old socialist-designed theater, so the proportions were off-kilter to the capitalist sense of space — whatever that is.

Berlin Day 2

Went with a reporter to the Volkswagen showroom on Prinzenstrasse. Saw the new VW van prototype. I’m in love. We ate cabbage soup and it reminded me of that crazy-awful summer I had in 1980 working at the Daimler-Benz factory in Sindelfingen outside Stuttgart. Every day they served cabbage soup in the canteen. If I had any romantic Kraftwerk illusions about factory life, Daimler-Benz killed them for me.

Afterward we took a bus ride through East Berlin. I wanted to find old books and magazines, but there weren’t any, and in the end we went into this staggeringly depressing secondhand store off the Alexanderplatz, with what had to be the saddest, most depressing and ugly things I’ve ever seen for sale. And then in the basement at the end of the rack there was this T-shirt that said, “Official Shirt of Team Generation X” and I had an out-of-body experience, like when I was a Jeopardy! question.

Afterward, across the street waiting for the bus, I saw that the store is where the music store used to be — the one where I bought R.E.M.’s “Monster” album back in 1994 — the one I wrote about in “Polaroids from the Dead.”

Circles Within Circles Within Circles

The gold windows of the Palast der Republik have been smashed and spray-painted with graffiti. It’s beautiful in that ugly way. And the fact that it’s riddled with asbestos is such a good metaphor for life under oppression.


Frankfurt reminds me of Chicago in that it doesn’t feel so much like a city as it does a business-class airline magazine folded up into three dimensions. It’s like that 1980’s song “Lawyers in Love,” by Jackson Browne. It was very hard to connect with the city.

We didn’t do a sound check before the reading event, and boy, did we pay the price. I had to wear this Madonna headset that turned everything I said into Darth Vader’s voice. The people in the audience knew it was a disaster, I knew it was a disaster, yet we all kept on going and it became a bonding experience in a way.


I was in a strange headspace all day because yet again I was flashing onto all of my horrible memories of summer 1980, the last months of which I spent in Munich after I bleached my hair and chopped half of it off with a Swiss Army knife. It was the final days of punk, and you could still do things like that, except that in 1980 Munich was still trapped in a disco time warp, and punk was nonexistent. But in September I went to art school, and all was well in the end.

Visited this traditional German clothing store called Eduard Kettner — all of this great loden green stuff made of boiled wool. It’s the most beautiful color in the world. Except Kettner’s has changed their clothes into an Eddie Bauer-clone style, so it’s not unique any more. Why did they do that? Globalization?

German women are really bizarre when it comes to walking on the street and standing in lineups, and I don’t know what it’s all about. If you pass them when they’re walking on the sidewalk, they make funny hissing noises at you, and if you’re standing in line at McDonald’s or anywhere else, they turn around and make you take their spot, but there are these nasty looks on their faces. I wouldn’t have mentioned this except it’s happened twice a day during this entire trip and I just can’t figure out what’s the deal.

The Muffathalle event was terrific, and I think people are happiest when I just sit on a stage and talk. I think they don’t mind reading, but talking seems to be best.


The German train system is serving only a limited menu this month: “The Foods of Regione Emilia-Romagna,” which is all fine and well, except the only edible thing is the lasagna, and I’ve had it eight times this week and it’s driving me nuts. Out of desperation for something new I ordered the Porchetta, which I was informed was a traditional German dish — MISTAKE! It arrived at the table resembling a science experiment. It was like one of Damien Hirst’s cut-up animals in a glass vitrine. I had to cover it with a plate so I wasn’t reminded of dissecting fetal pigs in high school biology class.

We stayed in Vienna’s Fawlty Towers equivalent, The Hotel Regina. Everything was time-locked in 1901, and the staff was the rudest and most hostile I’ve ever dealt with. For no reason, and when I asked the people at the reading event what that was about, they all cheerfully said, “That’s just the way we are in Vienna!” [Note: I actually ended up using the hotel in my 2004 novel, “Eleanor Rigby.”]

The literary festival’s theme was money, so I talked about money for a half hour, and again. The big surprise-hit statement of the night was, “It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak tonight here in Vienna, the place where the subconscious was invented.” There was this big, “Ooooohhhhhh…” in the audience and then I said, “Excuse me, it’s a pleasure to be here in the city where the subconscious was discovered.” It is my personal belief that the subconscious is a lot like Antarctica. People only started going there in the early 20th century. It’s very difficult and expensive to make the journey, and even if you get there, you might not find anything interesting or helpful to you.

I stayed up all night to catch the 6:50 flight to Frankfurt, and walked through Vienna alone for a few hours, and it was like walking through a senior citizen’s subconscious. All the people were asleep and the cars were all gone and it was a dream.

Australian Tour Diary from 2005

Day 01

At a dinner many years back with Tyler Brule, we tried to figure out which airline and which flight would be the best ones to have drag queens as flight attendants. The answer was Qantas, Sydney/LA — and here I am on this very same flight with nary a bitter shriek, a half-drained martini glass or a tinsel wig in evidence.

* * *

It’s nice to visit Australia. After decades of watching backpacked, homesick Aussies milling about European train stations, I now get to see them on their home turf. Australian friends have told me that as a culture, Australians on their home turf enjoy “taking the piss out of people.” What will a culture of piss removal be like? Granted, I’ve been to Australia before, but for reasons I won’t go into, I don’t remember too much of it. My perceptions of this trip will be essentially dewy fresh.

* * *

Let’s get it perfectly clear right from the start: there is no way to fly to Australia without feeling as though you’re part of a science experiment. Time shrinks and expands according to an inscrutable equation. Passengers are asked to view a video entitled “Deep Vein Thrombosis” so that the 14-hour flight won’t kill them. An equator is crossed, and for those wishing to know what direction toilets flush when passing the equator in a 747-400, the answer is that everything gets sucked out of the plane directly downward with the force of 10 gravities. Thus, the mystery of clockwise/counterclockwise flushing will require a hotel toilet to achieve resolution.

* * *

Quick question: what is the very best thing about flying in a Qantas business-class seat? Yes, that’s correct — a personal A/C electrical outlet — my lifelong dream, and there it is. Finally airlines have heard my prayers. But as with any answered prayer, there is a dark side: 14 hours of Klondike Solitaire can leave your left hand feeling like a crab’s claw.

* * *

Just checked into hotel. The flushing system is vertical with no cyclone. The mystery continues.

* * *

Killer view of the harbor and Opera House, but the noise! There’s an elevated freeway 27 floors below and it might as well be two floors below.

Australia, Day 002

The hotel engineering staff fixed my noise-leaking windows that overlook my almost cartoonishly scenic view. The view almost looks fake, like on TV shows like “The Facts of Life Goes to Paris.” My room is a perfect, hermetically sealed bubble, which is just the way rooms ought to be. As an added bonus, it’s one of those hotels where everything, curtains included, is push-button. I am a rock. I am an island.

* * *

An astonishingly windy day. A group of school kids were pretending they were flying like Batman at the bottom of Macquarie Street.

Drove through the older part of town with a friend’s five-month-old chocolate lab on my lap, one of the happiest experiences life has to offer. Hugo.

The Canadian and Australian dollars are exactly equal, so shopping doesn’t feel foreign. Gas is $1.16 a liter.

* * *

As I go to sleep at 4 a.m. in Vancouver, here I go to sleep at a virtuous 10 p.m. I wonder how long my newfound virtue will last.

* * *

Have had some glorious walks, but 20 percent of my brain is always contemplating how much safer the Southern Hemisphere is in the event of airborne radioactive events.

* * *

Fashion note: not one single person here is wearing shorts. Nobody. It’s winter.

* * *

I had a bath but forgot to notice which way the drain emptied, so the clockwise/anticlockwise saga continues.

* * *

The Sydney Opera House is much smaller than one might think, and is a collection of buildings, not just the one. It took six years to build? Come on.

* * *

Visited with an architect friend doing a $6 million residence, except the people paying for it don’t collect art. What a waste. I mean what’s the point of being rich if you don’t collect art? Even people who make money from trash TV shows collect art. So …

* * *

Everyone in Sydney looks gay.

* * *

I wish I had one experience that became a haiku for the entire day, but I don’t. But being in this city makes me feel like a car just emerging from a rigorous carwash. Being here makes me feel good about the future.

Australia, Day 003

It’s toasty warm outside, yet everybody here is camping it up as if it’s deepest winter. Not just the absence of shorts as I noted yesterday — people here are wearing parkas and layers of sweaters. It is a society under an Antarctic siege. Or so one would be led to believe.

* * *

Saw a flock of sulfur-crested cockatoos in a jacaranda tree. It was so exotic and unexpected, as if I’d looked up into a tree and seen J-Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow bobbing their heads and foraging for nuts and berries.

* * *

I visited a hardware superstore, Bunning’s. It’s near the airport and the entire area there feels like the neighborhood around LAX, but there’s no graffiti here. None. I asked someone and they said, “Oh, graffiti’s over.” So I guess it is. I like visiting hardware stores in whatever country I visit. A hardware store is a comforting place, and all those raw materials give me all kinds of new ideas. And I’ve never seen a country with so many different types and colors of spray paints, which is weird, as they don’t do graffiti or tag here any more. I bought a few things, but they don’t use plastic bags in a lot of stores here now, as a way of reducing litter and landfill. Such a good idea. I hate white plastic bags. I look at them and all I see is the end of culture.

* * *

I think driving around Sydney feels the same way it feels for people driving around Vancouver for the first time. The same topography and the same kinds of roadways. And it’s all so clean. I had a three-minute bout of extreme homesickness and then it passed. That’s something about getting older I never expected, homesickness. I thought it left you forever once you passed 20, like zits. But no. I can barely even think about most parts of Europe now, let alone go there. I was so damaged by homesickness and loneliness in my 20’s and 30’s. I’m writing a short story right now called “Never Go to Europe Alone.” It’s good advice.

* * *

There’s a severe drought here that’s been going on for two years. Global warming, what else. And I’m told the summers are more humid than they once were. I remember in the 1990’s how some people were always trying to pretend global warming wasn’t happening and how it was a scam cooked up by alarmist think tanks. But now whenever you hear about yet another record-breaking heat wave or temperature, the room goes a bit quiet and everyone dies inside just a bit more. I think it’s all going to be truly ghastly by 2010.

* * *

Sydney seems to be the best parts of London, California and Canada all nested together. Hardly an original observation. But to look at the architecture here, I get the impression that after the 1970’s the country began to reject mother England and truly switched to American and continental European ways of doing things.

* * *

Met some Americans on the rooftop lounge. They were so gullible. We got to discussing how pretty Australian banknotes are, and I told them that Camilla Parker-Bowles-Windsor is already on the Canadian five-dollar bill.


“Oh yeah. Not only that, but it’s the first bank note in history to ever depict a person smoking a cigarette.”


But it does raise a very good question … WILL she be on the money? Sorry, but that’s where a lot of people may draw the line.

Australia, Day 004

Australians call the pound symbol on the telephone keyboard a “hash sign.” They seem to have a local word for just about everything, so I’m not going to fight it. Today I had to fly from Sydney to Melbourne, and on the way to Sydney’s airport there was some roadwork happening. Beside it there was a bored-looking woman in a safety vest and she was dawdling about with her SLOW/STOP paddle sign. The driver said to me, “Don’t those lollypop ladies take their bloody time or what?”

I thought I was being set up here. “Lollypop lady? Huh? What’s a lollypop lady? Did you just make that word up?”

“No, that’s what we call them here.”

I said, “Sir, every time you use that term to describe these hardworking roadside workers, you demean them.”

“Well then what do you call them?”

“The correct term, sir, is ‘flag hag.’”

* * *

The antipode of Sydney is the Azores.

* * *

I saw a kookaburra in a Canary Island date palm outside the Deutschebank tower. It’s a kingfisher! The bird life here is so amazing. I mentioned this to the guy beside me on the flight to Melbourne. He told me a ribald Aussie joke:

Q: What do you do if a bird craps on your window?

A: You don’t take her out again.

* * *

Here’s something weird: one in five Australian male children aged five to nine have asthma. Even if you factor in over-reporting of the condition, it’s quite an amazing number. Scientists have been working on it for decades, and what seems to be emerging now is that swimming-pool chlorine in tandem with the over-prescribing of antibiotics among pre-pubescents is the cause. Odd, as these were both socially liberalizing forces in their day.

* * *

Melbourne is just the sort of Southern Hemisphere dream city humanity will build itself after the Northern Hemisphere has died a slow radioactive death — glassy and sleek and progressive, with good botanical plantings and fresh air blasting in from all sides.

My hotel, unfortunately, is not a part of that dream. It’s a frumpy old grande-dame dump, and every commonwealth city with a population over 300,000 has one. No names mentioned. I suspect the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had a failed three-way with an aboriginal here during the 1956 Olympics, and it’s been downhill ever since. The hotel is like one of those movies where there’s a ghost cruiser line crossing the Atlantic during the Second World War. Attractive yet implicit in its essence is upper and lower class, and it’s ugly and mean.

* * *

I might also add “no high-speed internet connection” to ugly and mean, so I moved to a glass tower where everything works, and there are no hissing monarchical ghosts urging you to do things with your private parts that make you feel uncomfortable.

Australia, Day 005

I knew there was something superior and amazing about Australian culture, and now I know what it is — they’ve gotten rid of pennies — finally a country with enough guts to end the madness that is copper change. Not only this, but their five-cent piece is soon to be toast as well. As an added bonus, there’s also no sales tax, so whenever you get change, it’s always a large denomination coin or paper money, and you feel like you’re buying stuff at a lemonade stand. It all adds up to “Better Living Through Rejection of the Past.”

* * *

Gas is now $1.27 a liter here, an 11-cent jump in four days. I got it into my head that the air down here smells cleaner because it more closely approximates preindustrial carbon levels, but that’s just nonsense. Carbon levels are the same everywhere.

* * *

There’s a local politician here they call Mr. Windows because no matter what question you ask him, all he ever says is, “We’ll look into it.” Australians really hate politicians. For someone to enter politics down here is a brave thing to do. You’ll only be trashed and despised in the end.

* * *

The state of New South Wales uses British signage on their roads, but the state of Victoria uses American signage. This only blurs the never-ending California/England sensation of the place. If Melbourne has a twin, it’s San Francisco.

* * *

It rained today and I realize I haven’t seen rain anywhere in months, which made me homesick for Vancouver and homesick for the 1970’s, back when it still rained regularly. I’m wondering if my homesickness isn’t me being sick to be home, but instead it’s that I’m sick of what the world has become and sick of the way the world is going. I’m sick that people deny what’s wrong with our skies. I’m sick of pretending what’s happening isn’t happening. We did nothing to deserve this world and yet it was given to us and we’ve done nothing to honor this gift.

Tonight we walked out to the end of St. Kilda’s pier, and for the first time I felt like I was truly on the other side of the planet. The gannets and gulls and seabirds were snoring, and the nearly full moon mixed with Antarctic clouds tamed only slightly by Tasmania, and the sky was glazed with a color I’d never seen before — cold and white and very much indifferent to mankind. And then I thought of Antarctica and the sense of vertigo that comes from being so close to the edge of nothingness. And then Louise asked me if the sky looked different down here and I said yes, and then I asked how she was able to read my mind. She said that sooner or later everybody down here looks at the sky and realizes that they’ve come to a place that’s truly different. Sure, there are a lot of similarities down here, but somehow, in the end, the differences always win out.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - Ann-Margret Swimming in Baked Beans

Somebody sent me a case of champagne today — Freixenet, lovely! — but there was no card attached. The importer/distributor said there might have been one but, “It probably got lost in customs, and Bev can’t find the packing slip, so you’re out of luck.” Thanks. We should all have such problems, but the fact of the matter is there’s a person out there somewhere on the planet who’s sitting by their phone or e-mailbox waiting for a thank-you message, and I don’t have any idea who that person is. So I have to go through the next year knowing that with each passing day, someone is hating me more and more and more until it ultimately ends up in, yes, tears.

Champagne seems to be today’s theme. Here’s how: I’ve begun a new sculpture that came about in an odd way via champagne. An arts magazine interviewer and I had been began discussing the notions of safety and what makes you feel safe — with Joseph Beuys, gray blankets and fat kept him alive through the winters. With me, growing up, it was an old staircase, now gone, underneath which my father used to store his shotgun shells. Next to the shells was a massive case of baked beans that still exists somewhere in their house, a case so old the labels predate bar-coding. When I was growing up, that case of beans was going to get the family through a nuclear war — I come from a military family, remember. So today I really began to explore the notion that baked beans = safety, and tried to figure out some way of integrating it into my own domestic environment, and it dawned on me that I’d really like to make a sculpture recreating the scene in Ken Russell’s movie “Tommy” where Ann-Margret throws a champagne bottle into a TV set, and soap suds and baked beans come spewing out of the hole. Her character is drunk, and she begins swimming in the baked beans.

Ann-Margret as Nora Walker Hobbs in Ken Russell’s “Tommy,” 1975.

It’s a bizarre and compelling image that crystallizes so many disturbed sides of my youth. To make this image physical and three-dimensional and see it sitting in my living room would, yes, make me feel safe. Art is like that. So now the hunt has begun for a model in Vancouver who has Ann’s signature cheekbones, and that is going to be a very hard model to find. I met Ann several times in 1994 in green rooms across North America. She was on a tour, at the same time as I, with her autobiography, “Ann-Margret: My Story.” It was very glamorous the first time, it was pleasant the second time, and by the third time it was, “Hi. Do you have any gum?” Overlapping tours are common. Once I overlapped with Lynn Redgrave, who made me promise to keep my reading copy of my touring novel inside a Ziploc bag. My most exciting celebrity encounter of all time was in the lobby of a Midwestern ABC affiliate, where a guy sitting across the coffee table from me looked familiar in a didn’t-we-go-to-high-school kind of way — and then it hit me, It’s Jared from the Subway commercials! I’d just done the Subway diet as a summer novelty and had lost five pounds, and he’d just read one of my books, so it was a real love-in. He even had his old 645-inch waist jeans with him.

Attached to today’s column is a random selection of images from 2001. As a whole, they capture the continually battling forces of touring: boredom and fascination, the voice in the back of your head that asks, Is this the last time I ever visit this city? When does civil aviation finally come to an end? Will room service close five minutes before I get to the hotel, and will it be another club house sandwich?

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - What Is CanLit?

“CanLit” is a contraction for Canadian Literature, and I’m often asked by writers from other lands, “Doug, what, exactly, is CanLit?” Basically, but not always, CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience. If the book is written in French, urban life is permitted, but only from a nonbourgeois viewpoint.

CanLit was invented in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s — the time when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister and Canada was busy trying to decolonize itself from mother England and establish a stronger identity of its own. That same era also spawned Montreal’s Expo 1967, plus a wide variety of 16-millimeter films extolling the nation’s natural resources, courtesy of Canada’s National Film Board.

One could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes. It is not a modern art form, nor does it want to be. Scorecards are kept and points are assigned according to how realistically a writer has depicted, say, the odor of the kitchen the narrator inhabited as a child, the sense of disjuncture a character feels at living in a cold northern country with few traditions versus the country he or she has left behind, the quirks and small intimate moments of rural Ontario life or, metaphorically, how well one has painted the feathers on the wings of a duck. CanLit is not a place for writers to experiment, and doesn’t claim to be that kind of place. CanLit is about representing a certain kind of allowed world in a specific kind of way, and most writers in Canada are O.K. with that — or are at least relieved to know the rules of the game from the outset and not have to waste time fostering illusions.

It must also be remembered here that Finland probably has FinLit, and Turkey probably has TurkLit, and that Canada isn’t at all unique in having CanLit. It’s just newer to the game.

To be a Canadian writer doesn’t necessarily make one CanLit, and sometimes CanLit will place its clasp on writers who are only tenuously, legalistically Canadian. Am I CanLit? No. I’m Canadian and write books — some even about Canada — but with fiction I’m way outside CanLit’s guidelines.

The cascade of money that initially fueled CanLit largely ran out in the 1980’s, and with it vanished the impetus and will to nurture writers younger than those established between 1965 and 1985. Every few years a new face emerges and sometimes manages to stick for a bit, but now that there is too little cash to fund the wheels of subsidization, many younger writers are left in the embarrassing position of having to kowtow to a CanLit orthodoxy with the knowledge that that orthodoxy is, literally, near bankruptcy, and is no longer able to fund or generate the prominence, self-sufficiency and posterity it pretends it can provide for young writers. This is cruel.

There is also a grimness around CanLit — the same sort of grimness that occurs when beautiful young adults are forbidden to leave home and are forced to tend to aging and dying family members, when they are forbidden to lead their own lives. And there is a specific brand of despair young Canadian writers feel at never being able to break the CanLit cycle. The grimness and despair are enhanced when these young writers must, for the sake of their careers, simulate a sense of rejoicing at the success of CanLit gatekeepers. In what has become a hollow ritual, every 18 months a certain number of magazines and newspapers within Canada tout an “explosion of CanLit stars shining abroad” or similar sentiments similarly phrased. By the next month the trend has rather joylessly vanished — but there is some shallow comfort to be had knowing the same trend will reappear 17 months down the road.

I’m a big fan of subsidization of the arts. Without subsidization, CanLit couldn’t exist for 10 minutes. Canada is an extravagantly huge and underpopulated country with no economy of scale. Maintaining an identity is expensive, period — thus the need for money in the arts. And I think the Canadian government ought to be hurling 10 times as much cash at literary arts in general, CanLit as much as anything else.

I also think CanLit is actually at a very dangerous moment right now, and I’m not sure if its boosters are quite aware of it. Last year I was flipping TV channels and, on channel 821, watched a live broadcast of CanLit’s annual award ceremony, the Gillers, piped in from a Toronto ballroom. It was as if I’d tuned into the Monster Mash — not a soul under 60, and I could practically smell the mummy dust in the room. This accidental peephole into that world really pinpointed just how lost in time and space CanLit has become, how its scope has narrowed, and how stingy it has been with the grooming of successors. CanLit needs money; it needs new blood; it needs to open its mind to ways of writing about the world outside its sacred doctrine. And this had all better happen quickly. It’s a cliché but it’s true: CanLit is about surviving inside a country’s unique landscape at a certain point in history. I hope CanLit’s instincts kick in.

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - Sleeping Pills

Yesterday morning I woke up, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, decided I needed to take my vitamins and then removed two sleeping pills from their prescription vials and downed them with a gulp of tap water. Two seconds later I realized what I’d done, walked to the toilet, stuck my finger down my throat and tried to puke my guts out. Nothing. I’m 44 and I’ve never had to induce vomiting before. The fashion industry makes it sound so easy, but it’s not. In the end nothing came up, and all day long I walked around wondering … What happens next?

Just why, you might ask, do I keep sleeping pills on hand? Three words: European book tours, these current pills being remnants of a June United Kingdom tour.

A bit of background. In the old days (pre-1998-ish), the American edition of a novel was published, and the Canadian edition followed maybe six weeks later. The U.K. pubbed nine months after that, all of which allowed for a leisurely touring schedule. But with the arrival of Amazon, all English-language editions come out at once, and there’s this truly dizzying need for authors to do press and touring for all markets simultaneously.

The thing is, with few exceptions authors are not robust, garrulous, travel-loving people. They are insecure, introverted, socially awkward homebodies — which is why they write, because they don’t want to travel or meet new people. Suddenly they’re tossed into this machine (described in earlier postings) and expected somehow to be witty, vibrant, erudite, charming and lucid. They’re expected to fly once a day (travel to and from airport; security nightmares; flight disasters; weird media escorts; terrible or nonexistent food) as well as check in and out of hotel rooms that are crapshoots regardless of expense, and then they have to do a bookstore event or a venue reading where they’re being judged relentlessly by hundreds of people who, in 2006, all have digital cameras with blinding flashes or cell phone cameras and who, during signings, all need 90 seconds to focus, botch the shot, take another, and then take another after that.

Add to this mix the usual piñata of stupidity that is Q&A, plus the fact that for the month prior to this tour they’ve been doing phoners and e-mail interviews. And also add to this the fact that whenever there are 10 free seconds to think, there’s a phone interview to be done at a chokingly crowded airport flight gate, and whenever you check your e-mail, there are people from all the different English language publishing houses who understand you’re really busy, but could you please squeak in just this one or two more interviews because it would really make a difference?

Do this for six weeks, add Euro jetlag to the mix, and you have a surefire formula for a meltdown.

Plus you also have to take into account each author’s quirks and peccadilloes. Me? I can’t adjust to time zones. Period. Never have been able to, and never will. I go to bed at 2:30 a.m. on the West Coast and wake up at 10:30, and that is what my body wants to do, and nothing else, and it’s been this way for almost 20 years. I’m always so shocked by people who can zip off to Europe at the drop of a hat, those people with bungee circadian rhythms who can function on three hours of sleep and be daisy fresh. My circadian rhythms have all the flexibility of the German railway system circa 1934. I think you’re pretty much born with your brain and you have to live with it. My brain wants to write but it doesn’t want to alter its cycles. How people with kids do it, I’ll never know. And it’s not like I can wake up after six hours if I have to but won’t. I can’t. Or if I am technically, legally, medically awake, I might as well not have bothered. I can’t concentrate, I can’t think, my body’s thermostat goes all wonky, I can’t focus my eyes, my hearing blurs, I can’t distinguish one person’s face or name from another, and I’m unable to function in the world. Again, I’m 44. After a while you spot the patterns and work with them.

So I take sleeping pills.

And this is a disastrous thing to do.

For most people this isn’t a big deal. In fact, a lot of people look forward to taking sleeping pills — they’re like a mini holiday, just like movie stars take! And don’t you sometimes look at George Bush and Condoleezza Rice and Vladimir Putin and all of them, bouncing off of planes, bursting with vim, ready to make deals, and wonder what the hell it is they’re doing that you’re not? My personal theory is that Air Force One is one great big anesthesiological device in which everybody gets conked out once the landing gear pulls into the plane, and from which they’re awakened only an hour before touchdown.

Sleeping pills: they turn me into a monster. I don’t like it, but it’s what they do to me. And I’ve tried them all — opiates, tricyclics, diazepams and all these weird new ones that have slick TV commercials. The first night they work great — the second night too. But then the third day arrives and I become paranoid, depressed, hypersensitive to all outside stimulus, unable to speak to strangers and profoundly homesick. I can’t concentrate; I can’t think; I can’t even differentiate between clean and dirty clothes in my suitcase.

But unless I take sleeping pills, I won’t be able to sleep or wake up or do anything at all — so there’s no choice in the matter. So I’ll be in, say, London and I’ll have slept, but it’s pretend sleeping-pill sleep, and when I wake up my brain turns to sludge. All of the predictable fear, paranoia, confusion, cultural dyslexia and diminished social skills appear as predictably and as unfailingly as Halley’s comet. When I was younger, I thought all of this was the result of emotional instability and part of the drama of travel. But as the years have gone by, the process has been deromanticized, and in the end, my personality outside my home time zone is an alter ego that has confused publicists, amused and horrified interviewers and pretty much ruined a lot of the enjoyment I might have had while traveling the world. At the end of 1995 I foolishly did a U.S., Canada, U.K., Benelux, Scandinavia and Germany tour that might well have been called “The Booze & Pills 1995” tour. On the final day in Geneva I was taken out to a fondue restaurant (such places exist), and I sort of remember chunks of melted gym-sock-malodorous Gruyere cheese being waved in front of my face. I’m unable to even look at Switzerland on a map anymore. It took my brain half a year to rebuild after that 1995 tour debacle. I can barely go to New York these days, and if I do, it has to be on my own circadian rhythm’s rules, not somebody else’s.

So that’s why there are leftover sleeping pills in my bathroom. I should just burn the damn things. They are toxic and evil and dangerous.

To bookend this rant, what happened to me later that day? I slept for five hours in the afternoon. Those suckers make you sleep. But at such a cost.

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - God Hates Japan

In 2000, Mike Howatson, a gifted Vancouver animator, and I produced an illustrated novel called “God Hates Japan.” It was published only in Japanese — beautifully and elegantly, I might add — by Kadokawa Shoten in 2001. It’s the story of characters lost in a malaise that swept Japanese culture after the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It also depicted the way some of these characters lived in the shadow of a death cult’s 1995 sarin-gas assault on Tokyo’s subway system.

That same year, an old friend of mine from Japanese business school (I know, it’s as random as it sounds, but I actually have a degree in Japanese business science from the Japanese-American Institute for Management Science, Class of 1986) owned a mobile phone advertising company in Tokyo, so we simultaneously published the book in a digital form that could be read via cell phone. Images from the book became animated and appeared on screen in between chunks of text as readers clicked their way through. It was kind of crazy, and maybe 11 people finished the whole thing (that’s a lot of clicking), but the illustration and themes lent themselves to the format nicely, and it was definitely some kind of first. Forget e-books and all that stuff. My hunch is that it’s all going to go mobile, but that’s eight years in the future and another conversation. And I just know I’m going to wake up one morning, and some putz down in Palo Alto will have invented whatever it is that’s going to replace books. But until then …

I’ve been asked to publish “God Hates Japan” in English, but I’ll do it only under one circumstance, which is that we find a novice Japanese-English translator, and then publish his or her first, uncorrected translation of the book. It would be such a wonderful piece of Japanglish, those weird contortions of English that the Japanese put on their shirts and products, mostly from the 1980’s into the mid 1990’s, but not anymore, really. These days the Japanese have pretty much the most sophisticated consumer culture on earth, and there’s probably a huge secondary market in vintage 1980’s Japanglish T shirts somewhere in Shibuya next to a boutique that sells Finnish shoe eyelets carved from reindeer bones that play Smashing Pumpkins remixes if you tap them the right way.

The artwork in “God Hates Japan” was a mixture of vector-based design, theoretical design (there’s a selection of color swatches for people with low self-esteem) and good old fashioned appropriated imagery. For example, Mike redrew old New Yorker cartoons with ridiculous fidelity, and then we slapped on new and disturbing punchlines. We also made our own in-flight safety cards and were really proud of them, and then someone said, “Oh yeah, they made some of those for the publicity for ‘Fight Club.’ ” Grrrrrr.

I think the book is almost more fun to read if you don’t speak Japanese or know any Japanese characters — you have to work really hard to figure out what’s going on, and what you come up with could well be better than the real story. I think that’s the beauty of art in general — a good work allows the reader or listener or viewer to fill in the blanks. The work isn’t passive — it’s interactive, but secretly so.

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - On Being Photographed

Photo by Todd Newfield. Honolulu, Hawaii, Feb., 1986

International drivers license photo, Vancouver, 1985; Art school, Sept., 1980

There are maybe five photos of me taken from age 20 to 30. This omission stems from a combination of poverty, youthful hubris and skinniness. Nobody ever believes me when I tell them how skinny I was up until about the age of 32. They always think I’m being coy or posing, and they see a photo and say, “Oh my dear God!”

I avoided cameras because they only meant embarrassment. But now I look at what photos remain from that era and wish I’d taken many more, because while I was never studly or matinée-idol material, I had flashes of that beauty only youth provides. My international drivers’ license photo, I hope, proves this.

Photo by Graham Law. Crime scene photo, 1993; Carmanah Valley, B.C., Jan., 1992

My art school ID card from 1980 adds new meaning to the term ‘pasty-faced.’ A photo taken in Honolulu in 1986 when I was studying there offers pure 1980’s proof of my Depeche Mode stage. (Which continues, it must be said, to this day. If you’re not too busy, please rent “Depeche Mode 101.”) During the period when I wrote “Generation X” — fall and winter of 1990 —only one photo was taken, by a neighbor: a hammy shot of me at the desk where I wrote the book. Even then I was packing my boxes (bottom left corner of the photo). All I remember of the shot is the temperature, which was 114 degrees Fahrenheit, and my eyeballs felt as if they were going to burst.

Photo by Marc Fischer. Brittania Beach, B.C., March 1993;
Photo by J. Rowe. Palm Springs, April, 1990

Into the 1990’s there was almost nothing until I began being photographed for newspapers and magazines — this started in February of 1991 for a shoot for the Los Angeles Times — lonnnnggg before the internet — and it’s never really stopped since.

Polaroid cropped with Post-its, summer, 1992?

I’m very difficult to photograph because I went to art school, studied photography theory, am good with a camera myself, and keep current with what’s happening in the visual world. A worst-case scenario was when I had to be photographed by someone who was ripping off

someone else’s idea and trying to pretend it was his or her own. I never called them on it directly, but if a photographer from that era ever labels me as having been difficult, there’s a very good reason why I was difficult, and I always tried my hardest to subvert things. I can almost always tell what a photographer’s plans are, and it they’re mundane or hokey, I emotionally withdraw and indeed become a tough cookie.

On the other hand, sometimes you get these photographers who know their stuff exactly, and who get to it, one-two-three. They’re usually Time or A.P. or Knight-Ridder stringers who’ve photographed Elvis in the coffin and know all the tricks. They’re never out to make you look bad. They give you simple instructions, tell you where to move your chin, take 10 snaps and leave. You know you’ll look great.

The best thing of all is when you have a good photographer with new ideas, who knows their business and who asks you to go along with a new idea. For those photographers I’ve stood naked in swamps (yes, literally), worn silver jumpsuits and T-Rex make-up, and stood in minus-five temperature for hours on end to nail the shot.

Photo by Spike Jonze. Vancouver, 1992

Photo shoot test Polaroid, 1992;Photo by D.J. Weir. Vancouver, 1996

The funniest shots are always the ones taken by college student photographers, because they’re so totally out of it and wouldn’t know a good shot if Annie Leibovitz drove over them with a truck. The image that remains in my mind most is of Madison, Wisc. —not during Sept. 11, but an earlier book tour — and of being in the lobby of the main hotel across from the state capitol. An election was going on, and there were, honestly, a dozen Boss Hogg politicians wearing makeup bibs surrounded by flacks and toadies, and there were TV cameras everywhere, and it was a scene that would cost a million bucks to reproduce in a movie, and this guy comes in from the University of Wisconsin newspaper and asks me to stand in front of a ficus tree because it’d make a good shot!!!

Seattle, 1992

The shots that actually have had emotional clout for me over the years are the ones that fell through the cracks, or the simple travel shots that any of us take on holiday: leftover Polaroids from shoot number 598, something a relative clipped and mailed, someone else’s holiday shots. There’s a shot I love of me discovering a stick of dynamite. I can see the happiness in my eyes. There’s a shot a pre-famous Spike Jonze took of me with a pencil in my ear. There’s a shot taken in Brussels at the absolute tail end of the World’s Longest Book Tour where I held a glass tabletop up to my face and made suction lips. And there’s a shot of me, author Bill Gibson and Michael Stipe taken in Tokyo in 2000. We’re all fresh off the plane and just so happy to be there.

Brussels, 1998;
Berkeley, Calif., 1994?

These days I’m scruffy, and being photographed is truly a waste of other peoples’ film or electrons. Digital cameras now rule, but the flashes on them are EVIL. I have a no-flash policy because after two flashes, I get a wicked headache. The potency of the lights has to compensate for the feebleness of the resolution. And people take cell phone photos and blog them and … God, I wish this had been happening 10 years ago when it might have made for something beautiful.

Photo by D.J. Weir. Tokyo, 2002.

Photo by Ken Mayer. Vancouver, 2004